For all the garlands being hung on Arianna Huffington following her sale of the Huffington Post to AOL for $315 million — "a first-rate entrepreneur, incubator of talent, and media visionary,” Slate’s normally dyspeptic press critic Jack Shafer gushed — the reaction to the deal on HuffPo itself has been anything but celebratory. Clogging up the comments section of Huffington’s article announcing what she calls “a merger of visions” are thousands of anguished cries of political betrayal. “We made HuffPost and we are being abandoned,” one lefty reader wails. “They will aim for the center. That’s where the money is.”
Of course, for anyone to feel betrayed by Arianna Huffington at this point is silly: The onetime Gingrich disciple has made a career out of serial reinvention; her latest transformation, from progressive doyenne to corporate contessa, is as predictable as it is lucrative. But what makes liberals’ reaction to Huffington’s supposed sellout even more ridiculous is the fact that the success of the Huffington Post had nothing to do with its politics. While the website may have started as “a liberal Drudge,” it has since become, in Shafer’s felicitous phrasing, an “SEO Speedwagon” — devoted to getting eyeballs any way it can, and specifically through search-engine baiting, aggressive aggregation that borders on theft, and slideshows of starlets that rival soft porn. This strategy has worked so well that, as Huffington herself notes, 85 percent of her site’s traffic now comes from nonpolitical content. (For once, she’s being sincere: No ideological cause drives a photomontage of “celebrity boob jobs.”)
But some dreams die harder than others, and the left’s dream of an avowedly liberal media powerhouse to rival what conservatives have in Fox News and talk radio remains as alive — and as unfulfilled — as ever. Back in 2004, when the Huffington Post was just a gleam in a rich divorcée’s eye, left-leaning investors launched Air America. The liberal talk-radio network not only failed to turn Al Franken into a liberal Limbaugh — making him a U.S. senator instead — but accomplished the neat tricks of making Janeane Garofalo unfunny and Chuck D uncool. When Air America went silent six years later, it had more debt than listeners. As with unhappy families, every failed liberal media powerhouse fails in its own way, but at the most basic level such failures boil down to the relative scrawniness of the potential market. Whereas 40 percent of voters label themselves conservative, only 20 percent self-identify as liberal. What’s more, while there are enough conservatives who are convinced the mainstream media is biased against them to sustain a going concern, there aren’t yet enough liberals who share the view of those lamenting the HuffPo-AOL deal and see a need for a news operation that, as an anti-Huffington manifesto on AdBusters puts it, is “different, independent, and leftist.”
There are, though, just enough of them to keep the pattern going. And so it was, two days after Huffington announced she was taking her talents to AOL, that Keith Olbermann, late of MSNBC (where ratings are already down), resurfaced with an announcement of his own. He would become the chief news officer and host a prime-time show for Al Gore’s Current TV. Although the network is currently a nonentity — coming in dead last in the most recent Nielsen’s, with an average of 18,000 prime-time viewers — Olbermann promised big things. “Nothing is more vital to America than a free media, and nothing is more vital to my concept of a free media than news that is produced independent of corporate interference,” he said, taking a shot at both his old employer and Huffington. Who knows: Maybe a retired vice-president and a peripatetic news anchor are what liberals need to realize their media dreams. But it’s more likely that the two will just be the latest to disappoint them.