Huffington, at Columnists’ Convention, Tackles Coulter, Will, Woodward

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By: Dave Astor

Arianna Huffington talked about the “pathology of Ann Coulter,” commented on George Will, warned journalists not to fall into the “access trap,” and even invited a college columnist to blog on her Huffington Post site. It was all in an hour’s work during a Saturday speech at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC) conference here.

Coulter is “one of the most toxic people on the American cultural scene,” said Huffington, who also does a syndicated column for Tribune Media Services. She added that “you would have to sacrifice your soul” to say the kinds of things Coulter says in her books, appearances, and Universal Press Syndicate column.

Huffington acknowledged that Coulter’s outrageousness can be compelling to some. “People are so used to manufactured political speech that there’s a kind of longing for someone to say something, no matter how crazy,” she observed.

Huffington has appeared and debated with Coulter in the past, but said she won’t again. “There’s no point in giving her more oxygen to consume,” she explained.

Asked about another conservative columnist, Huffington said, “George Will has written columns about the Iraq War that are more negative than some other columns by Republicans.” She added that some columnists would hesitate to break with Bush administration policies because they’d risk “making people in their social circle unhappy.”

When she left the Republican Party about 10 years ago and began moving to the liberal side of the spectrum, Huffington said she’d be at a party where people would say, ‘What’s she doing here?'” The speaker hastened to add: “Trust me, I’m not missing it.”

Then there’s that “access trap.” Huffington said The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward fell into it, moving from investigative reporting during the Watergate era to someone who had so much access to the Bush White House that he “missed the story of this country being misled into war.”

Many bloggers “have no access,” added Huffington. “That can be an advantage. You’re not afraid of things like not getting invited to the White House Christmas party, which leads so many journalists to self-censor.”

But Huffington noted that the mainstream print media still breaks a lot of important stories, such as U.S. torture at Abu Ghraib and the Haditha massacre. And she said many people continue to get their news from print rather than online.

One problem with the mainstream media is that even when it breaks an important story, said Huffington, it often moves on to another story. An important function of the blogosphere is that it can focus on a story again and again in the hopes that it will “break through the static” into the public consciousness. “The mainstream media is suffering from attention deficit disorder,” she said. “The blogosphere has obsessive compulsive disorder. With ADD and OCD, together we can be crazy-effective.”

Of course, some of the mainstream media is more interested in covering things — such as the Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson trials, and white blonde females who go missing — that divert attention away from more important issues. Huffington said a white blonde female who goes missing “is a tragedy but not a collective tragedy,” and added: “The most important thing we have is our time and energy. You’ve got to go cold turkey and not follow that stuff.”

What media should do is allow people to participate. “Readers don’t want to just listen, they want to be heard,” said Huffington. “It’s like a relationship. If only one person does the talking, how long is it going to last? Make the relationship interactive.”

Huffington also said online content shouldn’t be put behind a paid wall, as The New York Times did with its Op-Ed columnists. “Trust advertising as a source of revenue,” she told conference attendees. “Only 5% of advertising is online, but it’s growing 28% a year.”

Who was the student invited to become The Huffington Post’s 751st blogger? She’s Fernanda Diaz, a first-year student at Columbia University who won the NSNC’s 2006 scholarship for college columnists. “You can post any time you want,” Huffington told Diaz. “I’ll send you a password which is the key to the car.”

Huffington, who said her group blog is planning to launch a political satire section this September, was introduced to the audience by NSNC President Suzette Martinez Standring.

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