BOOKS AND ARTS JUNE 17, 2009
Right is Wrong: How the Lunatic Fringe Hijacked America, Shredded the Constitution, and Made Us All Less Safe (And What You Need To Know To End The Madness)
By Arianna Huffington
(Alfred A. Knopf, 388 pp., $24.95)
When did you last read a book or an essay or a post that claimed America, or modern civilization, or "the West," was in decline, or that the United States had "lost" its innocence, or that it was "falling behind" in its educational standards, or that comity has tragically disappeared from a partisan and polarized Washington, whereas once upon a time representatives came to the capital only to do the "people's business"? Not too long ago, I suspect. But one may read exactly such laments from fifteen or thirty or even eighty years ago. Earlier prophets of doom were humming the same rueful tune. Maybe doom is just a trope. And yet the staleness of American punditry from one generation to the next is disturbing. It numbs our language, and blinds us to the ways in which our institutions are changing, or even disappearing.
In 1978, in England, Arianna Stassinopoulos published her second book, called After Reason. In it she proclaimed that modernity had failed us. The world was overflowing with spiritual yearnings that our trivial and materialistic society could not satisfy. Who, or what, was responsible for the malaise? A part of the blame was laid at the feet of a craven and soulless media. "For the first time in history," Stassinopoulos portentously began, "an opinion on everything has become an indispensible accessory of modern living, and everybody goes about in the cast off clothing of the latest media gurus." After approvingly quoting Kierkegaard, she continued:
The world is reduced into flat, surveyable, two-dimensional world events; and we can all enjoy the illusion that we know exactly what has happened in the last twenty-four hours and what precisely to think about what has happened. Except that the meaning and significance that even the most averse to thought among us need, remain lost. The news and opinions, the perishable, ephemeral and valueless facts with which alone we are bombarded is as much of a substitute for the truths we long for, as a telephone number is for its subscriber. So it is not so much that we know more and more about less and less, but that we know more and more about the less and less important; and the more the precision of our knowledge increases, the more trivial the questions we seek to answer.
Arianna Stassinopoulos is now Arianna Huffington, and she is best known as the proprietor of The Huffington Post, and as a personification of the hyperactive up-to-the-nanosecond news-and-opinion universe of the web. Her fame now approaches her immodest ambitions. And more than Huffington's name has changed since she wrote those early premonitory words. She is now a steely--"bleeding heart" somehow does not fit--liberal, rather than a politically incorrect conservative. She has been, as Americans like to say, on a journey. Her historical timing has always been exquisite. If she is herself some sort of institution, she is an exceedingly adaptable one. (Click here for a slideshow that tracks Huffington's many public makeovers.)
Now comes her twelfth book, lyrically entitled Right Is Wrong: How the Lunatic Fringe Hijacked America, Shredded the Constitution, and Made Us All Less Safe (And What You Need To Know To End The Madness). It is only the most recent example of Huffington's tireless ability to inhabit different places on the political spectrum. In the early 1970s, she made herself a star by rubbing outrageously against the liberal grain. A well-turned-out young woman in articulate recoil from feminism, a woman disputing the reigning ideologies and dogmas of her day--or at least the reigning ideologies and dogmas of college and university students--was ideally suited for the role of right-wing contrarian. But that may have been the last time she moved against the wind. Now "progressivism" reigns supreme in cyberspace and in the Beltway, and noisily progressive she is. No courageous heterodoxy this time around. Now she is a "player." A look at Huffington's career reveals someone uncannily--no, cannily--adept at recognizing and navigating the social and political currents, a zeitgeist artist, even though she has written nothing that requires her to be taken seriously as a thinker.
Huffington's work is not intellectually consistent, but there are two strains that run through much of what she has written. The first is her limp spirituality, which never moves beyond fatuities and banalities. ("Our purpose is to make religion a continuous living experience, to lead us toward a resurrection not of the dead but of the living who are dead to their own truth. ") The second is her frequent and caustic criticism of the Fourth Estate. Here is her earlier quotation of Kierkegaard: "In the world of opinion, newspapers demoralize men, by disaccustoming them from having an opinion of their own, and from developing themselves by carrying it in the face of opposition to the opinion of others, and by accustoming them, on the other hand, to have the guarantee for any opinion they may have that a significant number of men have the same opinion." Unpacking all the ironies here is a formidable task. Newspapers have changed considerably in the past two centuries. They currently stand as one of the very few barriers to a media universe that is comprised of almost nothing but outbursts and opinions. The Internet, Huffington's universe, too often serves as a powerful instrument of conformity ("communities of interest"). And Huffington has thrown in her lot with precisely the sort of shallow discourse that she once railed against. Her latest venture, and others like it, are contributing mightily to the death of the media institutions that she has long despised. At last her resentments are bearing fruit.
It takes a particular kind of intelligence to understand when to swim against the current and when to ride the wave. In 1973, Stassinopoulos, then a Greek immigrant and Cambridge graduate living in London, cleverly decided to pen a response to one of the era's most controversial feminists, Germaine Greer, and Greer's bestseller The Female Eunuch. Arriving seven years after The Feminine Mystique, Greer's book was released in the middle of "second-wave" feminism's heyday. Her argument was multifaceted, if unsubtle. She claimed that women needed to come to grips with how much men disliked them. The nuclear family was constricting women; they were trapped into hating themselves. Greer desired that women would embrace their bodies and their sexuality, even if she did go so far as to suggest the drinking of one's own menstrual blood.
In retort, Stassinopoulos's The Female Woman called the women's movement "repulsive," and went on to claim that "it is not a movement calling for equal opportunities, equal pay, equal status for woman's role in life, in fact as well as in law; instead it attacks the very nature of woman, and in the guise of liberation, seeks to enslave her." Stassinopoulos espoused women's "emancipation" because it would allow women to play distinctly female roles, as opposed to women's liberation, which demanded "identical patterns of behavior."
The Female Woman is a strange and unappetizing book. Stassinopoulos launches a confused attack on Mill, and writes that feminists and Nazis are ideologically simpatico because both groups wish to abolish the family (a bizarre claim for many reasons), and permits herself even a few homophobic digressions. Of lesbians, she writes that "their inner confusion is often expressed in arrogance, a conspicuous exhibitionism, in an attempt to compensate for the femininity they have denied and the masculinity they have failed to attain." This passage is probably the book's best example of Stassinopoulos's hypocrisy in condemning the women's movement for limiting women's roles: she, too, had a rather circumscribed idea of what constitutes femininity. Other passages appear designed simply to infuriate, in the manner of a certain sort of attention-grabbing British journalism: "Women's Lib claims that the achievement of total liberation would transform the lives of all women for the better, the truth is that it would transform only the lives of women with strong lesbian tendencies."
Huffington's evolution from bombastic reactionary to pious progressive has not occurred linearly. In the years after the release of The Female Woman, she continued to write frequently and controversially. There was a gossipy biography of Maria Callas and a shabby and utterly philistine "life" of Picasso. In 1986, she married the wealthy up-and-coming Republican politician Michael Huffington, who was elected to the House of Representatives from California in 1992 and then defeated in a Senate run two years later. Huffington's notable effort in this period was a spiritual guide called The Fourth Instinct: The Call of the Soul. As she explained, "the charge of our Fourth Instinct is to move us from the tyranny of our fight-or-flight mechanism to the liberation of a practical spirituality that transforms our everyday life." Some of the themes in The Fourth Instinct built on notions that she had advanced in After Reason, which claimed that the "spirit of man" had been firmly rejected by modern society. This book, like so many of her books, is, well, dumb. A hunger for the holy is never conducive to clear thinking. The Fourth Instinct reads like a mix of Deepak Chopra and Milton Friedman. "Many modern intellectuals," Huffington writes, like a good Reaganite, "are incapable of conceiving of social renewal that is the result of human action, but not of government design."
Huffington began writing a right-wing syndicated column. She fervently supported the Contract with America and the rise of Newt Gingrich, while at the same time preaching compassion for the poor. She became a figure in mid-'90s Washington, using her new megaphone, and her dining table, to speak out more loudly on the same issues that had occupied her for years. Reading Huffington's columns from this period is disagreeable, because her mixture of spiritualism, libertarianism, New Right dogmatism, and concern for the downtrodden does not amount to anything coherent. In 1995, she wrote a piece for The Weekly Standard declaring that Gingrich should challenge Bill Clinton for the presidency because the Speaker was the only national figure who truly cared about poverty and inner-city turmoil. "Precisely because Gingrich is right about the moral crisis the country is facing--millions of lives and entire communities destroyed by drugs, alcohol, gangs, and violence--there is a moral imperative for him to fill the leadership vacuum and address the growing devastation." Another column made the claim that the White House feared Gingrich because he could "paint vivid pictures both of the crisis and of what life will look like after the revolution," while other Republicans could not.
It is hard to know how seriously to consider Huffington's work in those years. She was a vocal critic of Great Society efforts to address social problems, but her anti-government instincts prevented her from articulating any sort of tangible blueprint that addressed real-world conditions. She may have been sincere in her concerns about poverty, but how could anybody in their right (or left) mind have believed that Newt Gingrich was the white knight sent to cure urban destitution? One is struck, again, by the discrepancy between the mediocrity of her work and the skill with which she consolidated her fame.
As the right's revolution began to cool, Huffington's revolutionary fervor started to wane, too. The Huffingtons divorced in 1997, and the following year Michael Huffington announced that he was bisexual. In 1998, Huffington published a book called Greetings from the Lincoln Bedroom, a lame anti-Clinton satire--Huffington is painfully unfunny--that nicely coincided with a general disgust with Washington. Her columns also became increasingly, and shrewdly, non-partisan. By the time Gingrich resigned as party leader in 1998, it was clear that Huffington was ready for her next move. After the GOP lost seats in the midterm elections in 1998, Huffington concluded that Gingrich and company had failed because they had abandoned their agenda of, in Gingrich's words, "coming to terms with what's happening to the poorest Americans," an electoral analysis that at least had the advantage of being original.
And so she made herself over as an enemy of power, a tribune of the people, an A-list populist. In 2000, Huffington published How to Overthrow the Government, which urged Americans to rise up and take back Washington from two corrupt political parties. Her newest campaign was perfectly timed to tap into the disappointment emanating from the dreariness of the presidential campaign of 2000. In a year in which Ralph Nader received almost 3 percent of the vote, and in which both major party candidates were neither much liked nor admired, Huffington held "shadow" political conventions and managed to play to the general anomie. Her criticism of the Clinton years evolved from concerns about the president's personal failings to a critique of his policies from the left. And she continued to demonstrate a rare gift for articulating the prevailing mood without ever saying anything especially probing or memorable. In 2003 there appeared Pigs at the Trough, a slightly better written jeremiad against political corruption, which was blurbed by John McCain, then Washington's reigning "maverick." That same year Huffington ran as a populist in a gubernatorial recall election in California, and succeeded only in seeming ridiculous. The election was ultimately won by a celebrity much more famous than she was.
By 2004, the Iraq invasion was starting to look like something less than a brilliant success, and liberal disgust with the Bush administration was reaching its zenith. Meanwhile the rise of the so-called "netroots," coupled with grave concern about the possibility of a second Bush term, had destroyed almost all momentum for insurgent political movements. The only threat to the status quo could come from John Kerry and a Democratic Party whose principal argument was that they were better at Washington than Bush was. This was the year that saw the publication of Fanatics and Fools, Huffington's "game plan for winning back America," which signaled that she had made her peace with the Democratic Party. Many of the book's problems--particularly its over-the-top criticisms of Schwarzenegger--were owed to her old habit of pushing any argument a demagogic step too far, of wanting too much to be noticed. There was something almost comical about the insistence of this sudden liberal that she be regarded as some kind of leader of American liberalism--that her latest incarnation be treated as her whole story.
Right Is Wrong, Huffington's newest book, is a useful document of her current version, in which progressive politics seem to come so naturally to her that one almost forgets that she has been traveling the whole time. The result is a book that is less genuine and more tiresome. "Yes, the Republican Party has always had its far-right cowboys, its Jesse Helmses and Spiro Agnews," Huffington says near the beginning of the book, explaining her transformation. "Yet they were removed from the party's more sober core. But these days ... it has become impossible to tell where this core stops and the fanatical fringe begins." You have to re-write a not insignificant amount of history to describe the Republican Party's second postwar vice president and one of its most powerful senators--the latter a man who did the country an untold amount of damage in the realm of foreign affairs, at a time when Huffington was an active member of the GOP--as "removed" from anything other than, respectively, respect for the rule of law and common sense. There is some truth to her account of the party's evolution, even if, in a bid to make the book appear timely, locating it in the willingness of Republican primary voters to vote for their longtime bete noire John McCain is odd. She also addresses her erstwhile affection for Gingrich by saying that although he "talked a good game," his heart was "never in it." This is odd, because if there is anything that can be said for Gingrich's intellectual and political wildness, it is that his heart is in it.
Right Is Wrong is one of those books that is completely irritating even when it is correct. Like all people who have discovered their own importance, Huffington has become dull. Consider this bit: "In this time of Lilliputian figures it's clear that to end the hijacking of America by the Right each one of us needs to take up the gauntlet and stand up for truth, no matter how many in the corridors of power or at the top of the media food chain would prefer to maintain the status quo. Leadership is a risky business requiring wisdom, courage, and fortitude--and as my compatriot Socrates put it, courage is the knowledge of what is not to be feared." Her compatriot Socrates! Maybe she should have him over for dinner with some other really interesting people.
Huffington is one of those writers who mistakes press criticism for the entirety of social and political criticism. Her condescension toward the press is endless: "Someone please alert the media: not every issue fits into your cherished right/left paradigm. Indeed, that way of looking at the world is becoming less and less relevant--and more and more obsolete. And more and more dangerous." After reading these sentences, I checked the book's cover to make sure that I was reading a book called Right Is Wrong. That looks pretty binary to me. To understand Huffington's current place in the media universe, it is necessary to recall that a visceral dislike of the traditional press has always been the animating feature of so much of her work.
In After Reason, Huffington's enmity for the press took the form of the tired conservative lament that we are becoming a nation of softies and whiners. "In an age as deprived of greatness as ours is, saturated with mediocrity, cynicism and compromise, the unease that the appearance of someone great has always produced, turned in Solzhenitsyn's case into an outpouring of undisguised censure and distrust that can only be explained by the pundits' fear that any phenomenon of a higher order would degrade us--or at least diminish them and disturb our sacred egalitarianism." (The italics are hers.) From the talk of "greatness" to the whack at "compromise" and the sneer at "sacred egalitarianism," this could hardly be improved upon as a parody of the conservative mentality of the day.
One of the requirements of membership in Gingrichian circles in the 1990s was an infatuation with bashing the liberal media, and Huffington's critique of the press in this period was the same one that now pays Ann Coulter's bills. "Having witnessed the liberal orthodoxy's stunning defeat in the war of ideas, its allies in the media will not change course or change sides, but rather change tactics," she wrote in 1994. "Over the next year we will see a rapid increase in 'negative stories'--character assassination masquerading as investigative journalism and rumor-mongering masquerading as 'informing the readers.'" More controversially, she attacked a Washington Post editorial that criticized extreme verbal attacks on the federal government after the Oklahoma City bombing. "Those in the media who genuinely seek a calmer, more productive debate about our nation's challenges might begin not by censoring angry voices, but by listening and learning from what those voices have to say," she instructed the establishment from her inside/outside perch.
In How to Overthrow the Government, Huffington's rage at the media boiled down to the conventional--and not altogether implausible--criticism that it is overly obsessed with politicians' personal lives. The political media was becoming a celebrity media: imagine that! "Our national political debate," Huffington wrote, "threatens to become nothing more than a Beltway version of The Jerry Springer Show." In the Bush years her central criticism of the press was of its presentation of news in a "he said/she said" format, as if every issue had two equally valid sides. This, again, was ironic, in the light of her own immense profiting from the polarization of those years. Huffington is not exactly a paragon of complexity in political discussion.
But something else was amiss. Consider, for example, Huffington's attack on CNN's Candy Crowley in Right Is Wrong. Near the beginning of 2007, Crowley reported: "What Senator Kennedy is going to do is lay down the liberal view of things, which is to say, he will say, look, no additional troops [in Iraq] and no money for additional troops, unless Congress approves." According to Huffington, this is misleading. Kennedy, she says, is expressing not the "liberal" view but the mainstream view, because two-thirds of Americans wanted to end the war. She adds: "The opinion of the American people was clear. A CBS/ New York Times poll had 63 percent opposed to continuing the war. The Democrats running for president and trying to win their votes were clear as well. But far too many in the media were still in a fog."
Huffington, you see, wants the media to reflect the zeitgeist. After the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, Huffington lamented the media's unwillingness to fall in line behind the new majority, which was then a conservative majority. Now she implies that reality in Iraq is at least partially defined by what percentage of Americans oppose the war. But why should reporters who cover the war or politics care a whit for the results of opinion polls? Huffington is here blissfully (or cunningly) unaware that this is exactly the type of coverage that she decries for having misled Americans into supporting the war in the first place. (She is much more interested in quoting public opinion surveys from 2007 than she is in recalling the country's mood when America was set to invade Iraq.) Huffington, the queen of seizing the moment, who fears nothing so much as the wilderness, is rattled by the press's unwillingness to keep its finger in the wind.
This same servility to public opinion manifests itself in her discussion of the press's response to Hurricane Katrina. "The media's coverage ... demonstrates the same attention deficit disorder," she remarks. "Even though the media did a good job of capturing public outrage at the time, they quickly moved on, with Katrina becoming a news afterthought suitable for occasional anniversary pieces and ribbon-cutting video." One can wholeheartedly agree with Huffington's overarching point about evaporating coverage, just as one can bravely oppose murder. But everything that Huffington knows about the outrages of Katrina she knows from the media. And more importantly, is it really the media's job during the worst domestic natural disaster in generations to capture public anger? The old distinction between facts and values, between empiricism and expressionism in journalism, is lost upon the eternally crusading (that is, positioning) Huffington. Is all journalism to be opinion journalism? And if so, what makes one opinion more decisive than another--its popularity?
Huffington even botches the obligatory takedown of William Kristol, which is the equivalent in basketball of missing an open layup. Huffington found herself on a train with Kristol where she overheard him talking on his cell phone (there is safety only in the quiet car): "'"Precipitous withdrawal" really worked,' I overheard him say, clearly referring to the president's use of the term in a July 12 press conference. 'How many times did he use it? Three? Four?'" She has no idea, of course, who was on the other end of the line; but this does not prevent her from courageously speculating. She decides that Kristol was discussing political strategy with the late Tony Snow, then the White House's press secretary. After all, Kristol and Snow were once colleagues at Fox News. And this sort of "political" chatter, of which she herself is of course never guilty, strikes her as objectionable. Do Republicans not know how to be patriotic in wartime?
Nothing represents Huffington's hostility to the press more perfectly than her largest endeavor to date. The Huffington Post is a tremendously popular news aggregator that doubles as an outlet for a number of liberal bloggers. Huffington co-launched the site in 2005 with a former AOL executive named Ken Lerer, and four years later The Huffington Post receives as many as nine million hits per month. (I worked as an editor at The Huffington Post in 2007 for just under a month. I left because of a misunderstanding over the nature of the position I was hired for. My few interactions with Huffington were polite.) The site--which is divided into a number of sections, or "verticals"--overflows with videos, blog posts, and news. The sheer volume of information is impressively rendered and easily navigated.
Last year, in a great concession to the dustbin of history, Huffington published a book about blogging, called The Huffington Post's Complete Guide to Blogging. In her introduction she lays out some of the ways that her site fills in the gaps left behind by the mainstream media, or MSM. "I am frequently asked, " she writes, "if the rise of New Media is the death knell for Old Media. My answer is that Old Media isn't dead; it's critically ill but will actually be saved by the transfusion of passion and immediacy the New Media revolution has inspired. Blogging and the new media are transforming the way news and information are disseminated--serving as a wake-up call. A wake up call the traditional media--after years of hitting the snooze button--has finally heeded. But it took awhile."
So the old media are in fact in her debt. Her warm words about old media here are surprising--except of course that she needs old media to endure as a foil for the wonderfulness of new media, in the way that the New Testament needs the Old. Huffington continues in this cordial vein with a discussion of a panel she sat on with Larry King and Sam Donaldson, who defended "Old Media" after Huffington launched an attack. "My fellow panelists, on cue, leapt to the defense of their mainstream brethren, pointing out that many of the stories I mentioned had, in fact, been covered on TV or in the big daily papers. And indeed they had. Sometimes in ninety-second news packages and sometimes even on the front page of The New York Times--above the fold. But that, until the rise of the bloggers, was that. Issue noted. Let's all move on. Meaning, no follow up, even as more details would come up. For too long, reporters for the big media outlets have been fixated on novelty, always moving all too quickly on to the next big score or the next hot get."
I was taken aback by her implication that bloggers are not fixated on novelty, that digital media do not move all too quickly on to the next big score or the next hot get. So one afternoon, with a solemn seriousness, I went on to The Huffington Post and clicked on the "Politics" vertical. Here is what I found. The top link was to a video mash-up of various conservative personalities calling Obama names. Another headline linked to a video of Keith Olbermann scolding Bill O'Reilly. A third video linked to Condoleezza Rice's appearance on The Tonight Show. On the main page of the site, in red, was a "Conservadems" headline about the centrist senators trying to scale back Obama's spending proposals. If you clicked on the headline, you were taken to a Huffington Post story about these senators, which made the perfectly reasonable point that they did not suggest what to strip from the budget (in other words, that their complaint was politically inspired). Beneath the photo was a link to a New York Times piece on the budget. Yahoo and AP stories were also available. There was another link to a New York Times op-ed from that morning, written by a former AIG executive who was fed up with "bonus rage." A little below was a video of Morning Joe hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski discussing vibrators (no, really). On the left side of the screen were a number of blog posts. The first was from Huffington herself; another was from Henry Blodget, a third was from John Kerry, and down below was one from the television actor Steven Weber, who offered the insight that "the government is itself a Ponzi scheme and the citizens which empower it its born-every-minute suckers."
On the "Entertainment" vertical was a video of Jenny McCarthy explaining her beauty secrets, which, the headline explained, included "Botox and Good Sex." Above this link was a picture of Natasha Richardson, and if you clicked on the photograph you were whisked to a People Magazine article about her donated organs. On the "Media" vertical, the vibrator story was given even bigger play: "Vibrator-Gate Round 4," the headline thoughtfully announced. There were also links to a video of Rachel Maddow on Jimmy Fallon, in which the MSNBC host told the late-night newcomer that he "needs to drink more manly drinks."
I have gone into this taxonomic detail to give a sense of the dizziness of the site, its attention-destroying cascades, its addiction to entertainment--and also to give a sense of why it is popular. It has something for everyone, which is of course the most ancient of print aspirations. It can be fun and it can be helpful. Ryan Grim's article on the budget was a useful corrective to the fetish that is generally made out of elected officials who consider themselves "centrist." Stories about the economic crisis, even if taken from other sources, were accessible and useful. It should be noted, though, that one of The Huffington Post's tricks is to link to a mainstream news story by means of a politicized headline. In this way, readers can get hard news even as it is spun for them; and in this way digital media like The Huffington Post can live off the MSM even as it denounces them.
But new media, an ally of thoroughness and reflection? Come on. The new media does nothing if not "move on." In 1978, Huffington noted that "our world may be in short supply of a long list of commodities, but it will have been sunk by experts long before it runs out of expertise. As for the vaunted information explosion, it actually seems to have led to an atrophy of mental nerves." I cannot imagine a better description of the experience of her own site, with its bold colors and kinetic busyness. The goal of The Huffington Post is emphatically not to sustain a focus on anything other than The Next Thing. Huffington charges that the press is too distracted, too unwilling to dig deeply, too easily dispersed by gimmicks and trivialities--if this is so, then what she is up to is just about the furthest thing possible from a remedy for these ills.
The truth is that The Huffington Post is not just supplementing a print media that has long been dominated by newspapers. It is also helping to destroy newspapers. The trials of print media have been explored at length recently in a number of settings, both print and digital, and for good reason. But some tough questions must be asked also about the powerful digital interlopers. For the blogosphere and the news aggregators that dominate cyberspace are completely reliant--completely parasitic--on the very institutions they are driving to bankruptcy. As my cursory summary of an afternoon's content at The Huffington Post showed, the site is thoroughly dependent on the reporting that Huffington has spent three decades bashing. Fire up the site on your computer some evening, and see how many of its main stories are from The New York Times or The Washington Post. (One of the site's habits consists of taking the first few paragraphs from another news story and using it on a Huffington Post page. In an extreme case from a couple of years ago, The Huffington Post ran an entire Chicago Reader story on their site. They invited readers to click through and "read the whole story," although they had merely reprinted the entire thing.) Moreover, during last year's presidential campaign, when the site sometimes broke news, it was often with the type of reporting that Huffington claims to detest. Its biggest scoop was the revelation that Obama had referred to certain white working-class voters as "bitter," which is just the kind of story whose appearance on the front page of The New York Times would have provoked fire and brimstone from Huffington.
If print media disappear, what on earth will digital media write about? What happens, as newspapers keep closing, when the new media can no longer rely on the reporting that Huffington has for so long pilloried? The hope is that other sources for investigative and in-depth journalism will come along. (And also sources for funding them: good journalism, real journalism, is not cheap.) The fear, and it is well founded, is that the proliferation of opinionated content will replace hard news reporting even more than it already has. I remember a colleague at The Huffington Post saying that he had been "out of pocket" for a week, and found it depressing that he missed The New York Times more than The Huffington Post.
Given Huffington's erstwhile concern that the citizenry would go around in "the cast off clothing of the latest media gurus," her own ubiquitous presence on her site is rather amusing. What is she, if not a media guru? Her blog posts are given prominent play, as are her frequent television appearances. She is an accomplished self-aggregator. No print magazine or newspaper would permit itself such a cult of personality. But the focus on Huffington herself is congruent with the site's other great obsession, aside from progressive politics: its adoration of celebrities.
The celebrity-as-citizen-journalist is one of Huffington's products. Lerer, in his foreword to the site's blogging guide, admits that when The Huffington Post was launched, it lacked certain resources, but what it "did have was Arianna's unique rolodex." (Translation: not enough journalists, but plenty of boldfacers.) There is nothing wrong with reading blog posts by Larry David or Alec Baldwin--this is a free country; but the space and the prominence given on The Huffington Post to the rich and the famous does not mix easily with its other stated ambitions. The results are contributions to the national conversation such as this one, by Sean Penn: "While I'm not a proponent of the Death Penalty, existing law provides that the likes of Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld and Rice, if found guilty, could have hoods thrown over their heads, their hands bound, facing a 12-man rifle corps executing death by firing squad. And our cowardly democratically dominated House and Senate can barely find one voice willing to propose so much as an impeachment." I agree that this is not a view that is frequently heard, and so perhaps its author and its publisher may justly flatter themselves that they are travelling to the beat of a different drum. The problem with Penn's view is not that it is heterodox, but that it is stupid.
The celebrity focus helps to enforce the site's ideological conformity, too. The supposedly liberal newspapers of America still publish conservative columnists and offer a wide range of viewpoints. But the ideological orientation of The Huffington Post is monolithic and overwhelming, and this cements the impression that the site, for all its excitement about diversity and dissent, is just another one of the internet's like-minded communities. This accounts for The Huffington Post's remarkable inability to surprise. It is just glitzy edification for the progressive congregation. Huffington is not so much a leader as a cheerleader. In the same blogging guide, The Huffington Post's "community manager" instructs that "a blog is only as good as the people who read it." That is exactly backward--a formula for good merchandising, not for good journalism. Uniformity is an odd way of honoring democracy. Just look at Fox.
Thirty years ago Huffington wrote in indignation that "when the focus of life becomes as narrow and as journalistic as ours has become, then there is no more room for the spaciousness of myth, the saga, the legend, the chronicle, the geste or any of the other forms to which previous cultures have turned to account for 'what really happened,' and to give the individual reference points for what was happening in his time. Instead we are bombarded with monumentally unimportant information, with prewrapped commentary and predigested interpretation, and with accounts of what has happened, to the nearest dazzling minute, and sometimes nearer, at which it happened." Well, yes. Bombarder, heal thyself. But perhaps it is a mistake to hold Arianna Huffington to any real standard of intellectual or journalistic rigor. She is just an adventuress, ideologically and socially; an impresario, with a practiced eye for the main chance; a media phenomenon, which is among the thinnest phenomena of all; a nimble brand. The other day I opened a book and came upon an epigraph that reminded me of her and her hunger: "I wanted to do business faster than the ordinary mercantile transactions would admit." That was said by P.T. Barnum.
Isaac Chotiner has written for The New York Times, The Times Literary Supplement, and The New Republic.