Jun 24, 2011
Chris Hedges’ new TruthDig column, Huffington’s Plunder, raises a topic that seems to provoke a lot of uneasiness in the liberal blogosphere. It points a spotlight on the business model pioneered by one of the country’s most prominent progressive voices, Arianna Huffington.
Huffington recently released a book entitled “Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream”. In it she argues that our trade and economic policies have focused on corporate profits at the expense of the American worker. She posted at the Huffington Post her reasons for writing the book. Here, she describes a rigged system:
it’s become a bad carnival game where the rich always get the grand prize and the average American walks away empty-handed.
Hedges criticizes Huffington for engaging in the exact same business practices that she publicly denounces:
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.
The gist of the argument offered by those who defend the Huffington Post business model is that all the writers who contributed chose to write for free. No one forced them. They agreed, because they viewed it as an opportunity to expand their visibility as writers. This is true, and I doubt anyone would debate this point.
But Hedges responds that this line of argument is used by every company that exploits its workers:
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?
It is rather difficult to square away what is arguably the central tenet of progressive idealism — workers’ rights should not be sacrificed in the name of corporate profits — with Huffington Post’s business model.
Why is this an important discussion for those on the Left to be having? Because this issue is far bigger than the Huffington Post.
As newspapers and magazines continue to transition their core operations from paper to online content, they too will follow this business model. To fatten profits, they too will begin to rename traditionally paid positions like ‘journalist’, ‘columnist’ and ‘reporter’ to job titles such as ‘citizen journalist‘, ‘blogger’, and ‘fan blogger’.
It’s a crafty slight-of-hand, where these new titles give the impression they’re not ‘real’ employees, even though they are in fact doing work that has traditionally been performed by paid workers.
Think this won’t happen? Think again. The Washington Post took a test drive on the Huffington Post business model as early as last August, with its unpaid ‘Fan Blogger’ program. Writers were asked to submit writing samples to be ‘hired’ by the Washington Post to cover each of the major Washington, DC sports teams (I wrote about it HERE).
So why isn’t anyone on the Left (outside of Chris Hedges and a few others) willing to discuss the fact that a supposed ‘champion for the American worker’ is reportedly netting $20-30 million dollars as her personal take from the AOL acquisition, off the backs of non-paid writers? The liberal blogosphere is a group hellbent on formulating candid opinions on just about anything and everything, but instead of hearing outrage, you hear … (listen closely) … crickets.
Here is why, I believe, the liberal blogosphere has chosen to shy away from this topic:
The grim reality of the political blogosphere is that it is something of a loosely-knit, homegrown, media environment where little if any money ever gets made. Well-trafficked bloggers tend to ask their readers for donations each holiday (sometimes every quarter) to help cover the hosting and maintenance of their sites, as well as for living expenses. Larger sites ask for donations to help pay staff writers. For this very reason, many blog site owners would feel a bit hypocritical jumping on Huffington for not paying her contributors when they truly cannot afford to pay their own.
Another reason is political in nature. Huffington Post is a liberal powerhouse, and it is true: many of us who blog would be honored to have our work appear there — paid or unpaid — just for the massive exposure it would offer us. Few want to risk jeopardizing this kind of opportunity, by criticizing such a highly-trafficked blogging institution.
But consider the irony of that logic. It could be said, that that’s what the blogosphere was supposed to be all about: pursuing truth wherever it might take you, and regardless of whom it might embarrass. The blogosphere was a reaction to what the main stream media wasn’t providing: honest journalism.
If bloggers refrain from criticizing the top power players within their own political network for fear of losing opportunities which they otherwise might have provided them, then how can they criticize the main stream media for not asking the tough questions of the political establishment for fear of losing access?
I sense there’s also a sentimental reason why the Left won’t discuss the Huffington Post business model. After the editorial pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times shifted to the hard-right during the Bush years, the left-leaning Huffington Post filled that void for many. And unlike those papers, the Huffington Post felt more communal, less corporate.
Most bloggers visit and read the Huffington Post daily, and so they don’t want to believe its business practices actually contradict the very progressive ideals they hold dear. It would be like shopping for organic, fair-trade products at your local co-op to then discover their produce was purchased from farmers whom they knew exploited undocumented workers. In some ways, progressives are in denial.
The Left has long celebrated Huffington Post’s success. Sam Stein (who writes for the Huffington Post) became the first blogger in history to ask a question at a Presidential news conference. Each success by the Huffington Post has been viewed by many progressive bloggers as a giant leap for the entire blogosphere.
I share a great deal of this sentimentality.
But the moment the Huffington Post accepted $315 million to get swallowed by AOL it went from being a fledgling, progressively-communal, news-editorial site to a deep-pocketed corporate entity (whose priority has now shifted to fattening profits). So the good will that had been granted to them before — no money, so we can’t afford to pay anyone — has suddenly become a major issue, as it very well should be.
I do hope that Huffington spreads some of her newfound fortune to those unpaid writers whose work helped to make Huffington Post what it is today.
And for the aspiring writers out there who choose to remain silent on this, just remember that when all the other publishers follow her lead, and the few paying writer jobs that are still available also vanish.
Because the Huffington Post business model actually devalues writing as a paid profession. According to this business model, writers at every established publication should be grateful to write for free, because their writings are being granted exposure to many readers (and so that in itself should constitute payment). Never mind the fact Huffington is actually luring all those readers (and advertisers), because of that very content she didn’t have to pay for.
And when you really think about it, you can extend this sort of rationale to just about any professional field. Hair stylists who want to work at popular trendy establishments should probably also be expected to work for free, because working there helps to introduce them to a client-base they otherwise might not have had access to. Film studios probably shouldn’t ever have to pay employees, because there are many independently wealthy people out there who would be willing to work without pay, just to hob-knob with celebrities.
It’s a rationale that always leads to the same outcome. Again, to quote Arianna Huffington: “the rich always get the grand prize, and the average American walks away empty-handed.”
Alison Rose Levy, a Health Journalist who writes for the Huffington Post, just wrote a powerful article on this topic which I highly recommend.
UPDATE 2 (Feb. 28, 2011):
Raw Story is reporting that the Newspaper Guild, ArtScene and Visual Art Source are now ramping up the pressure on Arianna Huffington to pay her writers and to modify her ‘unethical’ business model.