Why Is Chris Hedges A Lone Voice In Criticizing Huffington Post’s Business Model?

by on Tuesday, February 22, 2011 at 11:37 am in Politics, Writing

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.



  • | 625#
    Feb 22nd, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    I have voiced my objection there numerous times that those of us who are a big part in creating the attention to the site by blogging did not get a check in the mail. They would not post those comments. She kept the profits for herself. I would go in a heartbeat. Have been there commenting since 2007, reading, but did not participate longer than that. Chris Hedges, I will join you at your new site.

  • Feb 22nd, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Just so. Arianna Huffington has ALWAYS been a conservative, not a progressive, until recently married to a rich gay oil man. Her kids turned her onto “blogs” and she quickly sensed how to either make money or, at the very least, shamelessly self-promote herself. I had built up a hard-won 260 followers on Huffpost. But at least most of my comments were admitted. At first. Once upon a time HP was a forum where intelligent people could express their opinions. But in the runup to the AOL deal, the censorship got worse and worse. In the early days 1 out of 10 of my posts were censored. By the time of the AOL announcement 1 out of 2 were being censored. I LOUDLY complained. Their offer to me was “exposure”. I told them exposure and two bucks will buy you a coke. When I told them I wanted some of the $350 million AOL payout, I got banned from making any more comments ever again. They’re capitalist creeps. I told Arianna to watch Citizen Kane again, to see how “working people’s heroes” morph into corporate vampires. This article is spot on. Arianna simply invented a new way to exploit unemployed people and get herself on Sunday TV.

  • | 628#
    Feb 22nd, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    Excellent piece…The Huffpo is full of fluff, and I really hate the pseudo science they post…I think Arianna loves the attention and TV time she gets. Chris Hedges is a rare voice, and is spot on.

    • | 631#
      Feb 22nd, 2011 at 2:28 pm

      I really hate the pseudo science they post

      HuffPo has indeed featured e.g. anti-vaccine autism “advocates” like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey time and again–just as if at the behest of Arianna Huffington herself. The site has also done its bit in the asinine religion/science equivalence biz, which encroaches so very often on what was more helpfully called “New Age” nonsense (and, yes – Deepak Chopra is a long-standing contributor to the site, to boot).

      Most troubling: a number of radical right-wingers have been granted their column space @HuffPo to let loose with propaganda (in the interest, presumably, of editorial fair play or communitarianism or something); and their dreck has been protected assiduously by the moderators, who’re obviously loathe to let hard questions through.

      Recently, for instance, AEI’s own wingnut welfare queen Ayaan Hirsi Ali had her say on HuffPo re Egypt, where she stated at length exactly what Glenn Beck draws on his chalkboard. My own pointed questions at her strange red-baiting/Muslim Brotherhood scaremongering were rejected by the moderators; but I can’t have been the only one, because the few remarks approved were all laudatory! The AOL sale was at that time in the making–so I guess the goal of forging an online CNN (where wingnuts and their lies are so welcome) was met…

  • | 629#
    Marc Hammond
    Feb 22nd, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    We have gone so far right that HuffPo looks progressive. I suppose that’s why its tabloid qualities (misleading headlines; celebrity gossip; shoddy reportage) have not met much criticism. But I think Chris Hedges gets at HuffPo’s even deeper problem.

  • | 633#
    dave dykhouse
    Feb 22nd, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    i have recently been reading chris hedges’ canon after being introduced to him on book-tv. his bona fides seem impeccable, his writing impassioned and his points generally well played. i have also ff.ed the Puffington Host (as christopher hitchens has it) with increasing alarm and disappointment. lately, it has turned into an electronic equivalent of a rupert murdochian tabloid rag. how long will it be until our journalists are totally anonymous and writing only for the thrill of seeing their name flashing in electrons? who has a consistent viewpoint, let alone a voice, when you’re writing only what you know that the owners want to see?

    the first to go were the editors – now the writers are expendable. maybe the ultimate coup will be when the entire journalistic effort is farmed out to mechanical turks for pennies a piece.

  • Feb 23rd, 2011 at 1:50 am

    I take a different view – I think Hedges went overboard. I’m an editor at OpEd News, a smaller site but with a similar model of offering exposure and “front page” or “headline” status in exchange for article contributions.

    Something you don’t mention here is that new-media bloggers can have their cake and eat it too. A lot of HuffPo bloggers already have their own sites and simply cross-post their work to HP to gain a wider audience. It’s no real sacrifice at all to offer your articles to HP non-exclusively if they are on your own site anyway.

    I think the worst Arianna did was not involve her author/commenter/reader community in the decision making process. It follows that she values their contributions and expects them to continue on, so what changes?

    Arianna is chief editor so content wise, she’ll surely be doing what worked before – letting the authors write what they want. She censored kooks and spammers before, what will change.

    Tell me how a volunteer author loses here – there is still no pay but 15 times more eyeballs. Is it really burning them up that Arianna is pocketing some loot? She was already rich!

    This brings up the difference between Arianna the business person and Chris Hedges the principled journalist. They have two different aims – Arianna seems to want to grow in size and capture market share while Hedges wants to demonstrate strong progressive values and principled stands. Well, both can do their bit. AOL seems to want to create a better brand, with desire for revenue and profits behind it all, but they needed a living, breathing personality and they have it now.

    Arianna seems more about looking for political clout, and building the place people come to read and discuss issues. If she is looking towards 2012, she probably sees that there is an incredible opportunity to be the place for political debate while AOL is counting the advertising dollars coming in a post-Citizens United world.

    Many don’t realize all the political talk on HP adds up to is about 15% of their overall traffic. But the HuffPo continues to drive some of the most hard hitting political questions in the US, way out in from of the TV networks in reporting on Bush war crimes for example. More here:


    • | 638#
      Feb 23rd, 2011 at 2:11 pm

      Thank you for offering a counter-opinion on this topic.

      There are definitely two legitimate sides to this debate, and it’s important to hear both.

      I can fully appreciate your point on the scenario where some bloggers are merely cross-posting at other sites (to leverage their visibility). That is something I’ve done many times, and I never expected payment.

      But as a writer, should you expect some monetary payment (even if mostly symbolic) when a deep-pocketed corporation who generates tens of millions of dollars wants to publish your work?

      Many of those writers who were published (top placement) at Huffington Post were not cross-publishing. They were writing exclusively for Huffington Post.

      I believe that the heart of this debate goes to the devaluation of the writing profession. This business model is one based upon bartering exposure (in lieu of payment) for content that ultimately is intended to draw readers and advertisers (profits) for media corporations.

      That’s a blueprint that — if embraced by every major publisher — will ultimately result in very wealthy publishers, deriving profits off the backs of poor starving writers.

      Granted those writers may garner some name-recognition under this model, but if their trade (writing) has become so devalued as a result of it, then they probably won’t be able to support themselves. That is, unless they also exhibit talents which might allow them to spin their name recognition into jobs as televised political pundits.

      But having said all this, I did acknowledge the fact that most political blogs (outside of Huffington Post) haven’t, to my knowledge, generated obscene wealth using this model. Most are asking readers for donations, and TRULY can’t afford to pay contributors. Many are non-profit.

      Perhaps it will boil down to writers unionizing, and as a result publishers providing less content than they currently do.

      If that were the model now, Huffington Post would have been compensating each of their writers, and as a result the company (by not being able to offer as much content as it currently does) would not have generated the income it did, and would not have been valued at $315 million dollars.

      In other words, when all workers/contributors get paid, the wealthy company owners ultimately derive less profit and appreciation in their businesses — the heart of this debate.

      Either way, it’s a discussion that I hope will continue until a more just and equitable model presents itself.

    • | 639#
      Feb 23rd, 2011 at 2:13 pm

      I forgot to mention that the link you provided is not working.

    • Feb 24th, 2011 at 11:32 pm

      This is comment all over the place. Huffpost did have more variety of articles, because it invited unpaid bloggers with brains and hearts and didn’t censor them — at first. It started out censoring 1 out of 10 of my pieces and ended up censoring 1 out of 2. I don’t have TIME to write pieces that they censor! Its business model was built on free help. And given that, it owed something to that free help — especially when it cashed out for $300 million — it owed them part of that. A volunteer author loses by spending hours and hours on an article, and then having them ignore it, that’s how we lose! Arianna is not looking for political clout; she is looking for political celebrity. She always was the most shameless self-promoter in America. First she used her husband’s money, then she used our free labor. No, we need an honest blog that is not infected with celebrity gossip and women’s magazine stories. HuffPost is not growing, it’s dying. Good riddance.

  • | 640#
    Feb 23rd, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    Here is a new article by Rober Scheer / TruthDig offering an opposing viewpoint: Betting on Arianna

  • Feb 24th, 2011 at 11:14 am

    Thank you for sharing this on Truthdig. I hope you don’t mind that I shared it on my sites. I really appreciate the spirit of your articles, an antidote to internet wisecracks, masquerading as the norm of civil discourse.
    Best regards

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