In this week's New York Times Magazine, the publication continues its unsubtle attempt to turn Arianna Huffington into the nefarious enemy of traditional journalism. Times executive editor Bill Keller has written two columns that were directly or indirectly about the Huffington Post, and now, the Times Magazine has managed to lure Huffington herself into participating in its campaign. Back in early March, she sat down with "Questions" interviewer Andrew Goldman. This was just a few days before Keller launched his first salvo her way, in a column that attacked aggregation websites and Arianna as their "queen." (It's hard to say whether Keller would have started work on the column before Huffington sat down with Goldman, but it's clear from Goldman's questions the two Times men had a lot of the same things on their minds.) This incited a flurry of web sniping, including some from Arianna herself. But she agreed to talk to Goldman again after Keller's column ran — what, after all, does she have to lose?
Then, in Keller's most recent column, he went to great lengths to extol Times journalism: what he described as slow, patient, rigorously reported stories that you can't just find anywhere else. Left unsaid but certainly not unheard was a comparison to the Huffington Post's speedy, splashy, kitten-video-loving ways. The whole thing seemed like an attempt to guilt-trip readers into paying for the Times website, which launched its subscription pay wall the very next day. That's fine, and understandable, even. But Keller was also setting up a convenient foil in Huffington: Not only does she represent a different style of news gathering, she represents a potentially dangerous one.
And now we have this Q&A with Huffington not one week later. The "Questions" column is by nature one of the most-edited features in the magazine. It takes long interviews and makes them very short and punchy. Even under Goldman's predecessor, Deborah Solomon, the column was notable for including sometimes testy or inflammatory exchanges. The interview with Huffington does not disappoint. Witness:
I looked at The Huffington Post a great deal during the election. It felt like the Internet version of Keith Olbermann’s show, and if that’s not lefty ... Why don’t you be more specific? What were the messages that you considered lefty?
It’s as if you’re trying to tell me that Smurfs aren’t blue.I’m just telling you that it is very clear that we have progressive views, but to call everything we’re doing lefty — it misses the whole point that American policy needs to be redefined beyond left and right. It’s a completely obsolete view of politics.
Still, I’m amazed you’re trying to tell me that The Huffington Post wasn’t started as a lefty blog? I’m not trying to tell you anything. I’m telling you things. I’m not trying, O.K.?
Look, I've interviewed Arianna, and she's definitely inadvertently hilarious and sometimes willfully unself-aware. But she's not an asshole. She's actually a very bright and adept interview subject. She wouldn't be where she is today if she weren't capable of charm, and of handling a simple Q&A. After all the attacks on her from the Times Magazine, editing the piece this way just seems a little cheap. Yes, it's fun to read, of course. But there's literally no new information in it, despite the provocative nature of Goldman's probes. Of twelve printed questions, three (a quarter!) are about Bill Keller himself and whether or not she's mad at him.
The end result is that Arianna looks like a jerk, and all of Keller's points are made once again through Goldman's queries. I suppose to the paper's credit, by publishing the Q&A they did give Arianna a chance to respond to the one-sided attacks they'd been making for a few weeks. But doing it in such a contentious way, which seems designed to make her seem defensive and witchy, just further serves to demonize her.
To be fair, it's not like the Times is the only party acting a little childishly here. Arianna herself pulled a semi-humorous (but mostly just scathing) April Fools' prank today by fake-announcing a pay wall of her own — only for New York Times employees. "Slideshows and videos of adorable kittens (our signature offering) will be available for free only to one very senior New York Times employee," she wrote in a blog post. "And, of course, stories that aggregate falsehoods to support an administration's efforts to take the country into a disastrous, decade-long war based on lies will always remain free." It's a cheap swipe, but it also makes an inadvertent point: This kind of shenanigan feels more at home at the personality-driven HuffPo. The Times should be above it.
The Times wants people to pay for its website, and it can be useful to have an enemy to play against in order to raise the stakes. So the Times is turning Arianna Huffington into a straw man, using a caricature of her standards to better frame their own. But will this strategy really sell subscriptions? I doubt it. Keller and the Times team should leave this strategy to the guy who does it best — Rupert Murdoch.