WHY I’M BOYCOTTING HUFFINGTON POST

April 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Those who read this column regularly would be familiar with one of the stories I’ve covered related to Huffington Post. In response to my post titled AOL Acquisition of Huffington Post – A Positive Development? , I received some impassioned and extremely articulate, insightful feedback from two writers, one of whom has boycotted the site; they spoke of the same issue they had taken with Huffington Post, that of a profitable website (about to become exponentially more so) choosing not to pay writers who were providing the very content that enabled it to gain a substantial niche in the market to begin with. My column hadn’t addressed the topic, instead focusing on the potential positive effect of having a global platform available to a news provider headed by Ariana Huffington, a supposedly strong progressive voice in the US.

I add the qualifier ‘supposedly’ because I am skeptical to a large degree of any liberal/progressive who thinks they can work within the corporate structure, an entity which has been, is and always will be antithetical to the aspirations and cause of true liberalism. Ms. Huffington, when confronted with an enormous offer from a mega-corporation like AOL, must have realized how attractive her website had become to the power elite; her decision to accept a giant payday to be incorporated into the very system she has railed against is another example of ‘liberals’  thinking they can effect fundamental change from within an inherently corrupt and destructive system. This course of action is doomed to failure; one need only look at the presidency of Barack Obama up until this point, with its neglect of the public option in the healthcare debate, the continuance of the plundering of public coffers through extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and the seemingly indiscriminate handing out of new drilling permits in the wake of the BP disaster.

If one happens to look back on my aforementioned column at the time of the AOL development, a noticeable shift in perspective since the writing of it will be noted. My overall opinion of the acquisition was positive. I had failed to see the opportunity that lay in rejecting AOL’s offer and continuing to forge on independently. The arguments for the sale seemed sensible and can be found in many places besides my post, including from Ms.Huffington herself, who is convinced of her alleged editorial “autonomy” within the vast media conglomerate which now owns her website.

But the writers who contacted me had long been dissatisfied with the site due to a policy that, in retrospect, should have served as a warning to anyone who was hopeful that Huffington Post would long be an independent, progressive element in the mainstream, corporate news wasteland.

The policy is simple: Huffington Post refuses to pay most of their contributing writers, citing the opportunities given them for ‘exposure’ through the publication of their articles. At the time of my column a press release was actually posted on the website by Mario Ruiz, senior vice president of media relations for the company, responding to dissatisfaction with the policy by some prominent voices within the writing and journalism community. All of the main points made by Mr.Ruiz, salient for their breathtaking arrogance, self-contradiction and inherent dismissal of all notions of respect for labor, could have been made by any PR flunkie speaking the company line of a large corporation concerned only with the bottom line.

He leads off by saying that HuffPost “does stand squarely behind efforts to ensure that media professionals receive fair compensation”, but distinguishes between them and others who aren’t “professional writers” but rather people who come from “all walks of life”, including “officeholders, students, and professionals to professors, entertainers, activists and heads of nonprofits”.

This convenient distinction, when taken to its natural end, would allow all companies to happily use unpaid labor to increase its profits by declaring that those contributing the work did not meet their criterion for ‘professionalism’ in a given field. Maybe Nike or Walmart can pay US workers less than the already paltry minimum wage on the grounds that the people manning their registers no longer fit their definition of ‘sales associate professionals’, and must accept lower wages as part of a ‘training’ process which would, of course, last forever. Mr. Ruiz may not want to pay contributing bloggers who are not ‘media professionals’ but has absolutely no problem sharing in the profits generated by their work. Do advertisers get to pay less for their space on the site if their ad happens to fall on a page featuring an unpaid blogger, due to the fact that it may be besmirched by being placed next to someone who isn’t a “media professional”? Of course not.

He then goes on to gush that HuffPost’s bloggers are “thrilled to contribute”, and he’s “thrilled to have them”, that the bloggers “flock to us” to broadcast their views, that bloggers can post as much or as little as they want and HuffPost makes “no claim of ownership on their posts, and bloggers can cross-post on other sites”.

Of course HuffPost doesn’t own the posts. Why would they want to, when that may require them to pay? Regarding the thrill of bloggers to post for nothing, I’m reminded of the “thrill” that workers in Bangladesh get through having the opportunity to work for transnational corporate slave wages, or the thrill that Chinese workers get when being exploited by Nike in unconscionable working conditions. As a writer and actor in Los Angeles, I’m acutely aware of the fact that thousands of my colleagues would be “thrilled” to work for nothing if it gave them decent exposure. Luckily we still, for the moment, have unions which forbid it. This race-to-the-bottom mentality, which promotes the idea that labor doesn’t need to be compensated fairly or at all because the worker is happy to do it for little or nothing, is now common accepted practice in the new ‘global’ economy. ‘Exposure’ has now become legal tender, given to contributors in place of actual money. While most, if not all of the HuffPost bloggers are financially secure, the vast majority of writers and other non-“media professionals” who write political commentary are not, and their ability to earn a decent living (or even one that is indecent) will be profoundly impacted by this precedent, opening the way for anyone to be exploited if they are promised some nebulous level of exposure.

Ruiz goes on to say that the reason this works is because his site provides visibility, and bloggers understand the “value” that kind of visibility can bring. Curious that he doesn’t discuss how that value is generated, instead speaking as if the Huffington Post website, and its “visibility”, appeared in a vacuum, and not through the labors of the very people being asked to work for nothing to maintain it. But then again, Mr.Ruiz would say that was unfair, saying that exposure equals payment. If this is true, then surely AOL didn’t need to pay HuffPost anything for their site- they could just have easily paud them through greater “visibility”. But no. Ms.Huffington instead received $300 million, none of which is passed on to contributors. This is the classic modus operandi of the corporation: reaping profits made possible by those who will have little to no share of them. Think once again of the Chinese workers who brave slave wages, no benefits and poor working conditions to put together IPhones that will make others rich beyond all measure.

After attempting to further shore up his work-for-exposure arguments, Ruiz begins his final paragraph with two perfectly appropriate words: “Bottom line (my italics)… “nearly all of our bloggers are happy with the arrangement, and happy to access the platform and the huge audience it brings, without having to build, pay for, edit, moderate or maintain that platform.”

This last attempt at a point is the most stunning. No longer is the argument about whether or not exposure can be given in place of payment for work tendered. Now we must work for free because someone else is “building” and “maintaining” the “platform”.

Surely that means that writers for newspapers, even if Mr.Ruiz were to consider them “media professionals”, should have their salaries lowered to help pay for the building and maintenance of the skyscrapers in which they work, not to mention the “platform” of readers that has been created? Is this why teachers are now expected to pay out of their own pockets if they wish to provide adequate stationery and tools for the students’ education, having already benefited from the “platform” of a room in a building, with students generously provided? Or why soldiers in Afghanistan must put up with substandard clothing, housing and armour because enough of a “platform” has already been created for them?

Mr.Ruiz wants it both ways to the utmost degree: he is delighted to post blogs of a certain quality (for no sane person could ever believe that HuffPost does not exercise its own version of quality control with respect to writing standards) but not pay for them, citing a lack of media ‘professionalism’, instead telling us that the writers should be happy that they don’t have to pay for “building” and maintenance”. This perfectly echoes the owner of a restaurant who didn’t want to pay me an hourly wage for my work as a waiter because he saw me as an “independent contractor”, albeit one with no say in his hours, working conditions, tip-sharing policies or almost anything else. Corporate mouthpieces like Mr.Ruiz must love this kind of ‘independent contracting’, and you should know that it will become ever more prominent through the acceptance of the kinds of practices that Huffpost employs concerning its bloggers.

Journalists, writers, academics in all fields, artists and musicians have always been the principal and catalyzing bulwark and counterweight against fascism, both socio-political and our latest variety, corporate. A society in which independent people in these occupations no longer have any hope of earning even a minimal living making their voices heard through their work will only hasten its demise, allowing the voices of power and privilege to drown out all dissenters and resisters.

I am enacting a personal boycott of Huffington Post until it begins to pay all contributors to its site, whether they need the money or not. This post will be sent to the editors of the site. I would be delighted to see them publish it. But they’d have to pay me.

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