If you're an old Firesign Theatre fan like I am, you remember that line from Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers. And you also remember that when Mrs. Carolyn Pressky took the bag, she found out that it's just a bag of shit.
Well, Arianna Huffington has taken the bag, and now what started out as a progressive news vehicle with actual money behind it (unlike, say, Air America, which was built on Madoff-like illusions and never really recovered), gets to become linked with Great Journalistic Endeavors like Moviefone, PopEater, and the moribund MapQuest. Because Arianna Huffington has sold her media "empire" to the struggling AOL.
Not everything that AOL has had in its stable is crap. I happen to be fond of my local Patch site, which provides daily updates of local news, as well as providing a means for local businesses to promote themselves and local citizens to review them. But as Ken Auletta noted in a recent New Yorker article (subscription required) about AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, Patch is costing AOL about $30 million a quarter.
Tim Armstrong, a Google veteran, was just a few weeks ago the Knight in Shining Armor who would save AOL. But with this deal, Huffington gets a ton of power in the merged company (which it appears will suppress the AOL brand in favor of the Huffington brand):
Arianna Huffington, the cable talk show pundit, author and doyenne of the political left, will take control of all of AOL’s editorial content as president and editor in chief of a newly created Huffington Post Media Group. The arrangement will give her oversight not only of AOL’s national, local and financial news operations, but also of the company’s other media enterprises like MapQuest and Moviefone.
By handing so much control over to Ms. Huffington and making her a public face of the company, AOL, which has been seen as apolitical, risks losing its nonpartisan image. Ms. Huffington said her politics would have no bearing on how she ran the new business.
While AOL has invested heavily in creating content through enterprises like Patch, the initiative meant to fill the void in areas where struggling local newspapers have cut back on reporting, much of their writing and news gathering is not up to the standards of what consumers get from their traditional news sources.
The Huffington Post, too, has faced criticism over its content, much of which is aggregated from other news sources. But it has started to invest more in original reporting and writing, hiring experienced journalists from The New York Times, Newsweek and other traditional media outlets. By acquiring The Huffington Post’s reporting resources, AOL hopes to counter the perception that it is a farm for subpar content.
“The reason AOL is acquiring The Huffington Post is because we are absolutely passionate, big believers in the future of the Internet, big believers in the future of content,” Mr. Armstrong said.
In that sense, the deal carries a risk for The Huffington Post, which has had none of AOL’s troubles and is widely viewed as a business success with its own unique voice and identity. Now that it is to become part of a large corporate entity, what becomes of that unique character is an open question.
What is also an open question is what direction goeth Arianna Huffington now that she is essentially running a publicly-held company. It's one thing when it's her own show and she can have her friends write about high colonics and veganism. But when she has shareholders to answer to, and given that her own political leanings have tended to be rather fluid depending on the outside influence on her at any given time, it remains to be seen whether the biggest new media outlet that leans away from the batshit-crazy right will still do so.
All of which would leave a wide open door for a particular individual who was rumored last month to be mulling his OWN left-leaning media empire.