Some men used to pretend they read Playboy magazine for its fiction—an utterly transparent and pathetic rationalization meant to disguise a perfectly natural interest in naked women.
The Huffington Post evokes a similar rationalization. Where Playboy was a skin magazine that offered “shelter” in the form of quality fiction, HuffPo is a beehive of frivolous pop culture that purports to be an intellectual journal. We can go there without feeling guilty, as if we’re visiting Foreign Affairs’ little brother.
While HuffPo does, undeniably, offer some intellectual sobriety, most of the material is devoted to glamour, attitude, faux-trends, sex scandals, predictions, smug irony and sophomoric humor (“Douchebag of the year awards”). And if you don’t think Arianna considers the site to be high-brow, listen to her on the panel shows; she portrays it as the Internet version of a 19th century literary salon.
Its success shouldn’t surprise anyone. In addition to the wide assortment of celebrity buzz and glitterati, you get political commentary from movie stars and Hollywood wags (Alec Baldwin, Clay Aiken, Andy Borowitz, Jamie Lee Curtis, Harry Shearer, et al). Instead of some obscure college professor writing about Afghanistan, you get Bill Maher writing about it.
HuffPo’s popularity coincides with that of cable television’s, History Channel, which, given its staid, no-nonsense title—and if you didn’t know any better—would lead you to believe it was dedicated to the straightforward, even scholarly treatment of….well, history. But after catching a few episodes of “Ancients Behaving Badly,” you realize that isn’t the case. Edward Gibbon it ain’t.
Yet, there are people who boast that they wouldn’t waste their time watching sappy movies or network sitcoms, preferring instead the History Channel—suggesting that their goal in life is to improve rather than amuse themselves. Alas, what they’re really saying is that they have a well-developed Hitler fetish.
An early example of tabloid TV is 60 Minutes. Until the show was exposed, back in the eighties, and CBS was forced to discontinue the practice, they used what were called “inserts.” An insert is a device intended to make the correspondents (particularly Mike Wallace) appear tougher on screen.
The way it worked was for Wallace to ask the guest a controversial or embarrassing question and get him/her to answer it. Then, after the guest left, Wallace would reshoot the scene, asking the identical question, but in a much different manner. This time he would be shown asking it aggressively, mercilessly, demanding that the guest answer. And this “tougher” version was inserted into the telecast.
An insert was used when the Shah of Iran appeared as a guest. Wallace asked the Shah to defend the brutal practices of SAVAK, Iran’s dreaded state-run secret police, and the Shah answered. He lied, of course, but he answered. Afterward, they reshot the bit, this time with Wallace appearing to berate the Shah, bullying him, taking him to task for SAVAK’s excesses.
By the time this latter footage was being shot, the Shah was already in his limo headed back to the hotel, unaware that 60 Minutes viewers would later see Mike Wallace demanding that he come clean on SAVAK. In truth, had Wallace dared use that tone with him, the Shah likely would have clammed up….or walked off the set.
Mind you, I’m not putting myself above this stuff. I read HuffPo. I watch sleaze TV. Indeed, I can’t wait to learn if Hitler and Eva Braun had a bastard love child. As for Playboy, I’m proud to say I eventually outgrew it…..and moved on to Penthouse.
DAVID MACARAY, a playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org