Accuracy in Media

The New York Times’ executive editor Bill Keller, who only last week called Fox News viewers “the most cynical people on planet earth,” has set his sights on another target, the left-leaning Huffington Post.

In his most recent column in the New York Times magazine, Keller is particularly aggravated by aggregators and takes issue with Arianna Huffington’s successful website:

The queen of aggregation is, of course, Arianna Huffington, who has discovered that if you take celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications, array them on your Web site and add a left-wing soundtrack, millions of people will come. How great is Huffington’s instinctive genius for aggregation? I once sat beside her on a panel in Los Angeles (on — what else? — The Future of Journalism). I had come prepared with a couple of memorized riffs on media topics, which I duly presented. Afterward we sat down for a joint interview with a local reporter. A moment later I heard one of my riffs issuing verbatim from the mouth of Ms. Huffington. I felt so . . . aggregated.

Last month, when AOL bought The Huffington Post for $315 million, it was portrayed as a sign that AOL is moving into the business of creating stuff — what we used to call writing or reporting or journalism but we now call “content.” Buying an aggregator and calling it a content play is a little like a company’s announcing plans to improve its cash position by hiring a counterfeiter.

An argument can be made as to whether or not what the Huffington Post does qualifies as journalism, but the rapid rise of blogs and social media has redefined the meaning of the word.

Huffington didn’t take Keller’s attack lying down, and fired back with a rebuttal:

Perhaps unsettled by the fact that, when combined, The Huffington Post and AOL News have over 70 percent more unique visitors than the New York Times, and that HuffPost/AOL News’ combined page views in January 2011 were double the page views of the Times (1.5 billion vs. 750 million), New York Times executive editor Bill Keller decided to unleash an exceptionally misinformed attack on HuffPost in a column released today and slated for this weekend’s NYT Magazine.

After opening his piece by patting himself on the back so hard I’d be surprised if he didn’t crack a rib (it seems everyone — even Woody Allen and those folks on Twitter — thinks he’s super “powerful” and “influential”!), Keller turned to the putative subject of his column: “the ‘American Idol’-ization of news” and the evils of “aggregation.” Hearkening back to the glory years when Rupert Murdoch and his minions labeled sites that aggregate the news “parasites,” “content kleptomaniacs,” “vampires,” and “tech tapeworms in the intestines of the Internet” (the news industry equivalent of “your mama wears army boots!” although, not quite as persuasive), Keller says of aggregation: “In Somalia this would be called piracy. In the mediasphere, it is a respected business model.”

He then describes HuffPost’s offerings as nothing more than “celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications.”

I wonder what site he’s been looking at. Not ours, as even a casual look at HuffPost will show. Even before we merged with AOL, HuffPost had 148 full-time editors, writers, and reporters engaged in the serious, old-fashioned work of traditional journalism. As long ago as 2009, Frank Rich praised the work of our reporters in his column. Paul Krugman more recently singled out the work of our lead finance writer. Columbia Journalism Review has credited our work for advancing the public’s understanding of the national foreclosure crisis, and a pair of our Washington reporters recently received a major journalism prize. Matthew Yglesias, Felix Salmon, Catherine Rampell, are among the many others who have cited the work of our reporters. Did Keller not notice that?

And did he not notice that he lost one of his top business reporters, Peter Goodman, to The Huffington Post — despite his best efforts to keep him? Indeed, on the very day that Keller’s column began circulating, we published a piece Goodman edited, a 4,000-word investigation of a for-profit college by Goodman’s first hire, Chris Kirkham, a former Washington Post intern. Did he think he came over to aggregate adorable kitten videos? And was he too busy scanning all those lists of “most powerful people” he’s on to notice that he also lost one of his top editors, Tim O’Brien, to us?

Even so, if those were the only charges he’d leveled, I wouldn’t have bothered responding. As they say on those TV lawyer shows, “Asked and answered.”

Keller isn’t totally off the mark as HuffPo has a lot of fluff on the site, including a divorce section. The fact remains that Huffington built an amazingly successful website from scratch, and cashed in at a time when traditional newspapers like the times are struggling.

While the market cap of The New York Times at $1.39 billion dwarfs what AOL paid for HuffPo, the two companies are going in the opposite direction, as the Times has seen its share price drop by nearly 70% in the last three years while the value of the Huffington Post increased exponentially.

What Keller knows but isn’t willing to admit is that both Fox News and HuffPo have changed the face of journalism, and not in a good way for the future of The Times.  They have been more nimble and innovative where the Times has largely plodded along, weighed down by a dying newspaper business and unsure of how to profit from the web.

Keller’s attacks are nothing more than desperate attacks from a desperate man.

The clock is ticking, Bill.

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