A stench emerged this week from the archives of HuffPost. Following the death of Otto Wambier, a University of Virginia student who had spent 17 months in a North Korean prison before being sent home in a coma, critics alighted on a piece at HuffPost titled “North Korea Proves Your White Male Privilege Is Not Universal.” In the story, writer La Sha lamented that Warmbier, who had gone to North Korea as part of a tour group, had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster, but provided an explanation as to how this turn of events had come about.
“As shocked as I am by the sentence handed down to Warmbier, I am even more shocked that a grown man, an American citizen, would not only voluntarily enter North Korea but also commit what’s been described a ‘college-style prank,’ ” wrote Sha in a March 2016 piece that was posted elsewhere. “That kind of reckless gall is an unfortunate side effect of being socialized first as a white boy, and then as a white man in this country.” Though Sha couldn’t possibly have interviewed Warmbier, she professed to know what was bouncing around in his head. “Yeah, I’m willing to bet my last dollar that he was aware of the political climate in that country, but privilege is a hell of a drug,” she wrote. “The high of privilege told him that North Korea’s history of making examples out of American citizens who dare challenge their rigid legal system in any way was no match for his alabaster American privilege.”
Such conclusions took on an even more ghastly feel after we learned that Warmbier’s condition hadn’t been disclosed by North Korean authorities. “There is no excuse for any civilized nation” to behave in such a manner, said the late student’s father, Fred Warmbier. Otto Warmbier was sent home to Ohio shortly before his death.
Various outlets, including Fox News, NewsBusters and many commentators pounded HuffPost — as well as Salon and Comedy Central — for turning this story into one about white privilege, as opposed to the privilege of a North Korean tyrant. For more on Sha’s shallow thinking, please try The Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg.
For days now, the Erik Wemple Blog has been attempting to engage HuffPost in a discussion about the piece. Lena Auerbuch Anderson, a spokeswoman for the site, emailed this statement: “HuffPost’s contributor platform operates an opinion site that hosts hundreds of items per day, and inevitably some are going to be more controversial than others,” reads the statement. “We enforce clear standards regarding hate speech and factual accuracy, but we’re not in the business of deleting posts because we disagree with the opinions in them.”
That contributor platform is a holdover from the days when HuffPost was the Huffington Post, the creation of mogul Arianna Huffington. The idea was to supplement the often-very-good original reporting of the Huffington Post with a come-one, come-all content vertical that delivered free content — and free traffic — from voices everywhere. It was a critical part of the founder’s utopia of very well-rested liberals improving the world one clickbaity blog post at a time, mixed with a managerial blind spot toward tawdry partnerships with mattress producers and ride-sharing companies.
Just last year, the outlet streamlined procedures for posting on the contributor platform, the better to boost the ranks of these folks from 100,000 to 1 million. A backlash ensued, as reported by Lucia Moses. “Even before this change, there were conflicting opinions in the blogging community about whether or not it was ‘worth it’ to write for Huffington Post since they don’t pay. So now that they’re more selective about which posts are featured, many bloggers have just turned their back on it completely,” Candis Hidalgo, of smartmomblogger.com, told Moses.
Since then, change has visited the Huffington Post. Starting with the name. Arianna Huffington left the site last year for different opportunities in the sleep-and-relaxation sector. In came Lydia Polgreen, a highly respected editor at the New York Times. A rebranding effort changed the name from “Huffington Post” to “HuffPost.” A recent round of layoffs has thinned the editorial ranks by 39.
And the contributor platform is closed to new entrants, as of this writing. We asked Anderson whether that status reflected any policy decision at HuffPost. We didn’t get a reply, though one source indicated that Polgreen “wants to build a mini-New York Times.” The New York Times lacks a freewheeling contributor network.
The Erik Wemple Blog would prefer to bag anonymous descriptions of Polgreen’s intentions in favor of input directly from her. Repeated appeals for an interview, however, went nowhere. With her background in mainstream media, though, Polgreen surely grasps the awkwardness of the contributor system that she has inherited. Why should her reporters have to deal with the fallout from a story that they had no role in generating? “Staffers aren’t thrilled when some controversial contributor piece gets intertwined with what the newsroom is trying to do,” says a HuffPost source.
For an example of when HuffPost does delete a contributor piece, please see this archived item from February. Contributor René Zografos argued that President Trump was right in his comments about the impact of immigration in Sweden. “It’s well known for Scandinavians and other Europeans that liberal immigration comes with drugs, rapes, gang wars, robbery and violence,” wrote Zografos. “Additional to that we see the respective nations cultures fading away, for good and for bad.” Also: “The truth is, that several European cities have huge immigration problems where even the police force is afraid to interfere in some locations in these cities. UK, France and several other European countries are changing rapidly with extreme quantity of immigration. I’m not saying immigration is only bad, but a lot of problems come with poor immigration policy, as consequences we get violence, terror and gangs.”