NYT vs HuffPo, cont.

By Felix Salmon
April 2, 2011
declared war on the Huffington Post shows no sign of dissipating, and as ever the new-look NYT Magazine is at the front lines of the attack. Andrew Goldman's interview with Arianna Huffington is quite astonishing, but first it's worth looking at other news of the week.

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The NYT’s declared war on the Huffington Post shows no sign of dissipating, and as ever the new-look NYT Magazine is at the front lines of the attack. Andrew Goldman’s interview with Arianna Huffington is quite astonishing, but first it’s worth looking at other news of the week.

On Monday evening, HuffPo’s Shahien Nasiripour got his hands on a photocopied internal document from within the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Marked “confidential for AG Miller”, it shows that the CFPB is deeply involved in putting together the AGs’ settlement with mortgage servicers. Nasiripour wrote:

Perhaps most important to some lawmakers in Washington, the mere existence of the report suggests a much deeper link between the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, led by Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, and the 50 state attorneys general who are leading the nationwide probe into the five firms’ improper foreclosure practices, a development sure to anger Republicans in Congress and a banking industry intent on diminishing the fledgling CFPB’s legitimacy by questioning its authority to act before it’s officially launched in July.

Earlier this month, Warren told the House Financial Services Committee, under intense questioning, that her agency has provided limited assistance to the various state and federal agencies involved in the industry probes. At one point, she was asked whether she made any recommendations regarding proposed penalties. She replied that her agency has only provided “advice.”

The Republicans in Congress reacted exactly as Nasiripour said they would. Spencer Bachus immediately posted Nasiripour’s document on his website (the exact same photocopy, not any other version), and came out fighting:

Financial Services Committee Chairman Spencer Bachus and Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit Subcommittee Chairman Shelley Moore Capito are asking Elizabeth Warren, the Obama Administration official charged with setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, if she wants to clarify or correct her recent testimony regarding the Bureau’s role in the ongoing mortgage servicing settlement negotiations. Recent reports indicate that the CFPB’s role in these negotiations has been more extensive than Professor Warren suggested during her testimony before the Subcommittee earlier this month.

The Huffington Post’s document caused so much of a stir in Washington that even the NYT felt compelled to report on the developments:

Last week, Ms. Warren told the committee that she provided “advice” to the Treasury secretary and others about a possible settlement but was not involved in the negotiations. State attorneys general and federal officials are discussing a settlement with mortgage service companies in response to questionable foreclosure practices.

On Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Bachus released a seven-page document titled “Perspectives on Settlement Alternatives in Mortgage Servicing,” which, in a letter to Ms. Warren, he said demonstrated that she had a larger role than she had indicated to the committee.

Nowhere in the NYT story, which was written by Edward Wyatt, was there any indication that the document had been ferreted out by an assiduous reporter at the Huffington Post. And of course his link to the document was to house.gov rather than anything with HuffPo branding. In hindsight, Nasiripour would probably have been smart to put some kind of HuffPo watermark on the front page of the document, because both Wyatt and Bachus (with his vague reference to “recent reports”) seemed determined to ensure that Nasiripour got no credit for finding it at all.

And so to Goldman’s interview, which includes this jaw-dropping exchange:

I think that hiring a slew of traditional journalists seems counter to the model that made buying you appealing to AOL.

We already had 148 journalists on payroll at The Huffington Post. I don’t know how you can say that.

I look at your writers much less than I find myself clicking on stuff that’s been aggregated or the more salacious, boob-related posts.

Nasiripour’s scoop was hugely popular on the HuffPo site: wonky news and grainy photocopies can still generate 1,173 Facebook shares, 1,627 comments, and 2,760 Facebook likes. Total pageviews were surely much higher than on the NYT piece in which Wyatt aggregated Nasiripour’s information without crediting him. But Andrew Goldman doesn’t seem to be drawn to that stuff: instead he “finds himself” clicking on boobs. Which surely says more about Andrew Goldman than it does about the Huffington Post.

What’s certain is that Goldman is taking his cues from his boss. Here’s Keller:

The queen of aggregation is, of course, Arianna Huffington, who has discovered that if you take celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications, array them on your Web site and add a left-wing soundtrack, millions of people will come.

Goldman, before he starts talking about aggregation and boobs, asks the same question — “aren’t you left-wing” — four different times before finally letting it drop. Which of course was the whole subject of Keller’s second attack on Huffington.

The big picture here is that the NYT is obviously feeling very threatened by the Huffington Post, and is reacting by lashing out blindly in a fit of name-calling, rather than actually trying to learn from what the HuffPo does well.

So long as the NYT continues to consider the Huffington Post to be boobs and kittens set to a left-wing soundtrack, Huffington has nothing to fear. If the NYT instead treated HuffPo with respect, and linked to it when it deserved such credit, the NYT’s staffers might begin to learn a bit more about what HuffPo is doing right. And that has to be more valuable, over the long term, than criticizing it for what they think it’s doing wrong.

Update: Auros notes in the comments that the leak is not, actually, particularly damaging to Warren, calling it “a total non-event”. Which again redounds to HuffPo’s favor. The NYT covered the leak only in the context of political horse-race news — as a stick which one party was using to bash the other party. HuffPo, on the other hand, concentrated on the substance of the report. The headline was “Big Banks Save Billions As Homeowners Suffer, Internal Federal Report By CFPB Finds”; the stuff about angering Republicans came reasonably far down in the 1,300-word story.

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