If you don’t know it by now, war has broken out__between New York Times executive editor Bill Keller and Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post web site.
In Sunday’s NY Times Magazine, Keller attacks “the American Idol-ization” of news and those who “aggregate”, which he defines as “taking words written by others, putting them on your web site and harvesting profits. In Somalia this would be called piracy.” Keller then cites Huffington as “the queen” of such pilferage.
Huffington, who went from being a right-wing media shill in the 1980s–90s to a left wing media darling today, fought back with a “mine’s bigger than yours” response, saying that Huffington Post (“HuffPo”) does have some reporters of its own (a few of whom actually get paid) and anyway, her site gets twice as many hits as the Times site does, so Keller’s just jealous.
While the battle between these two Ripley’s Believe It Or Not-sized egos may be amusing, Keller’s complaint about HuffPo and other web sites aggregating, stealing, or whatever you want to call it definitely has validity. But that ship has already sailed, and what the Times can learn from HuffPo is how social media works__and what doesn’t work.
HuffPo’s comments site is light years better than the Times web site, at least as far as speed. I can get response to a comment in real time on HuffPo, while a comment made on a Times site at midnight might not appear until 12 hours later.
On the other hand, most comments on the Times site are informative and well written. Too many of the comments on HuffPo are knee-jerk screeds or worse. And while you can take Bill Keller, Maureen Dowd or the Times itself to task on its site, good luck posting anything on HuffPo that is even vaguely critical of the saintly Arianna.
That being the case, the real problem in 2011 isn’t the “new media” but the fact that real reporting is disappearing, in favor of “Obama said today”/ “Charlie Sheen said today,”-type non stories, with no digging or uncovering of facts we truly need to know in a democracy.
About 10 years ago, I wrote a freelance op-ed column for the NY Daily News. The city was preparing to spray insecticide throughout Queens after a lone chicken in the area was discovered to have the West Nile virus (I’m not making this up). No humans had contracted it, but the city was ready to spray this “relatively nontoxic” substance into the air. I called Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Riverkeepers group to check my suspicions that the spraying was potentially more dangerous than the virus itself, and Kennedy’s partner confirmed my suspicions. He also told me that I was the only reporter who called to inquire about this.
Since then, things have only gotten worse as far as investigative reporting, the lifeblood of democracy. While Keller criticizes Huffington for not reporting real news, the Times itself missed the most important stories of the twenty-first century: the terrorist buildup to the 9-11 attacks, the absence of WMDs in Iraq and the foul play on Wall Street that plunged the nation into a near depression. If not the Times, who will do this?
The bottom line is, We need more, not less, real reporting and investigative journalism. “Kim Kardasian Busts Out” and “Britney Dons Skinny Leotard” (both are real stories on today’s HuffPo) might be fine articles (ok, I might check them out myself) but if those are the only stories we’re checking out, then the U.S. will be checking out as a working democracy before we know it.
Anyway, have a nice day.