Six Degrees of Huffington
“Hillary’s problem isn’t that she’s too moderate—it’s that she’s too inauthentic.” Arianna Huffington is not mincing words on the presidential chances of New York’s junior senator, former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. While juggling a hectic cross-country book tour promoting her latest tome. On Becoming Fearless ... in Love, Work, and Life, Huffington related her thoughts to me regarding blogs, the old media and politics in general. And while some pundits might be more diplomatic when they criticize Mrs. Clinton, Huffington is going for the jugular.
“You can smell the fear on her,” said Huffington, discussing the famed triangulation method of politics and governing (How will it play in Peoria?) that the senator and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, leaned on while they spent the bulk of the 1990s in the White House. “It wafts around her like a cheap perfume: Eau de Don’t Let Me Screw Up and Flush My Chances Down the Toilette. As a result of her fear of losing and the soul-sapping tyranny of trying to please and placate everybody, she’s become more processed than Velveeta.”
That Huffington would be so bitingly harsh should come as no surprise to anyone. The former right-wing stalwart turned left-wing superhero has spent the last year and a half developing the Huffington Post , a left-leaning blog community (though all sides are represented) where actors, politicians, pundits and a myriad of others get together to speak their mind. If Huffington were to give Sen. Clinton the benefit of the doubt and be anything less than vicious, she would be contradicting her own business model. At the Huffington Post, people say what they really mean. To its founder, Mrs. Clinton doesn’t mean anything she says.
“You can almost see every word that comes out of her mouth first being marched through the different compartments of her brain—analyzed, evaluated and vetted by each of them,” continued Huffington on Mrs. Clinton. “What will the consultants think of this? How will it poll? Will working women between 25-35 in eastern Ohio think it’s OK? Her fear has caused a complete disconnect from who she really is and what she really thinks (that is, if she even knows anymore).”
Huffington has taken part in what some might consider vanity projects over the years, most notably her run for governor of California against eventual winner Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003. So when the Huffington Post was launched in May 2005, it was not surprising that many observers, especially on the right, did not give her much of a chance. “Attention, Arianna: We already know what celebrities think,” wrote Jim Geraghty of National Review. “They’re telling us all the time. Large chunks of the mainstream media are devoted to telling us the latest political and philosophical breakthroughs they want to share with the world. I suspect people turn to blogs because they want something different. This project, in short, adds to an already huge supply, in a market for which the demand is limited ... perhaps exhausted.”
Geraghty and others have been proven wrong—and in dramatic fashion. Not only is the Huffington Post successful, but it is one of the most popular sites on the Internet. The site draws a tremendous number of readers every day as well as major political players like former Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry and potential future nominee Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who are among the site’s regular contributors. Though Huffington is quick to joke that luck played a major role in her success, she feels that the blog launched at the perfect time—just as blogs and the Internet were changing the way we view our news yet again.
“Internet news allows for viewers to consume information at their own pace while permitting them to seek out the news they are most interested in,” Huffington said. “Blogs have established themselves as a prominent part of the social discourse, powered by engaged citizens who have adapted with the technological growth spurt felt by American politics. Adding the power, immediacy, intimacy and passion of blogging to news became our value added. And our specific point of view allowed us to quickly create a HuffPost brand.”
The speed of her success is also a byproduct of the new business model that the Internet has ushered in. “The Internet has had a dramatic effect on brand creation. Thirty years ago, it took 30 years to build a brand. Twenty years ago it took 20, five years ago five, and today you can build a brand in one year—which is what happened with us,” she said.
As with any politically-themed blog, these days the focus is on the mid-term elections, where Democrats might have their best chance to take back the House of Representatives since losing it during the Newt Gingrich-led Republican revolution of 1994, a takeover that Huffington helped engineer during her time as a Republican pundit and operative. On the road speaking to voters, Huffington says a constant refrain she hears is a disgust over the lack of Republican leadership in the war in Iraq and other issues, suggesting that the tide is certainly turning against Republican rule, at least according to anecdotal evidence. But Huffington’s heard this all before and is wary to make any predictions of a Democratic takeover come November. “All the stars seem to be lining up for a Democratic takeover of the House, but I’m a superstitious Greek peasant and I never count my lambs before they hatch. As we know, 30 days is a lifetime in politics,” she said.
Regarding Iraq, Huffington said she was “depressed” by the recent revelation that former Secretary of State Colin Powell was apparently fired by President Bush after he won reelection in 2004. Not depressed that America lost such a great statesman, but that Powell waited to be thrown out. He should have resigned on his own, rather than go to the United Nations at the President’s behest to make the case for the Iraq War in 2003, said Huffington.
On Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Huffington is just as stinging—baring her teeth in much the same way she had earlier when discussing Sen. Clinton. “As for the fact that Rumsfeld hasn’t been fired, that’s just Exhibit A of the fanaticism that pervades this administration—where no new facts or new evidence is allowed to revise preconceived notions no matter how high the body count and how outrageous the revelations of incompetence,” said Huffington.
The past few days have given Democrats hope, as the sex scandal involving Republican Florida Rep. Mark Foley and a congressional page has destroyed much of the momentum Republicans had heading into the mid-term elections, which saw falling gas prices and a stronger economy combining to give them a fighting chance to hold their House majority in November. But it’s not about sex, asserts Huffington, though many have tried to use the sexual aspect to damn House Republicans. For Huffington, the Foley scandal represents an abuse of power by the majority party, which seems to have cared more about protecting their majority than protecting the teenage pages in their charge.
“If the Foley fallout turns out to be the tipping point when the American public finally turns on the Republican Party and hands control of the House to the Democrats, it won’t be because of Foley's perverted acts; it will be because of the GOP’s perverted priorities,” said Huffington. “Not because Foley enjoyed the image of a young boy’s ‘cute butt bouncing in the air’ but because Hastert and company have made covering their own butts Job One.”
Republicans like to present themselves as the party of security, tradition and family values, said Huffington, and the Foley scandal has turned that image on its head. “The current narrative, that the American people can’t trust these guys to look after the interests of vulnerable children, fits in perfectly with the building narrative that the American people can’t trust them in so many other areas: We can’t trust them to tell the truth about the war in Iraq. We can’t trust them to tell the truth about who really benefits from their tax cuts. We can’t trust them to tell the truth about what they are doing to protect us at home. We can’t trust them to tell the truth about the predatory actions of their point man on child porn,” said Huffington, also noting that while Foley had served in Congress he was one of the strongest voices against child predators the House had ever seen. His recent actions have now cast those statements in a hypocritical light.
For years, the right has accused the media of being little more than shills for the Democratic Party and its interests and has constantly questioned the timing and motives behind stories critical of Republicans, an old argument picking up new steam given the just-before-the-election revelation of the Foley sex scandal. On the other hand, Democrats have blasted the media as being little more than lapdogs to the Republican administration, accusing them of being too afraid of the White House to aggressively criticize the Bush administration and of working in concert with Republicans to push stories that suit their agenda. The left will point to the New York Times’ reporting on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs in the build-up to the Iraq War in 2003 as their best example.
Huffington thinks that the media’s bias is not towards either the right or the left but towards themselves. If the story is good, if it will sell papers, the media will push it and push it hard, no matter which side it might affect. Blogs have the ability to point this out, said Huffington. And when the bias becomes apparent, the blogs have the ability to fill the reader in, acting as a check on the traditional media that did not exist in the past.
“One of the things the blogosphere does best is hold the mainstream media’s feet to the fire,” said Huffington. “Blogging has definitely leveled the playing field between the media haves and the media have-only-a-laptop-and-an-internet-connection.”
Are there too many blogs? Over the last year, there has been an explosion of new ones, especially with traditional media outlets entering the blog fray. In New York City alone, at least five established media organizations (including this newspaper), have launched their own political news blogs. While blogs help break new stories and offer coverage to stories that might not receive coverage in traditional print media, do readers have the time to navigate so many different news sources in an effort to put together their opinions on the issues of the day? Can there be too much? Huffington doesn’t think so.
“I don’t foresee a blog burnout. As long as the takes are interesting and the voices original, there will always be an audience for them,” said Huffington, who also noted that advertisers have begun to see the massive audience that blogs can generate and have started to shift their attention—and dollars—to them. “Since only five percent of advertising is currently online, there is potentially plenty of ad dollars to sustain [new blogs].” Stay sharp, she tells fellow bloggers, offering advice on how to stand out from the rest of the crowd. “The key is having a strong take and an original voice. That is what will allow you to rise above the din,” she said.
Those advertising dollars, crucial to the survival of any print newspaper and the traditional media as a whole, will not come easily. Many old media hardliners are quick to lash out at blogs at every turn, accusing them of playing fast and loose with the facts and lacking the fact-checking and credibility systems that the traditional media has built up over the years. Nonsense, says Huffington, who points out that the traditional media should keep quiet when it comes to getting the story wrong.
“It’s disingenuous to have a discussion about blogger misinformation when the mainstream media have been responsible for so much more significant and influential misinformation,” said Huffington. “All we have to do is look at how much false information in the run up to the war was disseminated not by bloggers but on the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post and, just recently, how much misinformation was disseminated on the John Mark Karr story. And they’re worried about bloggers getting it wrong?”
When she started the Huffington Post, she envisioned a new town square where the famous stood side-by-side with the everyday people who made them famous to debate the hot issues, a technologically advanced dinner party for the new digital age.
“With the Huffington Post, the idea was to take those conversations—about politics and books and art and music and food and sex—and bring them into cyberspace, creating a one-stop shopping site for news and opinion, with an attitude, in real time,” said Huffington.
Through her website she is actively changing the way the media do business and is proud to do so. She has helped to bring a personal, passionate voice to the general public’s information process, a voice that no column or book could ever recreate. That personal bond between the writer and the audience is what Huffington sees as the main reason for the success of her own site and others. When the old media dominated the news process, the reader never had the ability to discuss what they were hearing with those who were saying it. They were being lectured on the news. Now, the news is a discussion, and Huffington has played a major role in that change.
“Just a year ago, I’d have an idea on a Monday, write a column about it on Tuesday, it would be published on Wednesday … and readers would respond with letters to the editor two or three days later,” said Huffington. “Now, I can get an idea Monday morning, blog about it and immediately get comments. And these comments then take on a life of their own as our community of commenters begins responding to each other.”
Huffington added, “It really does become conversation.”
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