Our Backstreets #21: What’s That Smell?

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Arianna Huffington’s come to town. Actually, she’s brought her “local” Huffington Post to my town specifically, but she intends to spread her wings and fly to metropolitan areas all over the United States in the months ahead.

The Huffington Post is something of a juggernaut on the blog scene and one that many bloggers of a liberal persuasion read regularly and blogroll on their sites. Plenty of nonbloggers read HuffPo as well. So did I. I even signed up for HuffPo’s OfftheBus project, in which ordinary people cover the election stories that Big Media can’t or won’t report, because I thought the idea of participating in the democratic process was an important action I could take. I also thought that because I was one of Barack Obama’s Illinois constituents, I’d have a more well-rounded view of a candidate who, frankly, the liberal world has gone gooey over.

I wrote a piece called “Obama’s Green Screen” that was critical of Senator Obama’s conspicuous absence when Lake Michigan was under threat of becoming, yet again, a dump for Big Energy’s waste. Opposition in Illinois to BP’s plans to dump waste from their Northern Indiana refinery was bipartisan, but our junior senator was absent and silent. We’ve seen now that this ducking and weaving from issues that might hurt his chances of election comprise part of his game plan. Back then, however, many of us believed his rhetoric of change, and for many of us, that meant taking unpopular or politically risky stands.

The Huffington Post was not yet headquarters of the Obama for President fan club, but that didn’t last long. The shriller the site’s boosterism, the more disenchanted I became with it. I stopped reading it and decided that my civic energies could be spent doing more effectual things than trying to report evenhandedly about Barack Obama for OfftheBus, hosted on The Huffington Post Web site.

As some of you know, our site has been affiliated with The Beachwood Reporter. I went to listen to some panel discussions at the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication conference held last week in Chicago, one of which included Steve Rhodes, the founder and general manager of The Beachwood. Afterwards, Steve, another journalist, and I chatted, and one topic that came up was the advance work The Huffington Post was doing to get writers for its Chicago site. I was not approached, but both of them had been and were asked to work “pro bono,” in other words, for free. Arianna Huffington is a multimillionaire, yet she is asking professional journalists to work for free. We all thought this was outrageous. If she wants to give space to unqualified celebrities like Deepak Chopra to write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that’s her business. They don’t need the money, but they like the visibility.

However, asking professionals to consider her site one that serves “the public good” (which is what pro bono translates as) to which they should give willingly and liberally of their time is the ultimate in cheek at best and something that looks an awful lot like what liberals are supposed to be against—the labor abuses of Big Business—at worst.

Today, Steve posted a letter that appeared on Romenesko, a hugely popular site for journalists hosted by the nonprofit Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, future journalists, and teachers of journalists. Since most of you probably don’t visit this site, I’ll duplicate the letter and Steve’s comments from The Beachwood:

“From KEVIN ALLMAN: Phil Rosenthal’s (Chicago Tribune media columnist) story on Arianna Huffington’s foray into the local blogging market included this line: ‘Writers work pro bono.’

“‘Pro bono’ means ‘for the public good.’ What Rosenthal should’ve said is that Huffington wants writers to work for free so she can sell ads around their work. That ain’t the public good. That ain’t good, period.

“The Huffington Post has been a winning formula, because it gives platforms to Huffington’s D.C. and L.A. buddies who need vanity exposure more than they need money. But when she comes into communities and applies the same formula, there’s another word for that formula, and it’s exploitation.

“It’s hard for me to take any ‘progressive’ site seriously that expects people to work for free while the founders make money. At least Wal-Mart pays minimum wage.”

Steve Rhodes said: “Like everyone else and their dog in Chicago, I’ve been asked to contribute to the new Chicago version of Huffington Post – for free.

“So let me get this straight. Arianna Huffington is incredibly rich and you want me to work for free to make her richer? And to help her put me out of business? Let me think about this while eating my ramen dinner and reading Arianna’s latest post about how the Republicans don’t care about working people.

“How about this? If Arianna writes for me for free, I’ll write for her.”

Regardless of whether you agree with letter-writer Allman or Steve Rhodes, they do make a case against Arianna Huffington’s business model. I have one more reason to oppose it.

The Huffington Post-Chicago premiered today. The comments thread under the site’s introductory post were very positive, thrilled that Ms. Huffington chose our terrific burg to splash down in. That’ll teach New York and Los Angeles who The Second City isn’t! I thought I’d like to greet HuffPo a little differently by posting Allman’s letter with my own comments. I’m still a registered HuffPo blogger from my brief stint with OfftheBus, so it should have gone up unmolested. It didn’t. I watched the “Comments Pending” number carefully, seeing it go up and down and eventually reach zero.

Strangely, my post didn’t appear. I wrote another post that said HuffPo was censoring my comment, and it didn’t appear. I tried another approach and responded to another comment with information that HuffPo doesn’t pay its writers. It didn’t appear either. I sent a final comment announcing my intention to write about this disgraceful disregard for working people and the censorship that seemed to be underway to ensure a lovefest for HuffPo’s entry into the Chicago market.

Two established sites, Chicagoist and Gapers Block, have been covering the local scene for several years. The Beachwood has been doing the same for the political landscape for nearly 3 years. Now, like megabucks Sam Zell’s slash-and-burn approach to his recent acquisition, The Tribune Company, Arianna Huffington is ready to run over our local bloggers. Those who are cheering her today may regret it tomorrow when, like Clear Channel, she becomes the dominant voice in Chicago-centric Internet publishing. It’s probable that local sites with fewer resources will dry up and blow away when HuffPo steals their advertisers.

HuffPo may seem liberal, but it doesn’t smell that way to me. When the odor reaches your city, duck and cover. l

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    14th/08/2008 to 10:43 pm

    Marilyn, this saddens me greatly. As an unabashed liberal myself, I am mortified that this is happening. As you say, there is nothing progressive about expecting professionals to work for free. Especially if you are not hurting for cash yourself, and particularly if you are making money for it. Shameful.
    And I’m sorry also to hear about your experience of Obama, reported here and in an earlier post. It reinforces my belief that the two-party system is becoming the most detrimental thing in this country. Too many times it produces “better than the other guy” scenarios. I’m not ready for another four years of republican policies, however … I’m not sure the country can take it.

  • Fox spoke:
    15th/08/2008 to 12:44 am

    Not only is Huffington personally wealthy, but I’ve read that the Huffington Post is worth somewhere between $60 – $200 million dollars, with a staff (according to this) of only 50 employees or so.
    Yeah, I have no idea what their overhead/expenses are, but you’d think HuffPo could afford to write a handful of hundred dollar checks to hard-working, middle-class writers. It’s easy for Huffington, Chopra et al to act charitable and toss around phrases like “for the public good” when they have 8 figure incomes.
    Also… that sucks about your post/comments being censored. I could understand if you were one of those commenters slinging nasty language or calling people names, but you were simply asking for an exchange, a debate, some answers.

  • Pat spoke:
    15th/08/2008 to 8:19 am

    Marilyn –
    Great post.
    I’ve been reading the Huff Po since it began, but have gotten increasingly disenchanted with Ariana over the last couple of years (for such things as her strident anti-Hilary stance. Also, for her relentless, snide criticism of Tim Russert, likely motivated by the fact that Russert’s wife wrote an unflattering profile of her in Vanity Fair.)
    That she asks journalists to write for her without pay “for the public good” is ludicrous.
    And, by the by, since you mention the recent Tribune acquisition, are you as upset as I am about the recent change in editorship? I saw a quote from the new editor saying he wanted to make the Tribune “more fun.” The one thing I’ve always appreciated about the Trib is its thoughtful, in-depth coverage of world news and the arts – I worry now that this quality of coverage is doomed to disappear in favor of more “fun” features.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    15th/08/2008 to 9:00 am

    Marilyn – I’ve mentioned from time to time (mainly on my old blog Synchfish) how I was banned from HuffPo. I quickly took it as a point of pride. I would re-register under different names and every time (EVERY TIME!) my comment would be removed. And I mean innocuous stuff would be removed too. If it came from one of my I.P.s it wasn’t fit for HuffPo. I was never quite sure what I had done. I had been extremely critical of several posts there and had condescendingly ridiculed the whole enterprise as “The Hollywood Post” in several comments and I guess that’s when they got sick of me.
    I find some of the writers there interesting enough but I really don’t care what Alec Baldwin and Sean Penn or that guy from “Wings” think about world politics. I haven’t been back there in about a year at this point and probably won’t return any time soon.
    P.S. – I’ve been banned from far more Conservative sites which is always fun. Red State was particularly entertaining. When I tried to log in after leaving a comment that of course disagreed with their frighteningly right wing views I was greeted with a picture of Ronald McDonald being taken away by police and the message that “this lefty troll clown has been banned.” Yes! Oh you guys have no idea how much trouble I actively stir up on political sites. It’s a side of me I leave off of Cinema Styles and will remain left off. But those lop-sided extremist political sites need disagreement, even if they don’t listen to it. I always think, maybe one or two readers will read my comment and think, “Hey, maybe there is another side to this story.”

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/08/2008 to 9:49 am

    Rick – I hear you about Republican rule, but I also agree that the 2-party system may have had it. I’ve been voting Green when they had a candidate I could support (for example, Illinois Governor). The Democratic Party in Illinois is so corrupt that I’ve stopped considering myself a Democrat. I’m really feeling very disenfranchised right now.
    Fox – Steve Rhodes said that he got a solicitation from a start-up blog that offered him $50 a post. Isn’t it insane that Huffington doesn’t think that’s necessary.
    Pat – Yes, the anti-Clinton comments and rhetoric, not just at HuffPo but in the mainstream media (MSM), really got me angry. I’ve been critical of Tim Russert’s reporting and mythologizing about his “regular guy” image, but he also was a more solid newsman than most in MSM. Huffington could have found better targets – they abound – but I think you’re right about why she singled him out.
    As for the Trib, as soon as Zell took over, I knew a paper already in trouble would slide fast. Nothing can save it now.
    Jonathan – You rascal you! I pretty much avoid all political sites now (occasionally I go to Open Left because it runs primer-type posts from time to time). I don’t think I could handle reading extreme right blogs; I’d be too hopping mad all the time. Extreme left does it to me less, but I find them just as out of touch with real life, too. I mostly look at media blogs like Pressthink and The Daily Howler; I like to know about message distortion. HuffPo is great at that.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    15th/08/2008 to 11:24 pm

    I’ve been reading HuffPo since pretty much the beginning as well. It is sad that they can’t even offer some kind of modest payment. I’ve also had problems with some of the people they’ve allowed to opine on film, especially the blogger who covered the Oscars a couple of years ago who stupidly wrote that when William Monohan mentioned “Thelma” in his thank you speech, he was referring to a girlfriend. That particular “journalist” seemed unaware that “Thelma” was the editor of The Departed. Then there was the academic authority who was unaware that multi-lingual films existed before Babel . . .

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/08/2008 to 8:20 am

    Peter – Really, HuffPo is the amateur hour. I remember commenting in a film-related post and someone saying it was nice to get an opinion from a “real” film critic for a change. Currently, HuffPo-Chicago has ONE paid staffer, someone who worked for the Chicago Sun-Times, who aggregates info from other Chicago sites. Sounds like a very valuable service to me…

  • Kevin Allman spoke:
    16th/08/2008 to 10:40 pm

    Marilyn – Thanks to you and Steve Rhodes at the Beachwood Reporter for getting the word out.
    Your experience is fascinating. Arianna and her employees are, of course, absolutely free to accept or reject any posting they like (I prefer to use the word “censorship” for governments and free-speech issues, not private blogs), but it certainly doesn’t make me think any better of her, or of her business model.
    Right now I’m consulting with the alt-weekly in New Orleans on their online stuff (www.blogofneworleans.com – and feel free to strike that if it’s spammy). We’re bringing in guest bloggers, and the first rule is: they get paid. Period. For each post. It’s not much, but it’s an acknowledgment that their time, their words, and their thoughts are worth money. If we can do it at our little bitty pissant country place on the Web (in still-destroyed New Freakin Orleans of all places), then surely Arianna of Malibu could find a way to throw out a crumb or two. If she wanted to, that is.
    Keep tabs on what HuffPost Chicago is doing up there, and keep spreading the word.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    17th/08/2008 to 9:47 am

    You’re welcome, Kevin.
    And may I say that writing for your publication for free really would be pro bono, but I’m glad you’re dedicated to fair labor practices.

  • michelle spoke:
    17th/08/2008 to 3:56 pm

    I have to say up front, I cannot stand John Cusack. So it was doubly hard to read his love letter to Chicago on the Huffington Post that had spelling and factual errors. He misspelled the names of Larry Biittner, Michael Jordan, Chris Chelios, and Eugene O’Neill (whom he lumped in with other writers from Ireland [O’Neill was born in New York]). Two of Cusack’s false sports memories particularly stuck in my craw after he tried to pass himself off as a Sox fan in 2005. Cusack mistakenly reported that Eddie Gaedel pinch-hit for the White Sox (nope, it was for the St. Louis Browns) and Sammy Sosa was on the Cubs in 1989 when they won the NL East (guess Cusack didn’t get around to attending games on the South Side that year, when Sosa played for the White Sox).
    I wrote a concise, non-bitchy comment on the Huffington Post in regard to the errors, and I waited to see it post. And I waited. And waited. A quick check right now, two days later, shows it still hasn’t posted. Seems they have room only for comments gushing about the lakefront, the Cubs, and Chicago restaurants.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    17th/08/2008 to 4:32 pm

    Michelle – Arianna Huffed and she Puffed and she blew our comments away.

  • Daniel spoke:
    19th/08/2008 to 4:04 pm

    Haha, like that last one.
    This is pretty interesting, to be sure. I recently had trouble commenting at all WordPress blogs, and even though it was a mistake with the anti-spam filter, I still know the frustration of seeing your thoughts simply disappear. That’s it deliberate would only be more infuriating.
    Well you told them what you were going to do, and you did it. Good for you.

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