Arianna Huffington was riding high. She concluded a deal that turned the popular lefty website namesake into a $315-million property. As part of the sale, she went from Internet doyenne to head of the merged AOL-Huffington Post news operation. She didn't even admit she had cashed in on her politics, instead claiming her site goes "beyond left and right." It all sounds almost Republican-especially for someone who used to be a right wing talking head until she saw the light.
But things soon turned uglier than a Sunday show battle for mic time. Angry and unpaid Huffington Post bloggers complained about her $100-million payday, demanding a piece of the action. They've escalated that into a strike that involves the newspaper union and, in their latest move, they've even sued her leftiness.
Rather than celebrate the "progressive force" of Huffington Post seizing power at AOL like some Cyber Che, lefties feared that Arianna cared more for her pocketbook than Mao's "Little Red Book." They worried about her latest switch would be from liberal icon to neutral newsy, a more extinct creature than the Dodo. Her sudden wealth only added to their suspicions.
That was just the beginning. Huffington, who excels at manufactured media manipulation, has gotten herself into a snark fest with the reigning liberal outlet in either the print or the online universe. After hiring away a few better known New York Times staffers for "dream job(s)," Huffington was primed for a fight over her own business practices. The Gray Lady was determined to make its upstart opponent black and blue by targeting the "queen of aggregation," the practice of gaining traffic by linking to the work of others.
Times Executive Editor Bill Keller slammed her in either a fit of pique or a hissy fit. According to Keller, "Arianna Huffington, who has discovered that if you take celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications, array them on your website and add a left-wing soundtrack, millions of people will come. How great is Huffington's instinctive genius for aggregation?"
It doesn't take Freud to figure out Keller is upset over losing staff to a lowly website. When a Times editor mentions something as déclassé as Hooters, you know he's mad. (Although the chain has five New York locations, I'd bet Keller never stopped by for as much as a hoot.) "I can't decide whether serious journalism is the kind of thing that lures an audience to a site like The Huffington Post, or if that's like hiring a top chef to fancy up the menu at Hooters. But if serious journalism is about to enjoy a renaissance, I can only rejoice. Gee, maybe we can even get people to pay for it," he wrote.
Keller violated one of the standard rules of journalism - never get in a fight with someone who buys ink by the gallon. In Huffington's case, web ink is even cheaper, so she happily responded. First she touted her site's readership, noting "when combined, The Huffington Post and AOL News have over 70 percent more unique visitors than the New York Times, and that HuffPost/AOL News' combined page views in January 2011 were double the page views of the Times (1.5 billion vs. 750 million)."
Then she went for the jugular, mocking Keller's claim someone had optioned his life for a movie, criticizing his attacks on aggregation and saying he was "patting himself on the back so hard I'd be surprised if he didn't crack a rib."
Lefty pollster and Times blogger Nate Silver was the next to chime in. He wrote a March 24 piece arguing that traditional news outlets "account for a very large share of the English-language reporting." In his calculus, the Times ranked No. 2 behind the AP for organizations "cited most frequently." In a separate link, readers could find HuffPo No. 2 among websites, but just No. 37 overall.
Then Keller wrote another op-ed, responding to comments by former Times staffer Peter Goodman. Goodman, of course, now works for Arianna, a fact Keller didn't even mention. Mostly, Keller went on to complain about "partisan news sites," pretend the Times isn't actually liberal and that it aspires to impartial journalism.
That bit of propaganda must have been too much even for fellow traveler Arianna. Huffington took aim at the new pay wall strategy of the Times that attempts to charge for content and she did it with an April Fool's practical joke.
On April 1, Times staffers were greeted with a Huffington Post pay wall all their own. In a short note from Huffington herself, they encountered this humorous claim: "Times employees can view the first 6 letters of each word at no charge (including slideshows of adorable kittens). After 6 letters, we will ask you to become a digital subscriber." In about 100 words, HuffPo delivered more humor than Times readers had seen in a lifetime from the super serious paper.
Arianna's supporters might say living well is the best revenge. Huffington Post web traffic took a huge jump in March. Admittedly, it was also a big news month, or maybe it HuffPo outdid itself with kitten photos.
But conservatives shouldn't rest easy. When Huffington Post and The New York Times aren't sniping at one another, they spend much of their efforts attacking the right. Between them, they represent the second most influential offline and online information sources and conservatives have nothing that comes even close. Lefties might rip into each other on occasion, but they sharpen their claws on conservatives every single day.
Dan Gainor is the Boone Pickens Fellow and the Media Research Center's Vice President for Business and Culture. His column appears each week on The Fox Forum. He can also be contacted on FaceBook and Twitter as dangainor.