2006-03-17

Arianna and the Clooney Controversy

The Huffington Post is an interesting, if slightly gaudy, website run by Arianna Huffington. It is essentially a DailyKos site for big names in the world of political progressives. Not only does Arianna have her own daily comment, but so do Harry Shearer (of Spinal Tap and Simpsons fame), Larry David (Seinfeld), Rob Reiner (director of Spinal Tap, Stand by Me and others), Walter Cronkite and many, many more.

In short, apart from providing a "link page" to various news stories that interest progressives, the site allows big names to give their opinions on things. Sites like Eschaton, Dailykos and others do not have this emphasis, which gives Huff Po its unique place in the progressive blogosphere.

Everything was going along successfully... until actor George Clooney wrote a piece about his political liberalism and how proud he was to oppose the Iraq war and how much he disliked George Bush.

Clooney is an outspoken Hollywood liberal - so his Huff Po article was nothing really new - that is, until George Clooney complained to the media that he didn't actually write the article in question.

That's right - Clooney did not write the HuffPo article attributed to him. In fact, he was angry that the Huff Po had published the article since he fervently denied ever writing it.

So who did write it? Arianna is in a bit of hot water over this. She has admitted that Clooney did not write the article, but that it was put together by a Huff Po staffer made up from public comments that Clooney had made. In other words, the article was 100% Clooney, but it wasn't actually written or compiled by him.

Her explanation goes like this: Huff Po contacted Clooney's agent and told the agent about what they were doing and the agent approved of it. The fact that George didn't know about it is essentially his agent's fault.

All of this is probably true - but it has revealed something about the actions of Huff Po which are disturbing her online audience.

Like thousands of others, I read the offending George Clooney article. As I read it, I made the tacit assumption that Clooney had actually written the article in its present form and had sent it off to Huff Po - much in the same way as I would hit the "Publish Post" button in blogger. This episode has revealed the fact that Clooney's article was not written in the way I thought it was.

In the online world of blogs and chat rooms and message boards, it is easy to lie, cheat and manipulate. Most of us who have been on the internet for a while are aware of this and are quite jaded and cynical about the way in which some people operate. Truthfulness, honesty and transparency are qualities that are in demand online. Web surfers and bloggers like myself realise that trust is essential for the online world to operate successfully.

The Clooney episode has taken away some of the trust that I have for Arianna and Huff Po. Now that it has been revealed to me that the Clooney article was merely a cut-and-paste job, I am now seriously doubting the veracity of other articles there. Does Arianna write her own posts? Does Harry Shearer?

For all of her trumpeting about how wonderful the world of blogs and online political thought are, Arianna has shown herself to be woefully igonorant of how important truthfulness in reporting is to online readers. There is no doubt that the tactic of cutting and pasting text from someone's comments, or of getting a staff writer to write your blog for you, is a common, even acceptable part of modern journalism. But that's not the point. The old rules no longer apply.

Arianna has also erred by not (so far) admitting that she is wrong over this issue. In her post "The Medium isn't the message - the message is the message", she defends the decision to re-work Clooney's words, arguing that it doesn't matter that Clooney didn't write them, so long as he actually said them.

Apologies go a long way in the online world. If someone admits they were wrong and does so quickly, the readers are usually mollified. Those who refuse to admit fault are lambasted so much that their online demise spreads in much the same way as viral marketing. It's why people like Andrew Sullivan and Jonah Goldberg are so despised. Politically, Arianna may not like the idea of admitting that she was wrong since she may think that it may harm her reputation. But in the online world, reputation is enhanced when people are honest about themselves. Arianna has much to gain by doing the right thing, and much to lose by standing firm on this issue.


© 2006 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

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