Most of the coverage of Verizon’s planned $4.4 billion acquisition of AOL—and thus of the Huffington Post and other news sites—has been almost giddy about all the moneymaking and technological possibilities. By merging with AOL, Verizon will expand by leaps and bounds into mobile video services and “programmatic ad buying,” bringing America’s largest mobile company “a new kind of energy and talent,” as one venture capitalist enthused. On its end of the pre-nup, AOL will get some much-needed cash and, still crumpled by its disastrous merger with Time-Warner in 2000, some fresh cachet.
And, whether Verizon sells HuffPost (most observers believe it will) or keeps it (AOL CEO Tim Armstrong insists, “AOL’s always going to be an owner of HuffPost”), the deal’s been deemed a win-win for Arianna Huffington. As Lloyd Grove writes, she “sold her digital media company to AOL for an eye-popping $315 million only four years ago, [and] has once again fallen into a giant tub of butter.”
But there hasn’t been nearly as much talk about what this means for the content—you know, the journalism. When a telecom giant at the center of every poli-techno controversy, from net neutrality to NSA spying, owns and is expected to invest millions in one of the world’s most-read news sites, what happens to editorial independence?
Verizon, after all, has its own dedicated page at HuffPost, much of which covers the telecom’s ongoing effort to strangle net neutrality. (Both HuffPost and AOL have been outspoken champions for keeping the web’s playing field level.) And even though the FCC has ruled in favor of the regulations for now, corporate lobbying continues. “Verizon and other major telecom companies have plans to challenge the regs,” Clark Mindock writes at Open Secrets, “But whether or not AOL changes its stance on net neutrality, the fact is that the biggest opponent of net neutrality rules is about to acquire one of the biggest proponents.… And AOL’s D.C. money presence is a drop in the bucket compared to Verizon’s.”
And how free would HuffPost be in the future to report on Verizon’s and other telecom’s involvement in government surveillance of Americans’ phone records? Or on Verizon’s support of the rightwing, Koch-backed policy-maker, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)? Just days before the Verizon/AOL deal was announced, HuffPost ran a post headlined: “Telecom Sleaze: ALEC and Its Communication’s Funders—AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Comcast and Time Warner Cable.” I’m just guessing, but that could be the last time we see HuffPost casually refer to Verizon as “sleaze.”