It occurred to me though I wrote about going to the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Philadelphia I never said anything about actually attending the convention. Setting all the Al Sharpton drama aside, it’s worth getting into.
As much as it will distress the convention officials we didn’t stay at the official convention hotel, the Philadelphia Marriott as it was priced a bit out of our budget and since nobody pays my way to these gatherings of the tribe but me, what’s out of our budget is always a major consideration.
We stayed at The Independent, a smaller boutique hotel minus all the trappings of a major chain (no valet service, no on site gym, no parking garage and no hotel bar), but without the jacked-up prices you get for those luxuries. The Independent was clean, comfortable and austere. I wanted something close to the convention site because in its sprawling Center City area Philadelphia is a walking city.
The first full day of the convention kicked off with an opening ceremony and this year’s featured an address from Attorney General Eric Holder followed by a plenary session dubbed “A Conversation with Arianna Huffington,” a title that proved misleading. It was more of a monologue than a dialogue.
Anyone who has followed this blog knows I have issues with the president and editor of The Huffington Post. Mostly because she’s a cheap exploiter of writers and journalists who reeks of hypocrisy even while she pumps out a pseudo progressive political slant uncomfortably juxtaposed with a heavy dose of brainless celebrity worship.
Waiting for me at the hotel was a box of flyers from the The Newspaper Guild and the National Writers Union I was going to distribute at the convention asking Huffington to create a business model that promotes paying the HuffPo’s unpaid writers, photographers, cartoonists and other contributors. Queen Arianna has shown no interest in channeling any of the $315 million AOL coughed up to buy the HuffPo into the pockets of those whose labor made the news aggregator valuable in the first place.
That morning I arrived at the cavernous Philadelphia Convention Center and left the flyers in key spots where others could find them including outside of the main ballroom where Huffington was scheduled to appear. Representatives of the Newspaper Guild showed up to hand out more information to the attendees as well. Many NABJ members have no idea of how sketchy Queen Arianna’s journalism practices are.
My anticipation was instead of facing questions from an audience of experienced journalists, Huffington would duck the inquiries about her wretched labor questions. That anticipation was confirmed. Huffington only submitted to a few Twitter questions asked by moderator Lester Holt. No live questioning from the floor. That limited the scope of questions to what could be fitted into 140 characters and there was no chance to ask follow-up questions. Queen Arianna had made sure she had a built-in escape hatch and NABJ apparently agreed to the kid gloves treatment.
Huffington fielded one question about her no pay for play practices and she blandly deflected the criticism by boasting the HuffPo has 1,300 paid staffers and nobody forces anyone to write for them. She stuck to her standard line how contributing to the HuffPo provides a “platform” for aspiring writers, journalists and bloggers.
“People can choose to participate in the platform, if they have something they want to write that requires wider distribution, or not to participate in the platform,” Huffington said. “We are not dependent on them.”
I call bull. Huffington built her business on the backs of the unpaid writers she now claims she isn’t dependent upon. Her background is one of a status-seeking socialite, not a crusading publisher.
Huffington asked her Black staffers in the audience to stand up. One of her newest hires is Christina Norman, the former CEO of the Oprah Winfrey Network, who was ousted from her position by Oprah. Norman, who will lead the HuffPo Black Voices division is considered a major “get” by Huffington whose aspiration of creating a similar media empire lays bare her ambitions of becoming the Greek Oprah.
Huffington’s pretense as a progressive crusader is undercut by her overbearing superiority complex, barely concealed disdain for working people and phony aristocratic bearing which is never too far from swaggering into view. Huffington is one of the most powerful women in the world and a media mogul. She has a way to go before she becomes the universal brand that Oprah is, but don’t doubt her desire to hold the crown of Queen of All Media exclusively for herself. She has the ambition and has already demonstrated the ruthlessness.
It was a mistake in the first place to invite a poseur and exploiter like Huffington to speak at NABJ’s convention. What she does is the antithesis of serious journalism. To allow her to do nothing more but announce the HuffPo was seeking contributors (unpaid, of course) to the newly revamped AOL Black Voices site was an insult.
Attorney General Holder was left with the thankless task of being the warm-up act for Queen Arianna and brought with him a videotaped greeting to NABJ from President Obama. Otherwise, the news value of the opening ceremony was pretty much nil except for former NBC Universal chief diversity officer Paula Madison pledging $100,000 to support the 2012 NABJ convention in New Orleans.
Madison, whose family holdings include the Africa Channel and the WNBA Los Angeles Sparks, was motivated by her wish to support NABJ which will be competing with the UNITY 2012 convention in Las Vegas for sponsors and attendees. NABJ split from the UNITY coalition of minority journalism organizations over differences in finances, accountability and respect. The fallout from this messy divorce hung over the entire convention and had prompted the New York Times to announce they would be attending the UNITY gathering instead of NABJ next year.
Madison told the audience, “To every NABJ member who is wavering whether to make a choice between UNITY and NABJ, let me just say to you: If you are three blocks down the street, and folks can’t see your gender, they can see your skin color.”
The message was clear. UNITY is nice, but you’re first, foremost and always Black and that precludes fanciful notions of reaching across the table to other groups of color.
“No matter how you define yourself, you are defined by the rest of the world as black,” Madison said.
The only decision I’ve made about NABJ in N’awlins or UNITY in Vegas is I don’t see myself in either place next summer. Attending these conventions are expensive propositions when you’re footing the bills to be there. The story of why NABJ split from UNITY is a long and winding road that probably needs its own post, but it comes down to the usual reasons. Money, power and respect and the NABJ board felt it was getting enough of any of the three from UNITY.
More about that in Part 2 and how that messy separation turned what should have been a routine one-hour board meeting into a three-hour soul-searching of what NABJ stands for and where its priorities should be.
- HuffPost TV: WATCH: Arianna Speaks At NABJ 2011 (huffingtonpost.com)
- Media Decoder: Black Journalist Group’s Members Want Talks on Rejoining Alliance (mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com)
- National Association of Black Journalists to open 36th convention in Philadelphia (philly.com)
- United No More: Minority Journalists Alliance Breaks Down (indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com)