But at the same time I’ve been more than a bit amazed that Arianna Huffington’s site has actually had a sometimes substantial effect on the media-sphere. She launched it almost as if it were a political campaign -- a liberal counterpoint to the Foxified, Drudged world of conservative media mastery -- and announced her intention to inject an alternate set of talking points into the mainstream discourse. That was enough for conservatives and liberals to want to take her down a few notches. This chatty socialite and ex-Republican (and failed California gubernatorial candidate with a gay ex-husband) decided that she, of all people, was going to transform the “national conversation”? Who the hell did she think she was? Tina Stinking Brown? Worse, she said all her sexy Hollywood pals -- Mike Nichols, Gwyneth Paltrow, David Geffen, Warren Beatty, etc. -- would write for the blog!
But while the blogosphere spent months giddily celebrating Gwynie’s non-arrival, a funny thing happened: Some of Arianna’s bloggers turned out to have important, relevant stuff to say. Case in point: Lawrence O’Donnell, who announced on “The McLaughlin Group” that Time’s e-mails would reveal that Karl Rove was Matt Cooper’s source regarding Valerie Plame -- an assertion that really only gained traction thanks to HuffPo. As it turns out, O’Donnell had no intention of writing about RoveGate. As he told me last week, “I sent Arianna a few lines about my big scoop just as a head’s up.” She posted it, and all hell broke loose as the national media picked it up. Then, as Rove’s lawyer went into overdrive to spin the story, O’Donnell says he “realized the only way to keep up with him and the story was to start blogging. I did one [post] a day, primarily as guidance for the mainstream press on how to approach the story. I started seeing things I had posted become the conventional wisdom in the media overnight.”
Arianna, who at the start haplessly cast herself as a sort of celebrity-gadfly wrangler intent on harvesting pearls of wisdom from Hollywood, has since turned into a surprisingly dedicated civic den mother who has taken it upon herself to goad a group of smart, busy liberals to speak up in the place where it matters most these days: online.
It’s worth noting that when overemployed pundits like O’Donnell (an executive producer on The West Wing) do the talking-head thing, they tend to do it only because someone has made it incredibly easy for them. A producer sends a Town Car, they do their punditry, and then a Town Car takes them right back.
Arianna’s basically running a cyber Town Car service for liberals who can’t be bothered to blog on their own, and only blog for Arianna because she’s so damn charming and persistent.
Plus, over the past three months she’s developed some surprisingly good instincts about which stories -- which media memes -- to champion (she’s been instrumental in helping to make a star out of Cindy Sheehan, the Bush-stalking mother of that dead Iraq War soldier, for instance). And get this: 3-month-old HuffPo actually overtook 3-year-old Gawker in the Alexa.com Web-traffic ratings on two separate occasions this month (the last time it surged past Gawker was in early July when O’Donnell was first posting), and its reach, rank and page views are trending dramatically upward. Of course, now that she’s got traffic and potentially real income (beyond some existing newspaper syndication deals) thanks to last week’s addition of advertising, it remains to be seen how Arianna intends to cut her limo-liberal bloggers in on the revenue stream.
The Gutfeld Pest
Meanwhile, among the smartest things Arianna’s done is keep Greg Gutfeld blogging for her. Gutfeld, editor-in-chief of the U.K. version of Maxim, is, to put it politely, nuts, and his reckless, hilarious, corrosive posts usually aim squarely at The Huffington Post itself. His criticisms have often been spot on, which makes him sort of the unofficial site ombudsman (except that the only grievances he airs are his own). Essentially, thanks to Gutfeld, The Huffington Post has co-opted the HuffPo-bashing cottage industry. The very worst things being said about it are being published on The Huffington Post -- how brilliant is that? Hey, every page view counts.
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The Media Guy's column appears weekly on AdAge.com and in the print edition of Advertising Age. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org