Chris Hedges, Huffington, and the Taste of Truth

Chris Hedges, Huffington, and the Taste of Truth
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In his current blog in TruthDig, Chris Hedges comments on the Huffington Post's recent purchase by AOL, critiquing Huffington for pioneering the new internet business practice of not paying writers. The job of the journalist, as Hedges points out, is at risk now. In addition to our three-branch government, the free press is the fourth protector of integrity and freedom.

Hedges leads his account with concerns over the plight of two bloggers he met recently, one starting out, the other seasoned, exemplars of those undermined by this practice. One blogger was from the Huffington Post. As I read his blog, I realized he was referring to me.

"These men and women love the trade. They want to make a difference," Hedges writes. "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."

An AlterPolitics blog agrees that this model, which is now being adopted elsewhere, "devalues writing as a paid profession. According to this business model, writers at every established publication should be grateful to write for free."

First let me say that I don't consider Hedges' comments negative, or mistaken. From my perspective, he is one of journalism's authentic truth-tellers. As a health journalist, I view truth as medicine. Often, it tastes bitter. That is part of its healing effect.

The previous week, I'd shared on Facebook my delight in meeting Chris Hedges at the event he describes in his blog, so when his post hit, my friends immediately began to ask questions. Some were shocked to learn that along with most other HP bloggers, I am not paid. Others criticized Huffington. Some suggested that the quiescent demotion of writers and journalists is too close for comfort with union-busting in Wisconsin-- even if others are waiting in line, desperate to take their places.

So let me be clear that I've made a conscious choice to blog pro-bono in order to serve what I care about and have dedicated two decades of my career to: Health, the environment, food, the media, and activism. I've been grateful for the opportunity to do it. But is my contribution to awareness and change sustainable long-term? I am as concerned about that as anyone would be.

I agree with Robert Scheer, the Truthdig editor who blogs today about Huffington 's role. People value Huffington and rightly so, in my opinion, because it emerged at the time when the press had failed, been overtaken by commercial goals, and was servilely playing tag-along to the Bush government, and the Iraq war. Without our truth-tellers, including Arianna, Chris Hedges, Naomi Klein, Jon Stewart, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Eric Alterman, Chris Hayes, Barbara Ehrenreich, and others, here and elsewhere, like Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil, Dean Ornish, Mark Hyman, Gary Null, John Robbins, Larry Dossey, Russell Bishop, Josh Fox, Cara Barker, Judith Acosta, David Kirby, Tom Phillpott, Dana Ullman, Kim Stagliano, and Joe Mercola, we'd be in even worse trouble. Moreover, the Huffington Post, like Facebook, creates a container for a mass public dialogue, that I consider invaluable. We need this conversation, and all the other ones we share.

So far, Huffington has fallen short in replacing the defaulting media with a model that is sufficiently robust to support people like me in doing their job. It's much more perilous for each journalist to cobble together their own economic grounding on a case by case basis than to receive steady support from a new economic model comparable to, but different from, those of the past (newspapers in every town, television with local and international bureaus, and an emphasis on solid reporting, not news and entertainment hybrids.)

The hope is that Arianna will pioneer a new economic model that supports journalists, and thereby the free press. If anyone can, she can.

My beat is a clear example of why that is vital. I've been in the mainstream media for thirty years, and for twenty, covered the health beat, with the wide range of areas that affect health, such as food, the environment, health care, health science and research, activism, media and marketing of health, treatments, public policy, regulation, and legislation, and the health, drug, food, agricultural, and energy industries.

Facing up to and addressing our nationwide health decline requires more than health tips, or medical knowledge. It requires ongoing investigation of the systemic factors affecting personal health (which I explore in my upcoming book, What Ails Thee? The Forces Driving America's Health Decline) Considering the industries exposed in such reportage, without certainty of income, or the backing of a strong editorial organization to manage pushback, what fortitude is asked of a reporter? The faith of Mother Teresa? Really? My response to that is: You first. Guts? Yes! Martyrdom? No!

Since the end result is that most such stories don't get reported, in the new HP/AOL buildout, I hope that Arianna will promote in-depth health coverage by honoring the distinction between prescriptive health advice offered by practitioners (popular though that is), and coverage that raises and tracks significant health and environmental issues, and that inspires social activism across the diverse range of issues affecting health, food, and the environment.

Yes, this is my beat. But this beat also exemplifies the need for paid journalists on many fronts. For example, if high earning practitioners can better afford to blog for free than journalists, health advice will predominate, counseling people to tend to themselves first, and refrain from outer action. This deprives democracy of a huge potential resource-- millions of health-literate citizens, informed by journalists, and better motivated to promote the protection of health, food, and the environment as shared social goals. That's a Green Tea Party that could make a huge difference, and also a clear example of how this business model, perhaps unintentionally, undermines the values for which Huffington is known.

When it comes to the health of our society, how do we recognize true medicine?

By taste. Powerful medicine sometimes tastes bitter. Like the truth, at first, it may be hard to swallow. But its aftertaste is sweet. And it restores health.

Although Chris Hedges and I never spoke about Huffington, he speaks for all journalists when he writes:

"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..."

Journalists have "the talents that... keep (society) healthy and humane."

I sincerely hope that "those who deal with the bedrock virtues of truth, justice and beauty, who seek not to entertain but to transform," as Hedges says, be restored to their appropriate place in the new economic media model, rather than left clinging to the outside of the bus, like the poor workers I saw travelling on dusty roads in India.

For Huffington (and other on-line media) to drive the social change core to Huffington's mission, truth-tellers are to be trusted, and journalists, seasoned and green, welcomed inside, paid, and allowed to advise on navigation. Otherwise, it may be a fun ride, but the bus won't be going in the right direction.

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