I was in New York City on Thursday night at the Brecht Forum to discuss with the photographer Eugene Richards his powerful new book “War Is Personal” when I was approached for an interview by a blogger for The Huffington Post. I had just finished speaking with another blogger who had recently graduated from UC Berkeley.
These encounters, which are frequent at public events, break my heart. I see myself in the older bloggers, many of whom worked for newspapers until they took buyouts or were laid off, as well as in the aspiring reporters. These men and women love the trade. They want to make a difference. They have the integrity not to sell themselves to public relations firms or corporate-funded propaganda outlets. And they keep at it, the way true artists, musicians or actors do, although there are dimmer and dimmer hopes of compensation. They are victims of a dying culture, one that no longer values the talents that would keep it healthy and humane. The corporate state remunerates corporate management and public relations. It lavishes money on the celebrities who provide the fodder for our national mini-dramas. But those who deal with the bedrock virtues of truth, justice and beauty, who seek not to entertain but to transform, are discarded. They must struggle on their own.
The sale of The Huffington Post to AOL for $315 million, and the tidy profit of reportedly at least several million dollars made by principal owner and founder Arianna Huffington, who was already rich, is emblematic of this new paradigm of American journalism. The Huffington Post, as Stephen Colbert pointed out when he stole the entire content of The Huffington Post and rechristened it The Colbuffington Re-post, produces little itself. The highly successful site, like most Internet sites, is largely pirated from other sources, especially traditional news organizations, or is the product of unpaid writers who are rechristened “citizen journalists.” It is driven by the celebrity gossip that dominates cheap tabloids, with one or two stories that come from The New York Times or one of the wire services to give it a veneer of journalistic integrity. Hollywood celebrities, or at least their publicists, write windy and vapid commentaries. And this, I fear, is what news is going to look like in the future. The daily reporting and monitoring of city halls, courts, neighborhoods and government, along with investigations into corporate fraud and abuse, will be replaced by sensational garbage and Web packages that are made to look like news but contain little real news.
The terminal decline of newspapers has destroyed thousands of jobs that once were dedicated to reporting, verifying fact and giving a voice to those who without these news organizations would not be heard. Newspapers, although they were too embedded among the power elite and blunted their effectiveness in the name of a faux objectivity, at least stopped things from getting worse. This last and imperfect bulwark has been removed. It has been replaced by Internet creations that mimic journalism. Good reporters, like good copy editors or good photographers, who must be paid and trained for years while they learn the trade, are becoming as rare as blacksmiths. Stories on popular sites are judged not by the traditional standards of journalism but by how many hits they receive, how much Internet traffic they generate, and how much advertising they can attract. News is irrelevant. Facts mean little. Reporting is largely nonexistent. No one seems to have heard of the common good. Our television screens are filled with these new chattering celebrity journalists. They pop up one day as government spokespeople and appear the next as hosts on morning news shows. They deal in the currency of emotion, not truth. They speak in empty clichés, not ideas. They hyperventilate, with a spin from the left or the right, over every bit of gossip. And their corporate sponsors make these court jesters millionaires. We are entertained by these clowns as corporate predators ruthlessly strip us of our capacity to sustain a living, kill our ecosystem because of greed, gut civil liberties and turn us into serfs.
Any business owner who uses largely unpaid labor, with a handful of underpaid, nonunion employees, to build a company that is sold for a few hundred million dollars, no matter how he or she is introduced to you on the television screen, is not a liberal or a progressive. Those who take advantage of workers, whatever their outward ideological veneer, to make profits of that magnitude are charter members of the exploitative class. Dust off your Karl Marx. They are the enemies of working men and women. And they are also, in this case, sucking the life blood out of a trade I care deeply about. It was bad enough that Huffington used her site for flagrant self-promotion, although the cult of the self has reached such dizzying proportions in American society that such behavior is almost expected. But there is an even sadder irony that this was carried out in the name of journalism.
“Something is happening here,” Bob Dylan sang in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “but you don’t know what it is. Do you Mr. Jones?”
This latest form of “liberal” exploitation exposes yet again the liberal class for who they really are—opportunists whose operating methods are as callous as those employed in the textile mills in southern China. Is it any wonder that working men and women, who have been abandoned and betrayed by these self-identified liberals, hate the liberal class and its transparent hypocrisy? Is it any wonder that the some 40 million Americans who live in poverty are invisible to the wider culture? Is it any wonder that the tea party and all the lunatics on the fringe of our political spectrum put their cross hairs on the liberal class and its purported values? Let’s not forget the title of Huffington’s latest book: “Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream.”
Liberals like these deserve the rage they engender.
The argument made to defend this exploitation is that the writers had a choice. It is an argument I also heard made by the managers of sweatshops in the Dominican Republic and Mexico, the coal companies in West Virginia or Kentucky and huge poultry farms in Maine. It is the argument made by the comfortable, by those who do not know what it is to be hard up, desperate or driven by a passion to express one’s self and the world through journalism or art. It is the argument the wealthy elite, who have cemented in place an oligarchic system under which there are no real choices, use to justify their oppression.
Who would not want to be able to carry out his or her trade and make enough to pay the bills? What worker would decline the possibility of job protection, health care and a pension? Why do these people think tens of millions of Americans endure substandard employment?
If Huffington has a conscience she will sit down when the AOL check arrives and make sure every cent of it is paid out to those who worked free or at minimal wages for her over the last six years, starting with Mayhill Fowler, the blogger who broke the “clinging to guns and religion” story about Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign and spent two years writing and reporting without a salary. “She strung me along for two years while I repeatedly asked for funding for three projects, and then I quit,” Fowler told me from Oakland, Calif., as I spoke with her by phone. When Fowler, whom the site nominated twice for a Pulitzer, finally resigned last year in disgust, Mario Ruiz, the spokesperson for The Huffington Post, acidly told Yahoo News: “Mayhill Fowler says that she is ‘resigning’ from the Huffington Post. How do you resign from a job you never had?”
That comment says it all. It exposes the callousness of our oligarchic class and their belief that they have a right to use anyone who can contribute to the monuments they spend their lives erecting to themselves.
Chris Hedges is a fellow at The Nation Institute and a weekly Truthdig columnist. His newest book is “Death of the Liberal Class.”