Michael Calderone has a column at Politico that suggests a new tactical approach by Republicans to get their message out. He asserts, that the GOP is exploiting the broad reach of the Huffington Post to expand their media presence. It’s not a particularly bad idea as HuffPo is cracking 8.8 million unique visitors a month. But it is a cynical effort to advance propaganda and, to the extent that HuffPo is an accessory to it, it is shameful and counterproductive.
The insidious element to this plot is that the GOP isn’t trying to reach out to new voters or gain access to people that might not otherwise be exposed to their views. They are taking advantage of the popular web site to use as a platform from which to launch their viewpoints into more mainstream media in much the same way that conservatives have used the Drudge Report. In his column, Calderone interviewed a collection of Republican press reps who confess to this strategy.
John Hart, press secretary to Sen. Tom Coburn: [I]t’s one of a handful of sites that can have an instant impact on the national debate.
Brian Rogers, spokesman for Sen. John McCain: HuffPo and [Talking Points Memo] really are the assignment editors for many in the Washington press corps – particularly the cables.
Brad Dayspring, press secretary for Rep. Eric Cantor: The reality is that at the end of the day, like them or dislike them, sites like The Huffington Post, Plum Line, Salon, and others can drive news.
Michael Steel, press secretary for House Republican leader John Boehner: Republican aides [are] being sure to engage with liberal websites like Huffington Post – just because for no other reason than they drive a lot of cable coverage.
Alex Conant, former RNC national press secretary: When I was at the RNC, it wasn’t something that could be ignored. To the contrary, I thought the more we could work with them – recognizing they had a bias – the better off we were.
Republicans are well aware that much of the audience at HuffPo is not sympathetic to their cause. But that’s irrelevant. Part of the strategy is to drive a wedge between the Democratic establishment and its activist base. Another part is just to garner more publicity:
“Huffington Post reporter Ryan Grim, a former POLITICO staffer, said that after the House leadership released a video earlier this month questioning the White House on national security, a senior House Republican aide reached out to make sure he’d received it – that’s despite knowing how the site would probably play the story (and how commenters would react).
The piece that resulted – “House GOP Obama Ad Aims to Terrify” – likely appealed to liberal Huffington Post readers, while also drawing attention to the Republican clip, which is what the party wanted all along.“
Liz Mair, former RNC online communications director: While I certainly never expected left-of-center sites to echo our message, giving them access to information or background they needed to report accurately (if not favorably) was certainly something I thought of (and think of) as useful, given that their audience is not solely comprised of Democratic activists, and given that storylines that begin on left-of-center blogs frequently find their way onto the nightly news and into other outlets where a lot of swing voters get their information.
HuffPo, for it’s part is not the least bit concerned about how they are being used. Arianna Huffington told Politico that the attention the site gets from Republicans…
“…is a reflection of our traffic, our brand, and the fact that we are increasingly seen … as an Internet newspaper, not positioned ideologically in terms of how we cover the news.”
HuffPo is, of course, a business, and it has every right to pursue a mission that furthers it’s financial interests. However, if their stock in trade is their audience, then there is something untoward about exploiting them to benefit an ideological opponent. In other words, HuffPo should not be permitted to sell us out to right-wing flacks who just want to do us harm. If it is our patronage that makes HuffPo such a valuable asset, perhaps we ought not to be so patronizing.
There is nothing wrong with providing a forum that presents diverse opinions and perspectives. But there is a limit reached when you are seen by one side as simply an avenue to advance their public profile, further their media strategy, and beat you, and your audience, over the head with your own bat. You know you’ve reached that limit when Grover Norquist says of you…
“There are fewer better places to refute the opening bid by the [Democrats] than to plant your flag in the middle of The Huffington Post.”
HuffPo would be wise to consider that, if it is their readers that make them an appealing political community, they may want to avoid alienating those readers by serving the interests of their opponents. How many HuffPo readers would continue to visit the site were it to turn into a fancier version of the Drudge Report? And once readership scales back, how many Republicans would still view it as a useful platform?
Continuing down this path would be a downward spiral for HuffPo. They should take note of this and correct course as soon as possible. The market has no need for an Internet news/community that caters to the far right. They already have Fox Nation.