When celebrities blog!

Arianna Huffington's new project combines new-media buzz with Hollywood liberal glitz. But will it be "Star Wars" -- or "Ishtar"?

Published May 10, 2005 7:00PM (EDT)

Very few new Web sites are heralded in the New York Times and the Washington Post before they launch. Credit Arianna Huffington's singular marketing savvy for managing this feat. For months, the syndicated columnist, one-time political candidate, one-time Senate candidate's wife and longtime Hollywood political maven has been regaling reporters with news of her upcoming project, the Huffington Post, which went live shortly after midnight Monday.

By inviting hundreds from Hollywood to participate, and by hiring Andrew Breitbart, Matt Drudge's right-hand man, to work on the site, Huffington (whose column, now on hiatus, appears in Salon) set the bar high. "As the day follows the night, Drudge will inspire its opposite" was how Warren Beatty, one of Huffington's celeb bloggers, described the project to the New York Observer. Though Huffington insists that she has never claimed to be a Drudge killer, the impression left by her advance press suggested a looming, epic Web grudge match: Arianna vs. Drudge, a fight in which the very future of American media might hang in the balance.

But whatever else it may be, the Huffington Post is not a left-wing Drudge Report. It is instead, you might say, both a lot more than Drudge and quite a bit less. It's not the disaster a riled Nikki Finke immediately proclaimed it to be in the L.A. Weekly (Finke, who has also written for Salon, called Huffington's new site "such a bomb that it's the box-office equivalent of Gigli, Ishtar and Heaven's Gate rolled into one") -- nothing that features a regular contribution from Larry David can be so quickly dismissed. But it is not revolutionary, either. Huffington's site is, quite simply, a daily news roundup married to a very big group blog (with, curiously, very few participants under the age of 40 -- and possibly 50) and little to no original reporting content; like most bloggers, Huffington's high-profile opiners are generally trolling topics well covered elsewhere.

The one "exclusive" was an excerpt from Gerald Posner's book "Secrets of the Kingdom," to be released next week, which claims that the Saudi regime has set up an internal sabotage mechanism -- "including radioactive 'dirty bombs'" -- that would "cripple Saudi Arabian oil production and distribution systems for decades" should anyone try to topple the government. Gripping stuff, but not an exclusive for very long. After all the hype, you can't help looking at the site and asking, Is that all there is?

The Huffington Post is at the very least a marvel of organization, and a testament to the size of Huffington's Rolodex. Hundreds of smart, interesting, famous people, many of whom rarely speak out in other forums, have been given carte blanche to write about whatever they want, whenever they want, and to post their missives to the site themselves. In an interview on Monday, Huffington said the setup so far had proved successful. So many people were posting so much, she said, that the site's administrators faced the unexpected problem of early posts falling off the site's main blog page. Huffington was happy, too, that her contributors began blogging about one another's blog posts. "The response from the bloggers has been really thrilling," she said. "You had so many conversations going on, for instance Hilary Rosen and Richard Bradley going on about the iPod."

There was also Julia Louis-Dreyfus and husband Brad Hall's regrettable shtick about gay marriage (an idea better pulled off by comedy writer Adam Felber on his blog); playwright David Mamet's incoherent rant about computers; a nice tribute to Hunter Thompson by John Cusack; and Larry David's environmentalist wife Laurie's criticism of Ford's insufficient promotion of its hybrid vehicles. On Monday afternoon, Larry David popped up on the site with an inspired riff on why he sympathizes with John Bolton.

The site's main problem is in its abundance. In interviews, Huffington has described her site as a kind of dinner party, where hundreds of people are talking about dozens of subjects, whether art or politics or sex or whatever else they find interesting. (She's hardly the first to use that metaphor.) Today, though, the best blogs succeed on narrower grounds. You go to Daily Kos for its obsessive interest with lefty politics, and you go to Gizmodo for the latest in gadget news, while you visit most other blogs, from Andrew Sullivan's to Josh Marshall's to Rosie O'Donnell's, to experience a particular writer's unique take on the world. The Huffington Post is, by comparison, hard to figure out. What is its political sensibility? Who are its target readers? Are they people who like politics, or people who like art, or technology? Why should you read it, and what should you do with what you've read once you're done? Most important: Why would you go back?

"One thing that works well with politically oriented sites is the sense of outrage: We gotta do something now!" says Ken Layne, a longtime blogger who now writes at the new Sploid, the Gawker Media tabloid-news blog that has fashioned itself after the Drudge Report, and therefore something of a competitor to Huffington's site. "On Daily Kos or WorldNetDaily there's this sense, 'Jesus Christ the world's ending now and we know whose fault it is!'"

Layne concedes that, of course, reality is more complex than what you find on these sites, but he has a point -- when you read blogs you're looking for a unique, passionate voice. Judging from just the first day's dozens of posts, it's hard to discern a unique, passionate voice amid the cacophony. Indeed, the site reads a bit too much like a dinner party, where opinions are offered gently, not foisted aggressively, and where some people just ramble. "You've got David Mamet talking about aren't computers great -- what the fuck is that?" says Layne. "I couldn't even read that -- I respect his writing too much to read it."

Huffington, for her part, describes her site's point of view in the way Bill Clinton used to talk about his politics -- she's providing the third way, an information source different from the polarized debate that marks today's media culture. "The left-right way of looking at our world is obsolete and misleading," she says. "A lot of our issues are what I call '70 percent issues' -- issues where I don't think there's any broad disagreement, things we can solve if we can learn to speak to each other -- and that's one of the goals of the site." This middle-ground position is of a piece with Huffington's politics, but it can make for a blog that seems unfocused and lacking in verve. After all, does anyone go to a blog for a discussion of issues that most people agree on?

Huffington has also been criticized for her apparent belief that what the ailing American political culture needs now is more input from wealthy celebrities. "Do Americans really care what celebrities think about politics?" asks Glenn Reynolds, a law professor who runs the popular, right-leaning blog Instapundit. "People like to know who celebrities are sleeping with because they'd like to sleep with celebrities -- but we don't want to talk to celebrities about current affairs."

Xeni Jardin, one of the wizards who runs the group blog Boing Boing, points out another obvious problem with the idea of giving blogs to famous people: Celebrities don't exactly have a hard time getting themselves heard in the media as it is. "To me what's great about blogs is they provide a voice to people who didn't have voices in the past; they provide an avenue to information that was not accessible before blogs," Jardin said in an interview conducted before Huffington's site went live. "I don't get the idea of Walter Cronkite writing a blog. He's like a god to me, but I don't get that. People who have plenty of public exposure, they're exposed people." And Jay Rosen, the NYU media scholar and blogger, worries about whether we can ever take what celebrities say at face value. "Gwyneth Paltrow has no incentive to speak candidly and alienate future ticket buyers," he told the Times in April.

To be fair, many of the posts on Huffington's site are not from Hollywood stars -- conservative economist Kevin Hassett, Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren and Nation columnist David Corn are among many there who've probably never been near a movie set. But the site's "featured posts" -- the ones published on the front page -- are all by people whose names are in lights. Huffington acknowledges that these people wouldn't have a hard time expressing their views elsewhere. If Larry David sent his post on John Bolton to the New York Times Op-Ed page, chances are the paper would have published it. But what's wrong with having a blog where busy people like David can just dash something off whenever the mood strikes them? Huffington asks. If you or I can have a blog, why can't Gwyneth Paltrow?

In an e-mail, Jay Rosen says that since he spoke to the Times in April, he has changed his thinking on the idea behind Huffington's site: "I have come to a more rounded view." He says that he remains "a skeptic," but the idea of celebrities blogging could prove fruitful: "Who knows how this will unfold, but I'd bet that one of the first things to draw big attention will be when one big name blogging at the Huffington Post attacks another blogging for the Huffington Post. Like, say, Nora Ephron blasts Norman Mailer, and Mailer blasts back: 'Obviously Nora did not read my post. If she had ...' You get the idea. When it happens between B-list bloggers it is boring. When it happens with big-name writers and moguls it is not."

Rosen is probably right; it would be great for Huffington's site if the sparks began to fly among her bloggers, if her dinner party turned into a brawl and if that brawl stretched across the Web, from her site to the millions of blogs online now. Because if you compare her site with Drudge's, what the Huffington Post seems to lack now is bite, and fight. Even the design signals the difference: Drudge is black, gray and big, and his caps-lock button has a tendency to get stuck in the "on" position. Visiting the handsome Huffington Post, by contrast, is like reading the news while enjoying a relaxing soak at a Brentwood spa -- the typeface is small, the "XXX WORLD EXCLUSIVE XXX" disclaimers are kept at bay, and the color scheme, a soothing emerald green highlighted with pastels, calms you down.

Drudge, who has made his distaste for Huffington's endeavor well known, is fond of taking his fight to his enemies. On Monday, he prominently featured a couple of links to articles critical of Huffington's launch. Huffington's site, meanwhile, doesn't mention Drudge anywhere, and she disclaims any desire to take on Drudge.

But would it be so bad if Huffington did act a bit more like Drudge? Say what you want about Matt Drudge -- call him a liar, a hack, a fool, a moralist -- you can't call him a failure. He runs an irresistible Web site. And whether or not you agree with his politics, and whether or not you put much stock in his occasional "WORLD EXCLUSIVES!!!!," what keeps you at his site is, as with all the best blogs, Drudge's own peculiar voice. And it's these obsessions -- with the sex lives of politicians, with "American Idol," with the Nielsen TV ratings, with bizarre weather stories -- that makes the Drudge Report compelling.

It would be unfair, after one day, to accuse Arianna Huffington's site of lacking a compelling worldview. "We see today as just the first day of a rollout," Huffington said. "It's not like a movie opening," whose pop-cultural value can be measured in one weekend's box office take. Instead, Huffington said, the success of her site will only be quantifiable over time. One measure will be profitability; at some point the site, which Huffington said has enough financing to run for a year, will begin to sell advertising space. Another measure is traffic. Huffington said the site received 1.2 million visits in a span of two hours on Monday, but it wasn't clear if she meant unique visitors, page views or hits -- all very different Web traffic concepts. (An assistant at the site's business office couldn't provide much guidance on this either.)

The most important measure for Huffington, though, is influence -- "a much less tangible measure about how we are affecting the national conversation." By that yardstick, she's certainly off to a good start. She has attracted some of the nation's cultural leaders to join her party, and on the first day, in the index that perhaps ought to matter most -- whether other bloggers are talking about her -- she has done well. The blog-monitoring site Technorati says that her blog, in its first day, was the talk of the Web. Fortunes turn quickly online, though, and what happens tomorrow is another story.

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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