The Huffington Post Bloggers’ Lament

There is ethical indignation in Left-leaning Blogger Land, where Ariana Huffington’s Huffington Post just got $315 million to become part of AOL’s media stable.  The six-year-old  online news site supplements its staff of 2oo with an estimated 3000 volunteer bloggers of widely varying talent, reliability, and sanity. Those writers, who traded periodic contributions to “HuffPo” in exchange for more traffic and notoriety than they would have received in months of laboring, pajama-clad, on their own obscure sites, now are loudly complaining that they were exploited. Their unpaid labor built the site into a multi-million dollar asset, they cry, and yet Ariana is pocketing all of the profits. Where is the justice in that? There is talk of boycotts and mass defections.

Ethically, as well as contractually, the bloggers don’t have a leg to stand on. They agreed to write for nothing but exposure, and if one insisted on payment, there were twenty more bloggers of similar ability and orientation eager to take the deal in his or her place. The freebie bloggers were a part of the business plan, certainly, drawing search engines and providing a forum for commenters, the real source of the Huffington Post’s success. When you make a contractual arrangement you are pleased with, and suddenly something occurs that makes it look less appealing, it is neither fair nor reasonable to insist that the deal be retroactively sweetened. The sad truth is that a lot of those bloggers were and are worth just about what they were paid. They only contributed to the Huffington Post’s AOL bonanza in that they filled slots that could and would have been filled by others.

Would it be admirable, kind, generous and fair for Ariana to give some portion of the $315 million to the independent bloggers, or at least the most prolific? Absolutely, just as it would have been generous and fair for Francis Ford Coppola to give a bit extra to his actors not named Marlon Brando, other than their salaries, when “The Godfather” made him a fortune. He didn’t, and he wasn’t obligated to: the actors sure wouldn’t have given their salaries back if he lost his shirt on the film. On the other side of the spectrum is director George Lucas, who was famously generous to his unknown “Star Wars” stars, giving them pieces of his film after it was a runaway hit. Lucas’s ethics were exemplary, but that doesn’t mean Coppola was unethical. He was right: a deal’s a deal.

A deal’s a deal for the volunteer bloggers, too. It would be nice, ethically exemplary and Lucas-like if Huffington acknowledged their contributions with a contribution of her own. But not getting something you have no right to expect isn’t mistreatment.

It’s called “business.”

27 thoughts on “The Huffington Post Bloggers’ Lament

  1. There is no question that there’s a disconnect between Arianna Huffington’s rhetoric (a more balanced society, with less disparity between the rich and everybody else, for example) and her actions (in which unpaid bloggers were indeed exploited for her profit and not theirs, even if they were doing so voluntarily).

    It strikes me that these bloggers are simply feeling a little betrayed that someone they regarded as an ally turns out not to be, the left’s equivalent to a conservative’s learning about the sexual transgressions of yet another “family values” politician.

    Moreover, I have seen no threats or lawsuits or anything like that, just anger that people had “been had.” A little of the language may be overheated, but the proposed solutions, boycotts and defections, while no doubt ineffectual, are certainly ethical.

    More importantly, the landscape has now changed. I write a blog, largely about politics, which has, from time to time, generated posts on more frequently than a weekly basis. If 50 people read one of my entries, it’s an event; I would certainly get more traffic if I wrote for HuffPo. I was never solicited to write for them, nor did I ever even attempt to contact them about doing so, although my politics align reasonably well with theirs and I fancy myself a competent writer.
    But lets say I was one of that stable of HuffPo bloggers who was writing for free.

    I agreed (contracted?) to write for a site that was self-contained and apparently oriented with my belief system. Now the head of that enterprise has collected considerable personal profit, in part as the result of my labor, moved the operation under the control of a colossal corporation answerable to stockholders and boards of directors and the like. She did so without my knowledge until the deal was done, and at no profit to me, whereas she pocketed millions of dollars to ease the pain of her (slight) loss of authority.

    When I was starting my career, I took a job in a small professional theatre company in New Hampshire. Although I was the #2 person in the hierarchy, I made less than minimum wage. I knew what I was doing, and I knew how much that company could afford to pay me. Were I subsequently to have found out that there were a few million dollars in the bank, or that someone on the Board of Directors (who did little but get their names in the program) was getting paid more than I was, I’d have been pretty irked. Yes, I signed the contract, but I did so in part on the basis of faulty (or even actively withheld) information.

    Were the bloggers in question naive? Probably. Did Arianna Huffington do anything actively unethical? Probably not. But do the bloggers have a legitimate right to be upset? Sure, they do.

  2. But what exactly is a “right to be upset”? I may be upset that I didn’t think of eBay or Craig’s List first. I have a right to be upset that a feature story on my musical satire group that was supposed to run in Us Magazine 30 years ago got cut at the last second. The point is, being angry at Huffington when she met every term of their agreement isn’t justified, and a boycott based on a non-slight would indeed be unethical. She didn’t hide anything from them at all, nor can you fairly call this exploitation.
    I once agreed to direct an original musical for an old friend in a workshop production gratis, as a favor. I thought it was junk, and would never get anywhere, but it meant a lot to him. I did extensive re-writing and re-thinking of the piece, cut things and added lines and themes, and the damn thing was a runaway hit. It made a lot of money for my theater company, and a decade after its debut, it is still running in New York. My friend was very grateful, and we remained close until his death, but I never got a cent out of the show, or a writing credit either. And yes, for a while I was ticked off, but I have no right to be. I did the work as a favor, and it ended up being a much bigger favor than any of us thought. Should I organize a boycott of the show?

  3. Legally, of course there’s no right. But surely the ethics are not defined by what is legal, or especially what one can get away with in legal terms. The fact that, say, a woman agrees to a contract which pays her 70% of what a male counterpart makes for the same job doesn’t absolve the employer from condemnation, even if there’s some legal loophole that allows that form of discrimination. The fact that bloggers assumed things they shouldn’t have (or perhaps–I have no way of knowing–were actively misled into believing that which wasn’t true) doesn’t change the fact that they became mere pawns in someone else’s scheme.

    You say that in the scenario you describe, “for a while [you were] ticked off.” That’s human, not unethical. That you got over it is also human. Give the bloggers time. Most of them will get to where you are.

    And to boycott is unethical? It might be naive, it might be more bluster than substance, it might even be ill-founded. But unethical? Surely these bloggers have as much right to take their talents elsewhere as Ms. Huffington has to expect them to stay under changed circumstances. As a state employee in a particularly mismanaged state, I will probably see my salary cut next year. Do I not have a right to leave, or even to leave and suggest to friends that my now former university isn’t a good place to send their kids? (For the record, I’m not anticipating going anywhere.)

    • Rick, I meant an economic or reader boycott, and now that I think about it, neither of these are possible or intended. They mean something more like a strike, and that’s their choice. I agree with you.

  4. My own complaint isn’t that of Madame Ariana’s ethics. She has none to begin with and I acknowledge it! Nor am I one of her battery of unwashed, basement-dwelling, Abbie Hoffman wannabes. Like Manjushri, I run my own blogsite without anyone’s sponsorship; unpaid or not. What I object to is that my provider (AOL) has entered into a bargain that turns its news sources over to the management of a professional leftist agitator. Once I could have some modest trust in what I saw on their cover page after firing up my computer. No longer.

    • Note, nothing in Steven Mark Pilling’s post should be considered to reflect the real world. See his previous comment (https://ethicsalarms.com/2011/01/09/mr-friedkin-mr-hawks-meet-mr-madison-and-mr-twain/comment-page-1/#comment-9894). He writes what he believes, with no regard for the truth.

      That said, HuffPo is a big mishmosh of ideas. Parts of it were good, and parts of it were absolutely horrible. There is no real air of authority by being on HuffPo. It’s a strange move by AOL. They probably could have poached any of the writer’s that were decent for considerably less than 300 million

      • TGT: The tenor of the Huffington Post- along with that of its mistress- is sufficiently well known for little comment to be necessary. Aside from that, you have nothing to offer but the exact same personal attack as before! At least find some new form of rant. I’m getting bored with you!

        • There was no personal attack. You freely admited to not caring about reality when you post. All I’m doing is informing others of this with a proper citation. If you would like to ground yourself in reality now, I can stop posting this caveat and start arguing directly with you again.

          In this thread, your reasoning (as written) is based on politics, not content. As you may note, I agree that this move is of no real benefit to AOL, but I avoided the ad hominem attacks and political agenda.

  5. They can be mad all they want, it’s human nature. But they should be happy at the success of Huffington + having been a part of its sucess. I hope those bloggers do not frown upon the profit too long, they’d only be hindering themselves.

    • Granted.

      It also looks alot like a desparate lapse into name calling when there are no valid attacks available.

      Here is the cited rant in it’s entirety. Emphasis is mine:

      Dear TGT: It’s a common practice among leftist self-appointed punditsthat- when faced with opinions that they don’t like, but can’t counter- try to turn the forum from ideas into a pseudo court of law. I’m not a lawyer, TGT. Nor am I an uninformed ranter, as you try to portray me in this ploy. The prime question here (and on this website) is that of ethics. If I were to go around keeping footnotes on other people’s works or statistics to back up my every sentence, I’d be up to my neck in notebooks and it would take me forever to make a simple comment. This you know. Again, I’m not a lawyer, an archivist or a professional columnist. I’m offering my opinions based on the facts as I’ve seen them and/or have personally experienced. My “worldview”, as it were. You can accept or reject as you will. No, I don’t “lose”. By trying this little gambit, you prove it.

      This was in response to my demand for evidence for any of Steven’s claims. There are three possible things I think this comment could be.

      1) A claim that evidence is unnecessary because all Steven writes is opinion. If this is true, The warning I apply to Steven’s posts is warranted, and I did not misrepresent his position.

      2) An attempt to hide the lack of evidence for truth claims behind the aura of opinion. This would be disengenuous. I don’t believe Steven would intentionally do this, but if he did, my warning would change to something less flattering.

      3) Unintelligible garbage. I mostly include this for completeness. It is not intended as a gibe, but if it it did occur (and all of us do occasionally do this), then my apologies. I’d also still be waiting on evidence for all of your fact claims.

  6. Dear TGT:

    I must maintain (with all dignity!) that referring to you as Miss Tiggy hardly constitutes “desperate name calling”. May I respectfully suggest that your own desperate ego might be in play, here? And might I also point out that (and as Jack notes… and as I have previously) that the purpose of this site is to solicit opinions based on the facts of an issue and the poster’s interpretation of them based on his own knowledge and sense of ethics? On that basis, the debate insues.

    This is what the First Amendment is all about in its original intent. This is not a court of law by which I’m somehow obligated to provide you with multiple links to other sources in presenting a case… over which you presume to preside! Frankly, I resent that kind of presumption, as I do its obvious intent, which is to marginalize the debator with whom you disagree and thereby discourage dissention.

    In other words, get off your high horse and don’t accuse me of the very tactics you yourself pursue. If this be “personal attack”, so be it.

    “Be proud of having enemies. It means that you stood for something once.”- Winston Churchill

    • The first amendment doesn’t have anything to do with the comments that Jack decides to allow on his blog. It seems, like Sarah Palin, you’re confused on what the first amendement is.

      That aside, Jack does allow for a pretty free exchange of ideas. I am doing just that. I am not attempting to marginalize you or discourage dissention. I am attempting to weed out the ideas that are based in reality from those that are not, so I can refine my views to be more accurate. Asking for the reasoning and evidence behind your claims, is in no way an attack on the first amendment. It is an integral part of the free exchange of ideas. While all ideas can be voiced, not all ideas should be given equal weight.

      I make pains to source my criticism of you. I make it easy for all readers to determine if my ideas are worth any weight. If your ideas are stronger, my weaker criticisms would end up enforcing your ideas.

      Moving on, what am I accusing you of that I am actually doing myself? I have accused you of not having logical arguments or evidence. I backed it up with a logical argument built on top of evidence. I have specifically not accused you of bad faith, instead, assuming that my points were unclear or the terminology unfamiliar.

      In response to Winston Churchill: Hitler stood for something. He should not be proud. That you stand for something means nothing. What you stand for does.

      • I generally think when an argument turns from the original issue from how each party is arguing it, a genuine impasse is proven, and what we have is a pissing match.

        Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

        • That’s why I created the template text. While I enjoy going meta, arguing with non sequitors is not very much fun.

          On the other hand, this argument is still more evidence for my belief that faith is necessarily bad.

      • Clarification. I am attempting to give valid weighting to your ideas, and accurately represent them. By your own words (again), your ideas are strictly opinion. Noting that you do not concern yourself with objective reality only marginalizes you if you think objective reality is important. To take offense at my claim, you have to admit the accuracy of my claim.

  7. You’re not attempting to “weigh” anything, Tiggy. All you’re doing is, 1) frantically trying to forward your own hacknied concepts was having even an ounce of validity and, 2) demonstrating that y0u either don’t know or don’t care what the First Amendment itself is all about. I’d suggest you dig into the Federalist papers to bring yourself up to par and the second aspect. This may, in turn, lead you to moderate on the first. And now I, for one, have to go to work to pay some Obama bills. Caio.

  8. Dear Miss Tiggy: Every time you’re stumped for an answer to my comments, you refer to the same thread as being somehow indicative that I have “no regard for the truth”. If, by that, you mean that I have incisive criticisms for the theatrical genre, then I’m guilty! I’ve done a lot of research into the question of what has become institutionalized child exploitation… which, I might add, does not exlude the stage itself. And I stand by what I have written. I can only assume that you’re trying to marginalize me with other posters (like Jack himself) – who are theater veterans themselves- by trying to set me up as a low-minded philistine! Personally, I adamantly maintain that theater, motion picture or television producers do not need to disgrace themselves and their profession in such unethical and indecent endeavors. I understand the difference between art and (what I call) anti-art. Perhaps it’s time that you did as well.

    • Every time you’re stumped for an answer to my comments, you refer to the same thread as being somehow indicative that I have “no regard for the truth”.

      Every time you say something without supporting evidence, I point to the post where you admit you don’t bother with evidence. I explained again above. If you disagree with some part of how I parsed your writings, please explain what I said is inaccurate and what is actually occurring. If, instead, you insist on creating strawmen, putting words in my mouth, and using innuendo and name calling to dissemble, I will be forced to assume you are not acting in good faith, and will update my warning as such.

      • Jack,

        If I go to far on this, let me know, either here or through email. I don’t think I’m crossing any lines, but I’d understand if this isn’t what you want in your comments section.

  9. Tiggy: All you’re doing is getting wearisome… which, I think, is deliberate. By repeating these jibs and juristic demands- ad nauseum- you hope to wear down the opposition without offering any concrete counter-arguments. I’ve seen this many times before! To you, this is no serious question of ethics, but a game of dominance. To me, none of this is a game. It involves moral questions of the utmost urgency. Your worldview and mine reflect the two major forces in conflict in this nation today- with concepts of purpose and decency that have no common ground. The difference is epitomized not only by the contents of our posts, but their means of delivery. I state my opinions forthrightly and with a conviction born of inquiry and experience. You cannot do so, as your motivations would thus become apparent and marginalize your stature. Therefore, you resort to “guerrilla posting”. Again, common enough.

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