ARIANNA'S REINVENTION OF THE BLOG
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif.
LOS ANGELES, July 25, 2005 -- Arianna Huffington's new internet site was barely out of the gate when critics lit into it - and into her - with a vengeance. Critics of the critics suggested that it might be fair to wait at least a day or two before going nova on her, but that didn't stop them all.
Huffingtonpost.com has been up and running since May 9, so it is now fair for us to take a critical look.
It is both more and less than we had a right to expect: More in the sense that it is still in existence, still churning out celebrity columns as it has gradually developed and expanded.
It is less than what we have a right to expect in the sense that it sometimes fails the tests of responsible journalism.
Arianna is of course the woman famous for reinventing herself. She was married to Republican Michael Huffington when he ran against Sen. Dianne Feinstein. They both seemed pretty conservative at the time. More recently, she has become a voice for liberalism. Her newspaper columns appear all over the country and her books line store shelves. In her present incarnation, she is no friend of the Republicans.
It was inevitable that Arianna H. would join the internet universe, and probably equally inevitable that she would try to do it bigger and better than everyone else. She collected a strong stable of writers, left and center, and opened her blog to considerable fanfare. Huffington Post is more than the usual blog though. Instead of the ruminations of one person, it is a gathering site for dozens of celebrity bloggers who have been talked into posting on her site.
Before her new creation had barely taken its first breaths, Nikke Finke of the LA Weekly whipped out the long knives.
Judging from Monday's horrific debut of the humongously pre-hyped celebrity blog the Huffington Post, the Madonna of the mediapolitic world has undergone one reinvention too many. She has now made an online ass of herself. What her bizarre guru-cult association, 180-degree right-to-left conversion, and failed run in the California gubernatorial-recall race couldn't accomplish, her blog has now done: She is finally played out publicly. This website venture is the sort of failure that is simply unsurvivable. Her blog is such a bomb that it's the movie equivalent of Gigli, Ishtar and Heaven's Gate rolled into one.
It's hard to find a better example of the descriptive term "snarky" than Finke's opening. (Various sources define snarky as a colloquialism for snappish, nasty, short-tempered; the word has been getting a lot of use on the internet recently, and this quotation cries out for it.)
Whatever else Finke had to say, the Huffington Post is still with us. And it is big. Today's home page offers a collection of columnists running down the left side of the page. Not one or two, but (count them) 23 sub-blogs. Taking it from the top we have Arianna followed by Steven G. Brant, David Mamet, Lawrence O'Donnell, Adam McKay and so forth. In case you don't know who these people are, you can jump to their bio's and discover that McKay is a former standup comic who writes and directs, Lawrence O'Donnell is the former Senate staffer who is also Executive Producer of "The West Wing," David Mamet is of course a famous playwright, and Steven G. Brant is described as a "Business Futurist," whatever that might mean.
There are some big names there too - Robert F. Kennedy Jr., labor leader Andy Stern and writer-actor-broadcaster Harry Shearer all take their best shots.
Many of them, if not quite all, are weighing in about the Iraq war, Karl Rove, the Supreme Court nomination, global warming, Karl Rove, Democratic politics, President Bush, and of course Karl Rove. There is a danger of becoming redundant here, so I'll simply mention that at least 7 of these blogettes are about the Rove scandal. It might as well be Air America online.
And that's just the left side of the home page. The rest of the screen space is filled with links to news items and novelties. "U.S., Canada Vie for Crown at World Stupidity Awards" caught my eye, as did "80% of French People Think They're Good Looking."
There is a lot of stuff here, but the overall effect, at least to your humble media critic, is a mixed blessing at best. The lesser sin has to do with design. The greater sin, to be exemplified by the RFK Jr. piece, has to do with the ethics of the new journalism.
We can dispense with the stylistic critique in a paragraph. The layout of that left-hand column creates an irritation. Almost every article allows the reader to get well into the argument but then requires a jump. It is an awkward system of clicking back and forth between long texts. The other problem is that the designers seem to have had problems with getting everything inside of the left and right margins of an average browser window. These are not major sins, but they do get in the way of the experience.
It is the other problem that is worthy of more serious consideration, and for this we have RFK Jr.'s piece as a bad example.
The article, dated July 22, 2005, is titled, "Thimerosal Cover-Up: Let the Punishment Fit the Crime." It begins this way:
Wednesday night, political guru and comedian Jon Stewart dropped by the Comedy Central green room as I awaited my turn on the Daily Show. He had asked me on his program to discuss my recent Salon.com/Rolling Stone articles about the federal government's efforts to conceal the overwhelming scientific evidence linking vaccine preservative thimerosal to the epidemic of neurological disorders among American children. Stewart observed that if the story is true, the perpetrators should have their skin abraded with multiple incisions prior to being dipped in salt brine.
For those not familiar with the controversy, some vaccines have been made using a preservative called thimerosal, a chemical which contains mercury (technically: ethylmercury). Some people have claimed that there is a causal link between use of these vaccines and the development of autism in children.
Kennedy's piece is comparatively short. It mentions (and links to) a New York Times article (July 20, 2005: Gardiner Harris; "No Vaccine-Autism Link, Parents Are Told") which describes a press conference at which federal regulators publicly defended the use of childhood vaccination. Kennedy snidely refers to a term used by the newspaper reporter to describe the meeting: "unusual," spinning the word to imply that there was something fishy about the motive behind the action. Here is the actual quote: "Top officials from three of the nation's premier public health agencies held an unusual news conference on Tuesday to say that childhood vaccines are life-saving medicines with no proven link to autism."
There is a different interpretation available for this wording, namely that it is unusual (and should be) for medical science to have to defend the benefits of vaccination.
Kennedy concludes his three-paragraph editorial by arguing that although thimerosal has been taken out of most vaccines used in the U.S., it may continue to be used in vaccines distributed to other parts of the world, and for this, federal regulators merit punishment.
Here is the problem: When Kennedy's piece "Deadly Immunity" ran in Salon.com not long ago, it did not remain uncontroversial. Salon published a response from Harvey V. Fineberg, M.D., Ph.D., President of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Fineberg found fault with Kennedy's facts, logic, and ethics. Kennedy was accused of quoting out of context (to imply a cover-up that did not exist), of misunderstanding or misrepresenting the levels of thimerosal that were administered to infants, and of making misleading statements about the conclusions that scientists drew as to the dangers (or lack thereof) attendant on giving thimerosal to babies.
Michael Fumento published a letter critical of Kennedy's argument, "There is no Thimerosal-Autism Conspiracy" in the Wall Street Journal (reproduced on his own web site fumento.com). Fumento is a sometimes-argumentative writer on medical science (among other subjects) but he usually can be counted on to get his facts straight.
The point is that in the Salon piece, Kennedy had made an argument that is far from uncontroversial. To put it more bluntly, many experts in medical science consider it to be unmitigated bunk. Kennedy didn't happen to mention this in the "Huffington Post" blog.
Somehow, Arianna's editors didn't think it a problem when Kennedy made wild assertions without mentioning that there is another side to the story. This would be considered a grave error in the mainstream media. Even in the world of op ed columns, the lack of "balance" would be apparent. The word balance may not be quite the perfect word - what we are talking about is simple intellectual honesty - but it is widely understood as a term of art that means making at least a minimal effort to consider all the possibilities.
Media critics have been disdainful of the traditional practice of "objective" journalism by the mainstream media, but the critiques tend to go towards rejecting the artificial "balance" that is not tempered by judgment - you know, the practice of finding an opponent, however mindless, to balance every stated position. This critique of objective journalism does not and should not imply the right to ignore one's duty to uphold ethics and honesty.
This is where we get into the arguments over the worth - the validity, if you will - of this new journalism that is developing before our eyes on the internet. Kennedy should have mentioned that his working hypothesis is not universally accepted. In fact, to this critic, the "overwhelming scientific evidence" he refers to is virtually nonexistent, much less overwhelming.
In this example, as in so many others, we can observe the difference between the freewheeling internet culture and the more stodgy, but careful, culture of the older mainstream.
Arianna Huffington's new blog has promise, but she might wish to reconsider how far outside the tenets of traditional journalism she wants to go, with this piece by RFK Jr. as example and lesson.
Like it or not, respect its principles or not, Arianna's new effort has managed to outlast its opening day critics. And knowing Arianna, she may reinvent it the day after tomorrow.