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The Politics of the New Huffington Post at AOL

Is ideological innovation possible in online journalism, and will we see it from this merger? No one ever thinks to ask that. Without understanding why, we just assume the answer is no.
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The top five questions journalists have about Monday's announcement that AOL will purchase The Huffington Post and Arianna Huffington will become the editor-in-chief of all AOL properties:

1. Will it work? (Howard Kurtz: "Can a fast-moving, irreverent, and sometimes racy product keep its DNA once transplanted into a very different corporate culture?")

2. Did AOL overpay? (Yes, they did. No, they made a smart bet.)

3. Will Huffington Post start paying its bloggers? (They should. Picture a slaveship.)

4. Can you imagine Arianna trying to boss around Mike Arrington?

5. Will AOL now lean left? (Ken Doctor, for example.)

My top question: Is ideological innovation possible in online journalism, and will we see it from this merger?

Well, is it?

No one ever thinks to ask that. Without understanding why, we just assume the answer is no. So the ideological possibilities for the new AOL narrow down to three: lean left... don't lean left or right... lean left but say you're not because it sounds better for a big company. Thus: Will AOL now lean left? (The Wrap, Feb. 7.) Arianna Huffington Will Not Make AOL a Leftie Blog. (The Wrap, Feb 8.)

Jeffrey Brown of the Newshour on PBS put it this way when he interviewed Huffington and Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL: "Does AOL risk something to its brand by partnering with Huffington Post, given its reputation as a liberal, left commentary site?" Armstrong said The Huffington Post is a lot more than that; it's a general news, information and entertainment site. But Huffington said she wanted to transcend the assumptions in Brown's question:

It's time for all of us in journalism to move beyond left and right. Truly, it is an obsolete way of looking at the problems America is facing.

What's happening to the middle class, what's happening in our foreign policy in Afghanistan are not easily divided into left-right positions. People have different positions across the political spectrum. All voices have been welcome at The Huffington Post. People ranging from Newt Gingrich to David Frum and Joe Scarborough and Tony Blankley have been blogging on The Huffington Post.

Here's the question (and the answer) again, this time posed by Kathleen Parker on CNN's Parker Spitzer:

PARKER: The Huffington Post is known as a liberal web site and I think it has been spoken of as having been created as sort of an antidote or sort of the liberal version of the Drudge Report as a way of giving voice for people who have a different political view. How do you see it merging with AOL? To me it seems like yet another sign that journalism is no longer going to be occupied that neutralism, but it will have more of a political partisan bent. Do you see that happening?

HUFFINGTON: Not at all. Actually one of the most exciting things for me about this deal is what I have been repeating endlessly over the last two, three years, about the need for journalism to move beyond a left and right space.

I actually now have a bigger platform to get the message through because I think it's really debilitating in terms of our conversation. Look at your positions, look at the number of people who -- whether it's Pat Buchanan or Joe Scarborough, or Richard Haass or George Will who oppose the war in Afghanistan -- and yet journalists keep referring to that position as left wing.

We know many card-carrying capitalists who sleep with copies of Ayn Rand books under their pillows who think the way we bailed out Wall Street is not good capitalism. Are they left wing? So we need to drop these obsolete definitions.

Armstrong and Huffington have three answers, then, to "Will AOL lean left?" First, HuffPost is a lot more than politics; it's a general news site. (That's true: 26 sections including entertainment, books, college life and, the most original, divorce.) Second, HuffPost has a mix of voices: Joe Scarborough, David Frum! Third: we need to get beyond left and right as autofill categories. They don't work any more.

I understand why she's doing it, but I don't think the "beyond left and right" construct is breaking through the unofficial prohibition we have on ideological innovation in journalism. It sounds bland and safe, like a call for "common ground" (which is how Kathleen Parker heard it) or the dubious campaign that goes by the name No Labels. ("Not Left. Not Right. Forward.") She needs something better.

My suggestion: The new AOL should announce that its dropping the View From Nowhere. When Arianna is asked the "lean left" question, she should say that we're not going to impose an artificial neutrality on our editors and their sites, and viewlessness won't be mandatory for writers and contributors because it's not the best way to generate trust. But there won't be a party line or a single dominant perspective, either. That wouldn't work for AOL or the expanded Huffington Post Media Group. What will work is pluralism, transparency and the View from Somewhere. And there are certain things that are non-negotiable.

Here is the rest of what would she would say if AOL and Arianna decided that ideological innovation was part of their plan, as I think it should be...

Pluralism: Many voices, coming from many perspectives, and reflecting many different starting points, rooting interests and life experiences. This is as important to a parenting or technology site as it is in covering politics. Instead of "balance" between two fixed poles or an "above it all" stance that often feels like indifference, editors will be responsible for mixing it up more as they cover the news, air the issues and engage their users. Not only in opinion sections but in news coverage itself, a plurality of starting points and strong points of view are assets. Cookie-cutter coverage and pack journalism are low value added. And the way to avoid bias is to multiply the range of perspectives that can be found in news, commentary and analysis, not to pick one or pretend that journalists have no views.

Transparency: All our contributors and the journalists we employ will have a page that links to their byline and tells the user where they're coming from, not just politically -- though that is one option -- but in a variety of ways that are specifically relevant to the work they are doing. We've already begun this with the editors at Patch. They post a bio, a little about their politics and religious beliefs, and they also describe what they see as the major issues in the towns they cover. Our plan is to innovate in the area of disclosure so that these transparency pages get better and better at revealing what an informed user of our coverage would want to know about the people who produce that coverage.

The View from Somewhere:
All our sites and the sections of big sites like The Huffington Post will start to identify on an About page where their coverage is coming from. In a statement written by the editor, or a video that accomplishes the same thing, each site will identify its topical niche, as well as the perspective the editor brings to the table and the priorities that a user can expect to see reflected in day-to-day coverage: the most important issues, themes, conflicts, ongoing stories and running debates, as well as what won't be covered. Just as individuals have to be transparent, so will our editorial properties.

Non-negotiables. Accuracy in reporting. Fairness in portraying public controversy. Up-to-date information. No undue influence by advertisers or sponsors. Mutltiple portals for users to interact with and influence our coverage. And a fact-checking form on every piece of content.

Crossposted from PressThink.

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