U.S. progressive media has had a tough few weeks. First, Keith Olbermann, the pioneer for liberal programming during MSNBC's evening hours, was sent packing. Then, Arianna Huffington allowed AOL to subsume her Huffington Post into AOL's right-of-center content for the price tag of $315 million.
Leftist bloggers who had provided free content to Huffington Post, enabling it to become a valuable property, found themselves quite literally sold out, with Huffington pocketing $18 million while making clear that she won't battle for the liberal banner inside AOL.
Huffington joined with her new boss, AOL Chairman Tim Armstrong, to declare that their focus will be on how many eyeballs can be drawn to AOL, not in pushing progressive causes.
"Arianna has the same interest we do, which is serving consumers' needs and going beyond the just straight political needs of people," Armstrong said.
For her part, Huffington noted that her Web site was already shedding its political identity, providing more celebrity news and scandal stories, including a new section devoted to divorces. While about half of the traffic was on politics a couple of years ago, she said, that is now down to about 15-percent with only one of two dozen "sections" centered on politics.
Huffington, who burst onto the national stage in the 1990s as a right-wing talker denouncing President Bill Clinton, indicated in the wake of the sale to AOL that she may be shifting her ideology again.
"It's time for all of us in journalism to move beyond left and right," Huffington told PBS's "NewsHour." "Truly, it is an obsolete way of looking at the problems America is facing."
As Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank noted, Huffington used almost the same words when she changed her political colorations a decade ago. In 2000, she told Fox News, "The old distinctions of right and left, Democrat, Republican, are pretty obsolete."
"Anybody who expects her to continue as a reliable voice of the left is a poor student of Huffington history. I first came across Huffington in 1995, when she was working at [Newt] Gingrich's Progress and Freedom Foundation, preaching social consciousness to fellow conservatives.
"She railed against 'big government' and pronounced: 'We do our part and God meets us halfway. That's why I'm a conservative.' That version of Huffington called for strict immigration restrictions. She favored Bill Clinton's resignation and floated the rumor that a former ambassador had been buried in Arlington because Clinton had slept with his wife."
She thrived as a rightist talking-head during the height of the Clinton-bashing in the 1990s, decrying his marital infidelity even as her own marriage to Rep. Michael Huffington, R-California, had the look of a political arrangement. She divorced the multimillionaire Huffington in 1997, shortly before he disclosed that he was bisexual.
A Second Divorce
Emerging from the divorce with a sizeable settlement, Arianna Huffington also separated from her right-wing ideological family. She moved leftward, filling what turned out to be a lucrative void as an outspoken leader of Hollywood's liberal community.
While many on the Left embraced Huffington's ideological transformation then -- with some wealthy progressives contributing substantial sums to her liberal projects -- others remained skeptical, in part, because she never fully explained the reasons for her political shift.
She spoke only generally about how the Right had "seduced, fooled, blinded, bamboozled" her. But some of her critics saw instead an opportunistic calculation in her chameleon-like approach to politics.
In 2005, Huffington founded Huffington Post, which operated with a business model that relied on activists, politicians and entertainers contributing free content. The Web site soon became an important center for progressives critical of George W. Bush's presidency.