MERGERS AND ACQUISITIONS: Less than a decade ago, on the eve of the Iraq invasion, MSNBC dumped Phil Donahue because he was too liberal for major media. Oh, how times have changed. Suddenly, progressives are hot properties. On February 7, Internet services giant AOL bought The Huffington Post for $315 million in a bid to reposition itself as a content provider. HuffPo co-founder Arianna Huffington, a former conservative turned progressive icon, was installed as the president of a new AOL company with multiple sites and a domestic audience of 117 million.
One day later, Al Gore and Joel Hyatt recruited Keith Olbermann—who proved that MSNBC could be liberal and successful, before signing off in January—as Current TV’s “chief news officer,” with a nightly program of his own and a charge to build a fresh news and public affairs cable network. Olbermann is now an equity stakeholder in Current, which is controlled by Gore and Hyatt but partially owned by NBC’s parent company, Comcast.
So within days, two of progressive media’s best-known figures have become potentially definitional players in “big media.” Why is this happening now? Today’s savvier cable and digital media CEOs recognize that there is money to be made by appealing to niche audiences. Like conservatives, progressives form a “community” ripe for targeting. Investing in Huffington and Olbermann, innovators with records of attracting progressive audiences, makes business sense.
Unfortunately, Huffington and Olbermann face tremendous pressure to attract not just audiences but revenue, pressure that has ruined many a news project. If they retain their independence while using greater resources, they could increase their influence and the quality of the discourse. Still, those of us who were reared on the teachings of George Seldes and I.F. Stone will be excused if we continue to believe that the most vital journalism will always come from scrappy independents who remain free enough from bottom-line pressures to speak truth to power—even when it’s bad for business. JOHN NICHOLS
DLC DEAD; CENTRISM LIVES: The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the mainstay of the New Democrat movement for thirty years, is on the verge of bankruptcy and has decided to suspend operations immediately, likely for good.
Under the leadership of former Congressional aide Al From, the DLC grew quickly in the 1980s and early ’90s as aspiring Democratic politicians—most notably, Bill Clinton—gravitated to the organization, which existed to break the power of liberal interest groups inside the Democratic Party and attract support from the business community. Under DLC cover, New Democrats were able to shed the “tax and spend” stigma of the McGovern/Mondale years, raise big dollars from corporate America and pick up establishment media support. As president, Clinton largely followed the DLC program of balanced budgets, free trade and financial deregulation, relying on DLC aides like Bruce Reed, William Galston and Elaine Kamarck. A top aide to Jesse Jackson groused of the Clinton-era Democratic Party, “The DLC has taken it over.”