Free Press and the Huffington Post

As some have noticed, a few pieces on this blogsite were originally published on the Huffington Post.  I started writing at HuffPo, in November of last year, because I wanted to occasionally write things that I felt were inappropriate for the Media Institute’s blogsite, and because I knew there were a few regulars there who, like me, were unhappy with the illiberalism of today’s “progressives.”

So it was that the first piece I wrote was a kind of introduction to all such called "The Orphan of the American Political System," in which I argued that it was a strange and unfortunate thing that liberals and libertarians were not allies.  (Because this piece had nothing to do with the media, and was overtly political, it wasn’t cross-posted, until now, on this website.)

Published in HuffPo’s “Politics” section, "Orphan" attracted a fair number of supporters and detractors — in other words pretty much what I expected, and all was well.  It wasn’t until I wrote blog number six, in February of this year, that the trouble began.

"The Intrinsic Menace in ‘Media Reform,’" published on Feb. 22, was a criticism of the “media reform” movement generally, and of the Knight Foundation, the FCC, and the group that calls itself Free Press specifically.  Among the subsequent commenters were Charles Firestone of the Aspen Institute, who challenged my characterization of the Knight Commission (a collaboration of Aspen and the Knight Foundation) and Timothy Karr of Free Press.

Karr’s comment was a classic.  In the finest tradition of political activists everywhere, Karr dealt not at all with the substantive points in my piece, but instead resorted to ad hominem attacks on me and The Media Institute, and faulted the editors of the Huffington Post for publishing it.

This last bit turned out to be a thing of some moment, about which more later, but Karr had more to say.  Lot’s more.  Just one day after the publication of "Intrinsic Menace," Karr wrote a piece for his own blog (Media Citizen) titled "When Corporate Shills Attack."  And three days after that he published, on the Huffington Post, a piece titled "Announcing the (Unofficial)Post Shill Watch," and cross-posted it the same day at Daily Kos.

The burden of both pieces, if that’s the word, was two-fold: HuffPo was allowing “corporate shills” (like me) to enter its progressive sanctum sanctorum, and it was not requiring said bloggers to state their organizations’ sources of support.

Had this been all that Karr said it wouldn’t have been an issue. Criticism by Free Press, after all, is considered by many, myself included, to be a thing of no importance, such is that organization’s tedious and transparent “mission.”  But it wasn’t all that he said.  In his Media Citizen blog, Karr also said that I personally had blocked publication of comments he had submitted to HuffPo — that in fact I had blocked his comments no less than five times.

And that was a lie.  Not only had I not done so, I wouldn’t have done for the simple reason that, as the head of one of the country’s leading First Amendment organizations, censorship is not my thing.

So this was unacceptable, and the only question was what to do about it.  After considering other approaches, I decided to ask HuffPo for their help.  As I put it in an e-mail to an associate editor there:

(Tim Karr) is saying on other sites that I have blocked him from commenting on my post at HuffPo.  He claims that he has been blocked five times.  I don’t know if he has in fact been blocked — he has a comment up there now, to which I responded — but I know, as you know, that I certainly didn’t block him.  Since, however, you are the only people who can prove my innocence of Karr’s charge, I hope you’ll find the time and a way to do so.

Thus began a frustrating exchange of notes that went on for eight days.  To my point that Karr had accused me of blocking his comments, the editor initially suggested that Karr was referring to someone else.  To Karr’s claim that I had blocked him five times, the editor suggested I write a piece for HuffPo with a link showing that one comment had been published.  And because Karr had published his accusation on his own blog (Media Citizen), well, there wasn’t much that HuffPo could do about that.

Finally, on March 5, I got a reply to a note I had sent the day before, in which I bluntly questioned why HuffPo was reluctant to tell Karr that I had not blocked his comments.  Much as I had expected, the editor’s note revealed that it was HuffPo itself that had blocked his comments, that they had done so because his comments were critical of HuffPo’s editors, and that Karr had been informed of this in a phone conversation.

I was relieved to hear this, and I thanked the editor and told him it was all I needed, but this affair left a bad taste in my mouth.  It would, after all, have been an easy thing for HuffPo to reveal Karr’s lie by commenting on his "Shill Watch" post on HuffPo itself, though of course that would have required that they publicly own up to blocking his comments themselves.

The bad taste got worse less than a month later when, on March 31, HuffPo announced “new blogging guidelines.”  As described on their website:

In an effort to be as transparent with our readers as possible, we require HuffPost bloggers to disclose any financial conflicts of interest related to the issue they are writing about.  If a blogger receives payment or income from a company, organization, group, or individual with a financial stake in the issue he/she is weighing in on, that information must be disclosed at the bottom of the applicable blog post.

For those who have opened the hyperlinks provided above, these words will sound familiar.  In fact, they sound exactly like what Karr was demanding. As he wrote in his Media Citizen blog:

I respect Huffington Post for building a home for many of us who seek an alternative to the mainstream mouthpieces that dominate news and commentary.  But they do not, unfortunately, require the kind of disclaimer I’d like to see regarding a new crop of contributors who are using the site to push corporate agendas.  I’m hoping that will change soon.  (Emphasis added.)  

Apart from the appearance of an inordinate amount of influence that Free Press has at the Huffington Post, there are many things wrong with this guideline, the most obvious being the way it lumps together people who work for organizations as diverse as law firms, corporations, PR firms, and nonprofit organizations, and implies moreover that bloggers’ opinions amount to “conflicts of interest” wherever they derive any income from entities that have a “financial interest” in the subject being blogged.  It also has the (deliberate?) effect of letting people whose contributors have an “ideological interest,” like Karr and the Free Press funders, off the disclaimer hook altogether.

If, as appears to be the case, HuffPo’s new disclaimer guidelines are a consequence, in whole or in part, of lobbying by Free Press, about whose funding we know next to nothing, the irony is almost too rich for human consumption.

But for the Huffington Post, this is not the worst of it.  Despite its left-leaning editorial slant, one can see in HuffPo the potential for dialogue.  It’s inherent in the openness of the site itself, and it’s implied by Arianna Huffington’s history and in her published views.  But at Free Press dialogue and debate are treated as bourgeois concepts, best abused or neglected, and if the Huffington Post allows them to influence their editorial policies they stand to lose not just a diverse readership but their credibility as well.