Artists Strike Against The Huffington Post

On February 26, 2011, the publisher and co-editor of Visual Art Source and ArtScene, Bill Lasarow, released an open letter to the arts community entitled, “On Strike from the Huffington Post.” The opinion piece is a call for artists and arts writers to “go on strike” against the Huffington Post over labor and content issues; the call no doubt coming in reaction to media giant AOL purchasing the Huffington Post for $315 million on Feb. 7, 2011. AOL has also given Huffington oversight over all of AOL’s media properties. Specifically Mr. Lasarow calls for two demands to be met by the Huffington Post before the strike can end, that a pay schedule “be proposed and steps initiated to implement it for all contributing writers and bloggers,” and second, that “paid promotional material must no longer be posted alongside editorial content.”

VAS provides a comprehensive guide to galleries and museums in the western U.S. Its associated ArtScene magazine is available in over 450 galleries and museum bookstores in the greater Los Angeles area, an online version providing listings for exhibits along with art criticism. In short, VAS and ArtScene have become a prominent voice in the arts community in the Western U.S., and their stance regarding the Huffington Post is an important one for arts professionals to consider. Since Mr. Lasarow has called for his article to be circulated, I am re-publishing “On Strike from the Huffington Post” in full so as to further debate. I offer my own thoughts and criticisms in closing:

On Strike from the Huffington Post
Visual Art Source / info@visualartsource.com
ArtScene / artscene@artsenecal.com

“When we were invited to become a Huffington Post blogger last year I understood that the company paid nothing. We surveyed our writers’ reaction to assess their willingness to have their material reposted there for no additional pay. Visual Art Source, ArtScene and art ltd. (www.visualartsource.com) form an umbrella art publishing company that is actually quite large by the standards of our very specialized field. The tens of thousands of readers and online users that we boast, however, are miniscule compared to the 26 million visitors per month that the Huffington Post currently draws.

Yet we are now going on strike. For now, at least, no more content from us will appear on the Huffington Post.

And just like the corporate titans of the American Right, it would come as no surprise if Ms. Huffington, whom I am certain has a good heart and only the best intentions, were to assume the obvious position: Who needs these people anyway? They are not even employees.

Nonetheless, we shall remain on strike until these two demands are met. First, a pay schedule must be proposed and steps initiated to implement it for all contributing writers and bloggers. Second, paid promotional material must no longer be posted alongside editorial content; a press release or exhibition catalogue essay is fundamentally different from editorial content and must be either segregated and indicated as such, or not published at all.

I am also calling upon all others now contributing free content, particularly original content to the Huffington Post to also join us in this strike.

We think it is incumbent upon the many writers and bloggers to form a negotiating partnership with Huffington/AOL in order to pursue these and other important matters so as to professionalize this relationship. It is not entirely Ms Huffington’s fault that so many talented professionals have been willing to accept the company’s terms on an “in kind” basis. Surely most do so in the hopes of achieving their own fame and fortune thanks to the great exposure that Huffington Post potentially offers. Unfortunately, such participants are only complicit in a relationship that fails the ethical smell test. And those who are already nationally known figures who will never need to be concerned about pay scales, shame on you, you should know better.

It is unethical to expect trained and qualified professionals to contribute quality content for nothing. It is unethical to cannibalize the investment of other organizations who bear the cost of compensation and other overhead without payment for the usage of their content. It is extremely unethical to not merely blur but eradicate the distinction between the independent and informed voice of news and opinion and the voice of a shill.

None of this is illegal, only unethical and oh so very hypocritical, so Ms Huffington if you insist do carry on, by all means. However we are taking this action, with the full knowledge of our contributing writers and editors, in the belief that your better angels will enable you to do the right thing. We stand ready to provide whatever helpful input we can.

- Bill Lasarow
Publisher and Co-Editor

The special announcement from Visual Art Source/ArtScene is important for a number of reasons. The statement is a necessary break from the usual apolitical stance of arts publications, and it suggests a growing understanding of the intertwined relationship between art and politics, especially during this time of economic crisis, austerity budgets, and war. Bill Lasarow made further comments regarding the proposed strike in the VAS weekly newsletter of Feb. 25th., where he properly targeted the economic exploitation of writers and urged collective action:

“We have decided to call for a strike of the unpaid, non-unionized, and unemployed Huffington Post contributors. Let all writers cease to contribute for now, and until the executives at the Huffington Post negotiate a proper contract with those writers they ought to deny them the profit-generating benefits of unpaid labor.”

I fully support Mr. Lasarow’s position that writers must receive fair compensation for their works, but he does not go far enough with his critique of the Huffington Post/AOL deal. The crucial question of adequate pay for writers and bloggers aside, there is another equally critical issue at stake. Lasarow fails to address the core political question that swirls around AOL’s acquisition of the Huffington Post, that of the marginalization and destruction of independent media by the juggernaut of corporate power.

At present six giant U.S. conglomerates - General Electric, Walt Disney, News Corp., Viacom, CBS, and TimeWarner - control nearly all radio, television, print, cable, and telecom companies in America. AOL belonged to the TimeWarner media empire before spinning off on its own in 2005, nonetheless AOL has erected its own corporate fiefdom which now includes the Huffington Post. As far as its involvement in or sensitivity to art and culture, it should be noted that in 2005 AOL launched TMZ.com, the dreadful celebrity gossip and entertainment “news” website and TV series that epitomizes the type of retrograde commercial “culture” served up to the American people. Why should artists and writers form a “negotiating partnership with Huffington/AOL” or otherwise accommodate themselves to media moguls, who now more than anything, resemble the Robber Barons of the American 19th century?

The Huffington Post became a toxic mix of frivolous celebrity gossip, pop entertainment, fashion, and “lifestyle” amusements, all held together by democratic party politics and a glut of commercial advertisements - and that was before its purchase by AOL! The muddle will only grow worse as AOL implements its “Project Devil” ad placement scheme on its newly acquired acquisition. The large format “Devil” ads will take up a third of a page, and they contain modules for video, images, rotating content, and other distractions. All of this is anathema to serious journalism and social activism, let alone any type of thought-provoking art criticism.

Since its founding in 2005, the ostensibly liberal Huffington Post has been naively regarded by many contributors and readers as a counterbalance to the stranglehold corporations maintain over the U.S. media landscape. Content providers to the Huffington Post have contributed their works for free in the sincere belief they were helping to create an alternative platform for a “progressive” political vision, i.e., they believed they were part of a cause that would help bring about social change. These volunteer workers built the Huffington Post from the ground up, for Ms. Huffington to sell the project to a corporate leviathan clarifies matters, which is why writers and content providers are abandoning the Huffington Post in droves. It is problematic that Bill Lasarow mentions none of this is his call for a strike. Chris Hedges, in his article Huffington’s Plunder, put it this way:

“The argument made to defend this exploitation is that the writers had a choice. It is an argument I also heard made by the managers of sweatshops in the Dominican Republic and Mexico, the coal companies in West Virginia or Kentucky and huge poultry farms in Maine. It is the argument made by the comfortable, by those who do not know what it is to be hard up, desperate or driven by a passion to express one’s self and the world through journalism or art. It is the argument the wealthy elite, who have cemented in place an oligarchic system under which there are no real choices, use to justify their oppression.”

With progressives deserting the Huffington Post over its becoming the very thing they have been working against, it would be the worst kind of opportunism for artists and arts writers to fill the gap left by earnest reformers. Those who continue to write for the AOL/Huffington colossus will no longer be able to feign having a stance that is above politics. Instead of temporarily withholding their labor from the Huffington Post, arts professionals should do so permanently.

To defend and promote non-corporate citizen’s journalism Adbusters has initiated a campaign it calls “Huff & Puff It Down.” Essentially a boycott, the Adbusters drive hopes to “strike a blow against the corporate media and simultaneously energize the indie blogosphere.” Adbusters is encouraging support for a wide array of alternative media sources that are decidedly free of corporate intervention and manipulation.

UPDATE: On March 3, 2011, Arianna Huffington publicly responded to the Visual Art Source strike call at the 2011 PaidContent Conference held in New York City. Speaking from a podium alongside AOL’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Tim Armstrong, Huffington contemptuously dismissed the strike with the following words; “The idea of going on strike when no one really notices - go ahead, go on strike.” But people are noticing, and the call for a writer’s strike against the recently acquired AOL property has been duly noted by mainstream publications from the Atlantic Wire to the Los Angeles Times. Bill Lasarow, publisher and co-editor of VAS and ArtScene, was invited to publish an opinion piece in the U.K. Guardian regarding the strike, which exposes the matter to a European audience.

On March 6, 2011, VAS sent out a special announcement regarding the strike. The statement concluded with the following words: “One thing we are starting to do is gather contact information to reach out to as many current Huffington Post bloggers as possible. Please forward names and emails of anyone you know in this area; if you are a current HP contributor and/or want to join in on this, or have already, please let us know.” You may contact VAS at, info@visualartsource.com.

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