Denials Opprobrium notwithstanding, HuffingtonPost uses anonymous sources
Thursday, June 2nd, 2005
I saw Arianna Huffington on CSPAN this morning. I’d met her briefly a few weeks ago, but have never heard her talk at length. On CSPAN she was eloquent and on message, doing a great job of avoiding booby traps strewn by her callers on the left and right.
Arianna talked at length about her new fully-catered blogging cruise ship, the www.huffingtonpost.com, which debuted in May and features the posts of 400-odd Hollywood stars, planets, moons and astroids. Some of these folks don’t know how to use a computer, Arianna said, and HP makes it easier for them to express their thoughts in real time.
Arianna said she’s creating an entire business infrastructure — with offices in NY and LA — to support (aka bleed) the venture. Sounds like she’s drafting rules too. Arianna was asked about her views on anonymous sources. She said, in essence, “No way we’ll allow anonymous sources in the HuffingtonPost.” (Does this mean Arianna will be acting as an editor, something that may eventually rile those 400 headstrong stars?)
That declaration notwithstanding, a good chunk of airtime was devoted to revelling in the fact that the New York Times picked up on HP’s “scoop” yesterday: “*** Exclusive*** IS PARAMOUNT READY TO PULL THE PLUG ON CRUISE AND ‘MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III”?”
Getting into the office, I checked. Yep, the source for yesterday’s Huffington Post Cruise scoop was anonymous, her identity not even hinted at. This was a classic “we have learned…” lede.
Update 2: Finally got the video to work. Section begins at 2 minutes and 15 seconds. The host asks: “Should journalists be allowed to use anonymous sources?” Arianna answers, “Well I’m very much against the use of anonymous sources unless there’s some compelling public interest and I believe that was the case with Mark Felt and Watergate. Yes, absolutely.” To be fair, though the answer sounded fairly categorical, Arianna was answering a question about journalists, not bloggers. And Arianna is obviously the only authority on her own beliefs and rules about blogging at the HuffingtonPost.
Perhaps she thinks that bloggers have a lower threshold for sourcing than journalists, since obviously Cruise’s fate in Mission Impossible III has no compelling public interest, at least on the scale of Watergate or Iraq. My point is not to pillory the HuffingtonPost nor (just) to have fun, but to highlight how quickly blogging can take on the institutional burdens of journalism — rule parsing, nitpicking, ombudsmanizing — when it rises above the level of an individual accountability and conscience.
(To be clear on my own views: HP’s sourcing was good enough for Hollywood gossip. Indeed, anonymous sources are a crucial part of journalism and the informational osmosis that makes societies function. When people (journalists/bloggers/gossips) rely on anonymous sources who are untruthful or so strongly biased that the story disintegrates on further investigation, the quoter, rather than the concept of anonymity, should lose credibility.)
Hmm, maybe HP will need to hire an ombudsman to explain self-contradictions and variations from the internal style book. More darn overhead. Ed: or maybe you need an ombudsman Henry?
Business logic aside, I’ve been vaguely uncertain what role this 400-strong Hollywood cast-party would play in the blogging ecoysystem, a place dominated at the top by experts, insiders, lawyers, mavens, Phds, business executives… and lots of plain old folks with grassroots opinions and experience not otherwise traditionally captured by corporate publishing hierarchy. But now I realize the HP may destined to become a real-time Vanity Fair/People magazine cum autobiography, covering Hollywood from the inside out. The Cruise scoop may suggest a promising future for HP.
Putting on my hat as a citizen journalist, I’ve dropped Arianna a line asking about the anonymous sourcing contradiction. I will keep you my loyal three readers (hi Mom!) informed.
Oops, I almost forgot to say: Unfolding!!!