Will the blogosphere's fire ants murder the Huffington Post?

Media criticism.
May 9 2005 7:18 PM

Arianna's Echo Park

First impressions of the "Huffington Post" Web site.

"My name is Arianna ... Arianna ... Arianna ...."
Click image to expand.
"My name is Arianna ... Arianna ... Arianna ..."

Arianna Huffington's new Web site, the "Huffington Post," neither overpromises nor overdelivers in its debut edition today, which marries Drudge Report-style links to news stories and media sneak peeks (Gerald Posner's forthcoming book on the Saudis' doomsday machine) with dozens of brief blog entries by Hollywood celebrities, celebrity wives, comedians, opinion journalists, book authors, playwrights, magazine editors, an economist, a writer-director, a law professor, a former lobbyist, a music tycoon—and probably Huffington's gardener if you click deep enough.

Seeing as the Huffington show just opened, fairness insists that we not ask today whether it's any good but what sort of obstacles await its impresario.

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The LA-centric Huff Post's distinguishing mark is its celebrity bloggers. Like Huffington's other professional projects—dinner parties, the KCRW radio show Left, Right, and Center, books, a mutating political career (conservative congressman's wife turned divorce-settlement liberal populist and gubernatorial candidate)—her Web site glories in its ecumenical approach to the policy debate. Liberals were the represented minority at her Washington dinner parties in the 1990s, when upgrading her malleable husband from right-wing House member to president was the mission, and they created the illusion that a real conversation was happening at the Huffington mansion. Today, conservatives (David Frum, Kevin Hassett, and their political siblings) provide the minority voice for the liberal echo chamber that Huffington seems bent on constructing.

The essence of conversation is disputation, a quality found in surplus at the best blogs. But none of the alleged bloggers at the Huff Postare really arguing with anybody or reacting to much of anything in the news in their first entries, perhaps because they were asked to pen "evergreens" that could run any time the site launched. These entries read like the opening lines from ungiven speeches that dribble off into empty mutterings ("Dr. King knew that an improved reality begins with a dream. In dreams begin responsibilities," concludes director Mike Nichols today.)

Do these people intend to engage? Is it even in their wheelhouse to debate? How will the Huff Post's liberal core react when its right-wing press contributors, such as Byron York and Tony Blankley, bring a hard one down on their snout? Hollywood liberals such as Aaron Sorkin and Laurie David rarely encounter sharp political disagreement inside the cocoons of their Hollywood salons, and when they do it's not generally with a practiced rhetorician. Or worse still, what sort of psychic meltdown awaits Huffingliberal Rob Reiner if he finds himself in a vicious intellectual rumble with liberal journalists he regards as fellow travelers, such as my friend David Corn of The Nation? When you're used to being patted on the back all the time, a devastating counterargument feels like a sucker punch. Does Huffington keep enough air kisses in stock to mend all the owies?

Completely outside of Huffington's command and control, of course, are the millions of thugs, opinion artists, and expert witnesses who inhabit the blogosphere, and they aren't giving her site a decent interval before pouncing. Reading the hundredsof blog entries about Huffington's site from today is like watching a swarm of fire ants invade a robin's nest and turn the chicks to red pulp. Not all Hollywood folks are well-read, but everybody out there reads their notices. After the bloggers attack they'll be nostalgic for the drubbing Variety gave their last picture.

So, best of luck, Huff Posties. After you return from your shakedown run, I'll read you more closely—and less charitably. That is, if you survive the fire ants.

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Disclosure: In 2000, I edited a Slate piece by Arianna Huffington. I found her to be a lovely person. Send your fire ants via e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Correction, May 10, 2005: An earlier version of this article included a "Related on the Web" link box that misreported the output of a Google search for "Huffington Post."

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.