Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and perhaps political blogging has led to strange obsessions.
Political commentator Arianna Huffington wrote a post on her Arianna Online blog titled “A Mash Note to the Blogosphere.” She writes: “I’ve got a confession to make. I’m talking weak-in-the-knees infatuation. But it’s not Brad or Orlando or Colin or any of the cinematic hunks du jour who have set my heart aflutter. No it’s Atrios and Kos and Joshua Micah Marshall and Kausfiles and Kevin Drum and Wonkette. Bloggers all. Yes, when it comes to the blogosphere, I’m a regular cyberslut.”
Now she’s hoping to go steady, with a blockbuster news site called Huffington Post that will live a dual life — part headline news aggregator a la Drudge Report and part group blog with a roster that reads like a Who’s Who of limosine liberals (with a few conservatives thrown in): Tom Freston, Vernon Jordan, David Geffen, Nora Ephron, Bobby Kennedy Jr., Tina Brown, John Cusack, Gary Hart, Mike Nichols, Rob Reiner. (See a longer list of contributors below.)
Huffington has been no slouch herself. The Cambridge-educated Greek immigrant has authored 10 books and was previously married to Michael Huffington, the former California Republican Congressman who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate and then came out as gay. Arianna came out as a progressive liberal, though her run in the California recall election was more as a maverick.
Trying to read the tea leaves on the Huffington Post is no easy matter, and the people behind the site would prefer to stay out of the spotlight and not be pre-judged before launch — now planned for next Monday, May 9. However, a positive preview by The New York Times, with the catchy lead, “Get ready for the next level in the blogosphere,” paved the way for slams and even a spoof by the Guardian.
Delving a little deeper than the surface press releases and banter reveals mixed signs for the site and its namesake. Huffington herself seems a good fit with the blogosphere as a sharp commentator with her own talk radio show.
But if her existing Arianna Online blog is any indicator, there might be problems. She has used her site mainly to promote her books, her appearances and her syndicated column for Tribune Media Services. Her photo section is an unabashed look at all the famous people she’s befriended — many of them now participating on the group blog. Even the essay she sent me as the welcome note for Huffington Post is just an edit of her “Mash Note” posted on her blog April 7.
But on the plus side, Huffington has surrounded herself with a group that’s heavy on satire, heavy on irony and heavy on controversy. She has comedian Harry Shearer doing a journalist-watchdog feature called “Eat the Press” and has tapped former Drudge sidekick Andrew Breitbart to edit the news headline section as he did for Drudge.
Breitbart has worked for Huffington before. He is in an interesting spot, as he co-wrote the 2004 book “Hollywood, Interrupted,” a moralizing book on celebs and limo liberals that calls out various group bloggers from Huffington Post, including Rob Reiner and Norman Lear.
Breitbart wouldn’t comment for this article, but did make a statement to the blogosphere through Roger Simon’s blog.
“I like to go where the action is,” he wrote. “Bringing my former boss and longtime friend Arianna’s intriguing friends to the blogosphere, the ultimate level playing field, makes perfect sense to me, and I am thrilled to be committed to such a groundbreaking project. Will my pals on the right have a place to offer their two cents at the Huffington Post? Absolutely. Will I agree with everyone’s written word? Of course not. But that’s precisely the point. May the best ideas win.”
Huffington told me Breitbart’s news headlines would run on the right side of the home page while the group blog would be on the left side — perhaps a not-so-subtle play on their political orientation. But the wild card could be the 200 or so people that will be included in the group blog but haven’t been trumpeted to the media yet. They could be the swing vote that tips the Post in any direction.
Huffington also told me she had tapped Roy Sekoff as editor of the group blog. Sekoff was an on-air correspondent for Michael Moore’s “TV Nation” show and was targeted in a libel suit by a company he profiled that had been importing New York City waste to spread on Texas grasslands.
And the Post’s tech guru John Peretti has gained attention with his Contagious Media projects, such as forwarding his e-mails with Nike customer service when they refused to custom-stitch the word “sweatshop” on a pair of shoes. “I think the group blog and news [at the Post] will be plenty contagious on their own,” Peretti told me via e-mail. “But once the site is live, there will be endless opportunities for contributors to publish satire, links, pictures, news, or commentary.”
Huffington’s business partner in the venture is Ken Lerer, a former executive vice president at Time Warner who worked for CEO Richard Parsons. Lerer says that he was intrigued by the idea of starting a new brand online and thinks there’s room for more than one Drudge.
“There were a lot of content businesses started a long time ago when I was a lot younger,” Lerer told me. “They spent an awful lot of money establishing themselves. I don’t think you have to spend a fraction of that money to establish yourself now. Twenty years ago, it took 20 years to establish your brand. Ten years ago it took 10 years to build a brand, and five years ago it took five years. Today, I think you could build a brand in a year, and that’s all because of the Internet. So the ramp-up is so much quicker and more efficient on the Internet vs. traditional media.”
The site will start without any advertising and eventually include ads after it finds its legs. But Huffington is interested in more than just building a business. She wants to be part of the news cycle and add to the national dialogue — and wants to get there by being obsessed with stories that the mainstream media might drop.
“Reporters for the big media outlets are obsessed with novelty, always moving all-too-quickly on to the next big score or the next hot get,” Huffington wrote on her blog. “That’s when it dawned on me: the problem wasn’t that the stories I cared about aren’t being covered, it’s that they aren’t being covered in the obsessive way that breaks through the din of our 500 channel universe. Because those 500 channels don’t mean we get 500 times the examination and investigation of worthy news stories. It means we get the same narrow conventional-wisdom wrap-ups repeated 500 times.”
Huffington is even syndicating the best of the group blog in a daily Tribune Media feed, that will be copy-edited before distribution to newspapers and their associated Web sites. “I think both of us will do [copy-editing],” said John Twohey, Tribune Media vice president of editorial and operations. “She assures us that these pieces will be fact-checked and edited at her place, and as with everything else that we syndicate, we have copy editors here who will be doing the same.”
No matter how it shakes out, the Huffington Post should provide a lively online place for commentary and links to news — if she can somehow moderate all the egos filling up the virtual space. If nothing else, it will give the blogging public a target for endless satire.
The following is an edited transcript of various interviews with Huffington by phone and e-mail over the past few days.
Online Journalism Review: What is your goal with the Huffington Post, both culturally and business-wise?
Arianna Huffington: We’d like to try, if we can, to post, break and organize news in an interesting way and also add to the voices of the blogosphere on issues of interest. The blogosphere is here to stay, as it should be, and that democratization of voices is an incredibly positive development.
OJR: You said you were going to have breaking news. Would you have reporters breaking news?
AH: No, no, no. We are going to be doing news headlines and linking to news stories and breaking news when we have news break. And that will be on the right side of the home page. On the left-hand side will be the group blog.
We will be picking among the news stories, and then we’ll have a news crawl with multiple news stories beyond what we put on the home page.
OJR: What is Andrew Breitbart’s role in the operation and why did you choose him?
AH: Andrew and I have worked together for years. He worked with me before he went to Drudge. Andrew will wear many hats for us, including being in charge of the news section.
OJR: Do you find it ironic that Andrew co-wrote a scathing look at Hollywood celebrities and now will be helping run a site with the same type of celebs?
AH: I’m not sure I’d agree that these are the same type of celebrities. This isn’t the Michael Jackson or Paris Hilton group blog. But, in any case, the fact that Andrew and I may not see eye to eye on every issue will not interfere with what we are trying to do. In fact, it will enhance it.
OJR: Actually, Andrew Breitbart’s book, “Hollywood, Interrupted,” does mention a lot of the celebrities that are in the group blog, like Rob Reiner, John Cusack, Andrew Sorkin and Brian Grazer. And Andrew was moralizing about what they were doing.
AH: Right. The whole point of what we’re doing is that we don’t have people who will all agree with each other. We have invited bloggers who I’ve personally sparred with. I do a radio show on KCRW [in Santa Monica] called “Left, Right and Center.” A lot of the people who have been on the radio show with me are also blogging, people like Tony Blankley and David Frum and Byron York. And we don’t agree. They’re blogging and I’m blogging.
This is not a place you’re going to just find absolute agreement. That’s not the purpose of the site. The object is to have a debate and a national debate on issues that are important and issues that are personal and entertaining.
OJR: What are the legal hurdles — if any — for all these high-profile people to write for you, especially if they are under tight talent contracts?
AH: We’ll see as we move forward, and deal with it on a case-by-case basis.
OJR: Will there be ghost writers or assistants who might write for some of the group bloggers?
AH: That will never happen. They will never bother to do that, it’s not of any interest to them. The majority of the people are people who are on e-mail a lot, they IM their friends. What we’re asking them to do is basically tell us the thoughts they’re already having, the conversations they’re already having, the takes they’re already having.
Now some of them who don’t use a computer like Arthur Schlesinger might fax it. I personally don’t have a problem with that. I’d rather have Arthur Schlesinger online, his own voice, his own thoughts, than say, ‘You know what, you have to learn how to use our software, we can’t have you on.’ I’m sure there are some purists who think that, no, you should actually use the blogging software, you should use Movable Type. But I don’t have a problem with Arthur Schlesinger faxing me his thoughts, or someone calling from his cell phone and dictating something, but it has to be his thoughts — that has to be unequivocal.
OJR: Will you allow people to use the blog Comments function and will they be screened in any way?
AH: After we are up and running for a while, we’ll address the issue of the best way to incorporate user comments into the site.
OJR: How do you expect to make money from the site, and do you already have a sales staff in place?
AH: The site will be advertiser supported. By design, we are launching without ads so we can keep the focus on our content. Once we are up and running, we will turn our attention to getting ads. Our plan is to roll out our site slowly. We expect to refine what we have at the beginning and make changes where necessary. We are going to start slow and find our way.
OJR: What is the voice of the publication? If you’re going to include people from different modes of political thought, what can people expect to see when they visit your site?
AH: They know it will be the news. I actually believe that the news is not right-wing news or left-wing news, it’s the news. And that will be the sensibility, that will basically permeate our news coverage. Plus, the thing that the blogosphere does — similar to what you wrote about Keith Olbermann — the blogosphere allows you to be relentless. When he was covering voting irregularities, he didn’t just do one story. He did them day in and day out, and…it’s one of the key characteristics of the blogosphere that makes it an important part of what’s going on in the media right now.
So if we believe a story is important, we’ll stay on it, and stay on it and stay on it. Not just day in and day out, but hour in and hour out. And our bloggers are encouraged to look at what’s on our home page, and as well as blogging about whetever they want, blog about the stories on our home page — and having conversations with each other about our home page. I’m sure we won’t all agree but the story will be covered.
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A partial list of contributors to the Huffington Post group blog:
Larry David, Walter Cronkite, Tom Freston, Vernon Jordan, David Geffen, Nora Ephron, Bobby Kennedy Jr., Tina Brown, John Cusack, Gary Hart, Mike Nichols, Rob Reiner, David Mamet, Arthur Schlesinger, Norman Lear, George Wolfe, Bill Maher, Jann Wenner, Laurie David, Cory Booker, Tony Blankley, Jim Wiatt, Aaron Sorkin, Haim Saban, Albert Brooks, Paul Goldberger, Harry Evans, Liev Schreiber, David Frum, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, David O. Russell, Barry Diller, Tavis Smiley, Ari Emanuel, Paul Reiser, Adam McKay, Brian Grazer, Mort Zuckerman, Brad Hall, Prof. Alex Keyssar, Dr. Dean Ornish, and Sen. Jon Corzine.