The Huffington Post: force for good or liberal sweatshop?

I promised myself that I’d hold fire for a few days when the AOL/Huffington Post deal was announced. My initial reaction was that the sale shone a bright light on some dysfunctional dynamics within the “progressive” media sphere (and this was even before I read Dr. Denny’s outstanding take the other day on how we’re all just serfs in the machine), but I was also aware of the fact that I know a number of people who write at HuffPo, and that I’d probably do well to hear their opinions first.

So I did just that. I learned that, from the perspective of a lot of smart, committed thinkers and writers and activists, The Huffington Post served an invaluable function. Many argue that it afforded them access to a far larger audience than they could have reached otherwise, and they felt that the ability to push their messages to thousands or hundreds of thousands of readers instead of dozens or hundreds played a big role in various meaningful political successes. Others complained that site operations slipped over time and that they never got the sense that those in charge were terribly worried about the concerns of the uncompensated writers on whose backs the site was making a mint. Still, a significant majority of those who responded to my query were positive about the value of HuffPo.

These testimonials are from people I know and respect tremendously, and I try to be as circumspect as possible when I find myself in honest disagreement with people of integrity and intelligence.

That said, after several days of ruminating on the subject, I’m simply unable to arrive at a charitable verdict on what HuffPo has been to this point in its history. (Although, in the end, it’s possible that both my colleagues and I are right to some degree. Read on.) Here’s my problem.

Arianna Huffington and her co-founders didn’t set out to create a vehicle for progressive change. Instead, they launched a for-profit business that sold progressive content. If that sounds like more or less the same thing, it isn’t.

What Huffington launched was based on the idea that regular Americans wanted to read what Hollywood celebrities thought about the political issues of the day. Whatever else this may be, is most assuredly not a formula for promoting a new social order. That co-founders thing is important, too, because Andrew Motherfucking Breitbart was involved early on and claims that he invented the place. There also remains a good bit of controversy over the foundational role of Peter Daou and James Boyce, who have now filed a lawsuit claiming that the idea for HuffPo was theirs. I wasn’t there and have no firsthand insight, but I’ve read Daou’s stance and find it persuasive. We’ll see how it shakes out now that there’s another $315 million reasons to fight over it, I guess.

Regardless, I have followed the evolution of the site with a growing sense of dismay because I don’t like hypocrisy. I have a hard time with those who talk one way and walk another. In the same way that I detest corporations that engage in elaborate greenwashing programs, I have little patience for those who talk like saints while living like pimps.

At various points through the years I have heard folks who regularly listen to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show say that they’re not sure that he actually believes much of what he panders on-air. There are those who regard Rush (and a number of other right-wing shock pundits) as entertainers first and foremost. In this view, Rush isn’t so much a conservative as he is a marketer of conservative product.

I don’t know to what extent I believe this argument, and even if I believed it completely it hardly excuses Limbaugh – in fact, it probably makes him an even more appalling enemy of the public good. Still, the more I have thought about the explosively successful arc of The Huffington Post, the more my mind has recalled the structure and cynicism of what these folks have suggested. Arianna isn’t a life-long liberal type, for sure. That Breitbart was ever involved in the conversation at any level suggests that she was teeing up an expressly business venture before decisions were made about what, precisely, they’d be selling. And they spent years profiting mightily on the work of contributors who have never received a red cent for their efforts. I used the word “pimp” above, but honestly that’s not quite right, because prostitutes get paid.

I’ve spent years working in and with corporate America, and there’s a psychological structure at work in this that feels very, very, disturbingly familiar. I know people – plenty of them, I’m afraid – who loathe progressives and everything they stand for, but who’d open a liberal media outlet tomorrow if they could get rich on it.

The word “sweatshop” has been tossed around to describe the Huff‘s business model, and it’s a charge that I have a hard time rejecting. Even if I accept my colleagues’ conviction that the site has, on balance, been a tool for progress, that doesn’t excuse the exploitative behavior of ownership.

So, to the question posed in the title: force for good or sweatshop? I suspect, after talking to colleagues who write there and thinking about it for a few days that the answer is a bit of both. In truth, the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

And, it has to be said, this story is far from over. It’s possible that Huffington and the rest of those cashing AOL’s checks will take the opportunity to funnel some of that cash to their content providers. It’s possible that AOL will implement a new, more equitable compensation model.

Anything’s possible, but are you holding your breath?

7 replies »

  1. I suppose it’s the same arguments I read when I was looking at going into freelance writing. Do you write for nothing if it gets you exposure which you can then parlay into paying writing and speaking gigs, or do refuse to make others money on your free labor? Or, in the service of a “cause” do you write for free to get your message out as widely as possible? I agree that force for good and sweatshop and not mutually exclusive, though our definition of good might be different.

  2. It’s just bad progressive politics to not even seek to find a way to pay your writers. That said, one wonders if more than a handful of writers will ever be paid for their writing again. It may be analogous to the music industry, where musicians make less from their product (CD or MP3) than the ancillary stuff like touring, merchandising, and licensing. Among the better-paid commentators are those who draw a salary from foundations or universities, for whom writing is part of their job description. That is, it’s getting harder and harder to be paid for your art (or commentary) per se. Will address this myself in an S&R post shortly.