As an author, political commentator and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post Arianna Huffington not only provides insights on politics, but is instrumental in changing the way it is covered in the media. Linking together contributions from other sources, views of invited writers and investigative reporting by its own journalists, her 'internet newspaper' is widely recognized for the depth of its coverage and innovative format. The quality of the Post's news, combined with its criticism of the mainstream press, have forced broadcast media outlets to portray current events in a more balanced manner.
JI: In the news media there are content producers: individuals who comment on the news, and, as in your case, are respected for their independence from large media organizations. There are also content providers: conglomerates that publish the reporting and commentary. You do both: you write books, you're a commentator on National Public Radio and political television shows, on one hand, and you also operate The Huffington Post, on the other. What made you decide to start The Huffington Post and what opportunities did you see on the content provider-side in the political context of the time when it was founded in 2005?
AH: I saw firsthand the power of the medium when bloggers, like Josh Marshall, wrote about [Senator] Trent Lott's racist remarks at a lunch celebrating [Senator] Strom Thurmond. Ultimately, Lott resigned, although initially the mainstream media generally ignored the event. I wrote about the phenomenon, that there was a new power available to ordinary people who did not own a printing press to impact what was happening. That had always been of tremendous interest to me, the question of how people can impact the life of the country. At the same time, I noticed that many important people were not part of the conversations that were happening online and that had become so powerful, either because they were older and had missed out on the technological revolution, or because they were too busy to sustain a blog. So I wanted to create a platform for them, and to make it available so that whenever they had something to say about current events, they could literally enter the stream, deposit their thoughts, and get on with their lives.
The first person I invited to blog was Arthur Schlesinger, the historian and social critic. When I approached him, his first question was what a blog was. So I told him what it was, and he said, “I don't really use computers or e-mail. I'll fax it to you.” Literally, he faxed me his blogs.
AH: In May 2005, President Bush called the Yalta agreement “one of the greatest wrongs of history.” Within ten minutes, I got a blog post from Schlesinger - who had been at the Yalta talks - contesting the President. So that for me was what I had hoped would happen; Schlesinger could impact the national discussion in a way that was not burdensome or time-consuming. I've made it easy: if somebody is busy but wants to post, they'll send it to us. If somebody wants to call and dictate a post, we can take dictation. If you want your thoughts to be online, we will help you, however you get it to us. You can send it by pigeon, I don't care.
JI: The Post is unique in that it is a group blog. There are many people who write for it.
AH: Over two thousand.
JI: Typically news websites either generate their own content or act as news aggregators, collecting and presenting news from elsewhere. The Huffington Post is made further unique because it does both: it offers a selection of original reportage and presents news from a wide range of sources.
AH: The Huffington Post is really three things: news, primarily aggregation, but also a growing amount of original reporting; the collective blog of two thousand bloggers; and the community. Two and a half of those elements were there from the beginning; the reporting was added as we grew and acquired more resources.
JI: One criticism of the online news media is that the standards of accuracy are not as high as in traditional media. Traditional media follows a highly-professionalized process in which the accuracy of the reporting is vetted and facts are verified. But the same thing is happening online at the Post. Another criticism of online media is that the user commentary often digresses and devolves into random griping, whereas at the Post, the blog is a framework for an edited collective discussion.
AH: At the beginning we made a very deliberate decision to bring the best of the old with the best of the new. We wanted to promote a civil discussion, which is why we chose an elegant design for the site, to elevate it and give it a sense of order. From day one, the comments on the blog were moderated, which meant that bloggers on the Post could be assured of a civil environment. You may be criticized, but you're not going to be called names.
JI: In discussing the Post in an article in The New Yorker, Eric Alterman refers to the 'mullet strategy': all business up front and party in the back. That seems like a simplification, because public participation is critical for the Post's success as a place of discussion. The news has been transformed from a one-directional transmission to an ongoing conversation. The comments shape how visitors they interpret news events and their reporting. It seems that was a very important part of the model for The Huffington Post.
AH: The model is based on the most important mission of journalism, which is separating out the truth. Our goal from the beginning was to do two things when publishing a story. One, to find the most important aspect of the story, which is often not in the first paragraph, not in the headline, nor on the front page of The New York Times, and give it maximum importance by splashing it on our home page, and doing whatever we can to emphasize it with typefaces or placement on the page. And two, to attach importance to the story is by staying on it. The New York Times may break a story, above the fold on the front page, but then it dies because there is no follow-up. We, along with other blogs, stay on a story until something happens, often leading major newspapers in covering its developments. Josh Marshall, who writes the blog Talking Point Memo, was tenacious in pursuing the story that brought down Attorney General Alberto Gonzales over the Bush administration's politically-motivated firings of US district attorneys. A lot of bloggers stay on the story well after The New York Times moves on.
JI: Are there stories that you're particularly proud that the Post pursued while others moved on?
AH: The first big piece like that was the Judith Miller story. Judith Miller was one of the star reporters of The New York Times, whose coverage of the lead-up to the war in Iraq turned out to be completely distorted. She was basically used by administration sources to report untruths on the front page, and it took The New York Times a long time to issue their mea culpa. By the time we were done with our reporting she had been completely discredited.
That story proved that it wasn't necessarily true that the mainstream media was accurate, and blogs were not accurate. The level of accuracy depends on the priorities of both the online operation and the mainstream operation. At the Post, fact checking and accuracy are big priorities. We have a ground rule that if any of our bloggers publish something that is proven inaccurate, they have twenty-four hours in which to correct it, or their password is withdrawn. In addition to our stringent guidelines, there is also the wisdom of the crowd; it barely takes minutes before any kind of mistake is corrected by a commenter.
JI: The mainstream media bases its integrity on the perception that they present balanced stories that are accurate and unbiased. On the other hand, in the distributed journalism model, information can be generated from crowd sourcing as a way to cover the story, allowing fuller, in-depth description and unique points of view, an approach which may seem less objective, but has the advantage of telling a story from many perspectives. How has that changed the landscape of news reporting in the mainstream media?
AH: It's changed the news reporting landscape dramatically, and we've been part of that transformation. The Huffington Post initiated 'Off the Bus', a citizen journalism project which now has over six thousand contributors. We launched it together with Jay Rosen of NYU, asking citizen journalists to report on different aspects of the campaign. There are many stories where there are hundreds of available contributors. One of them is Mayhill Fowler, who ended up writing two big stories in the campaign: Barack Obama's remarks about small-town Americans clinging to guns and religion, and Bill Clinton's calling Vanity Fair editor Todd Purdum a 'scumbag'. It's distributed journalism that is breaking stories that dominate several mainstream news cycles.
JI: In the Alterman New Yorker article you're quoted as saying, “people love to talk about the death of newspapers, as if it's a foregone conclusion. I think that's ridiculous…traditional media just need to realize that the online world isn't the enemy. In fact, it's the thing that will save them, if they fully embrace it.” Can you talk about that?
AH: I certainly believe that there will be newspapers, at least as long as people of my generation are alive. There's something in our DNA that likes reading print. I read newspapers, I read magazines. It's not either/or, and I've been saying that from day one of The Huffington Post. We're not the enemy; I think there is a convergence. I believe in a hybrid future.
A couple of months ago, we actually changed our tagline - we're now calling ourselves an Internet newspaper because that's how we see ourselves. We will be offering more and more of what the mainstream media offers, increasing our reporting and launching new sections of The Huffington Post. A year ago we launched sections on Media, Business, Entertainment, and Living. Recently, since our homepage has become more like a newspaper, there's now a dedicated Politics section. We launched a Green section last month, and we'll be launching Books, Sports, International, and also Local, starting with Chicago.
JI: While everybody talks about the newspaper crisis, it's still a very large industry, larger than the entertainment industry in the US. It may be in decline, but it's still a major part of the media economy. How do you see newspapers changing, in their format, content and organization?
AH: The crisis in the business model is certainly affecting their organizations and the type of reporting that they can do. With cuts in advertising, you see dramatic cuts in major newspapers, like the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, and advertising is not moving online as quickly as we had expected. Although advertising is doing well at The Huffington Post, we wish it were doing better, so that we could add more reporters. Investing in investigative journalism is incredibly important, and there has to be a model - which is currently based on advertising - to sustain bureaus around the world. Otherwise, we can expect to see more and more nonprofits underwriting investigative journalism.
JI: What do you see as the greatest weakness in journalism today?
AH: There is a recent tendency in reporting that assumes that the job of the reporter is to present two sides to every story, and then assume that the truth is found by splitting the difference. We've debated global warming for years, with Al Gore warning us about the dangers of climate change, and Senator James Inhofe or Michael Crichton telling us why global warming is a fraud, and the reporters saw their role as simply presenting those points of view in the interest of what you might call balance. But the job of the reporter is to ferret out the truth, and sometimes the truth is solidly on one side or the other. And to continue to play Pontius Pilate, washing our hands as we wait to make up our minds, is not journalism.
JI: It's no longer the case today that everyone tunes into the evening news to learn what happened that day. Many people look at multiple sources so that they themselves can weigh and process news information. How do you see the economy of news reporting evolving as a result? Can and do independent news sources benefit from this development? And do you expect large media companies to adapt and launch subsidiaries in order to report from more narrowly defined viewpoints?
AH: Well, first of all, if we look at what's been happening, the single narrative that has been emerging has been false. If you agree that the greatest tragedy in recent history has been America's invasion of Iraq, it happened, in part, because of the single narrative that emerged, that Iraq was a threat to American security and that we had to invade. That was believed by the foreign policy establishment of this country, by many major newspapers, and by the public at large. There were exceptions; in my book I have an honor roll of the journalists who got it right. But the conventional wisdom was wrong.
It's not that we're abandoning a great communal narrative; we're often abandoning a discredited conventional wisdom. I think the idea that we'll regret losing this unified narrative that kept us together as a nation ignores the reason why new media are flourishing. It is not just because of new technology, but because the conventional media have let us down, and lost our trust. The increasing prominence of new sources in the media is a combination of trust and technology.
JI: How does that affect who America votes for? Yes, people feel that they have been let down, that the popular narrative was a lie. At the same time, a strange thing about Americans is that they want to believe that their leaders speak truthfully. They wish for a leader they can believe, perhaps knowing full well that a national leader can't speak and act candidly on the world stage. The desire to trust a leader runs so deep, that once they believe in him or her, they'll give the President wide berth to take whatever actions he or she sees as appropriate. How do you think this propensity is playing out in this Presidential election?
AH: It's a very interesting moment. John McCain has betrayed himself by abandoning some of his hard core principles, by catering to the Religious Right, which he previously called the agents of intolerance, or by making George Bush's tax cuts permanent, or by saying he would now vote against a bill he had earlier proposed on immigration. He is now clearly another politician willing to do or say anything to get elected. Barack Obama has branded himself as a different kind of politician, a leader who can inspire and whom you can trust. It's very important for him, for that reason primarily, that if he changes his mind - and leaders have to change their minds, or else they become George Bush - it must be consistent with his core beliefs, and that he changes his mind because new evidence has emerged. But if he's changing his mind simply out of personal expedience, he will undermine his brand as a different kind of leader.
JI: You have written extensively about politics. In your books you not only interpret the current political situation, you also provide recommendations to improve and advance it. For example, in Fanatics and Fools you discuss the fanaticism of the early Bush Administration and advocate a return to the politics of "idealism, boldness, and a generosity of spirit." Then, in Pigs at the Trough you wrote about greed and corruption among CEOs and lawmakers as well as the averted eyes of the media and Wall Street, calling for responsible self-governance. What will your next book be about?
AH: My new book is called Right is Wrong. I write about the media and what needs to change and all the ways in which the right has been at war with facts and truth, with science and with reality, which is very different from being at war with Democrats and progressives. It's fundamentally a betrayal of what leadership is, because leadership must be based on indisputable facts. We are all entitled to our own opinions, but we are not entitled to our own facts.