- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2011

It’s grandly being billed as a “brand-new media universe.”

The monumental $315 million merger of the Web-based Huffington Post and Internet pioneer AOL announced Monday could prove either a canny business alliance or expensive folly. Arianna Huffington’s media hybrid — famed for its cheeky mix of breaking news, celebrity gossip and liberal opinion — could be defanged by its more bipartisan benefactor, risking the loss of its core appeal.

Critics are already critiquing the mix.

AOL News is fooling only itself in thinking there is no journalistic conflict in merging with a hate-filled, vicious, radically left-wing rag,” observed Brent Bozell, founder of the Media Research Center.

Indeed, the content of the Huffington Post has been so open about its political bias and what the conservative watchdog group deemed “hate speech towards conservatives” that Media Research Center analysts granted the online publication its own special ongoing category: “Huffington’s House of Horrors” and compiled a special report on the site.

Profanity, crude references, cheap tricks and cruel talk — mocking former Vice President Dick Cheney’s serious heart condition, for example — were the norm, Mr. Bozell’s group concluded.

“Left-wingers are probably going to get nervous that AOL will water down the Huff-Post’s wackiness from celebrities like Alec Baldwin and John Cusack, just like they’ve worried that Comcast will drain all the Keith Olbermann-style rants out of MSNBC,” said Tim Graham, director of analysis.

“Corporate takeovers bring out all the censorship paranoia on the left,” he said.

The deal was three months in the making, with the dramatic signing between AOL CEO Tim Armstrong and Ms. Huffington literally taking place at the Super Bowl. The result: a new media entity called Huffington Post Media Group. In the aftermath, both sides were brimming with big talk and aspirations to create a journalistic destination seemingly intended to be everything to everybody.

“By combining HuffPost with AOL’s network of sites, thriving video initiative, local focus, and international reach, we know we’ll be creating a company that can have an enormous impact, reaching a global audience on every imaginable platform,” Ms. Huffington said Monday.

Mr. Armstrong, eager to shore up the flagging buzz and brand appeal of what the Virginia-based company once called “America Online,” has bought three other Internet-based news and information entities since November. The strategic alliance is “a merger of visions,” he said.

The six-year-old Huffington Post turned its first profit last year, when it booked some $30 million in advertising. It projects ad revenue to continue rising, but also faces rising costs as it seeks to provide more original content and attract high-profile contributors.

“What HuffPo and Arianna bring is a new cultural understanding of media that is built around the value of curation, the power of peers, the link economy, passion as an asset, and celebrity as a currency,” said media columnist Jeff Jarvis, author of the 2009 book “What Would Google Do?” and founder of Buzz Machine, a media blog.

Ms. Huffington will assume control of all editorial direction and become the public face of parent company AOL. She has already assured critics that her personal politics will not affect her corporate decisions.

Predictions for a massive new audience are already emerging. On its own, The Huffington Post drew a healthy 25 million viewers each month. Through the AOL “platform,” that audience potentially could reach 100 million visitors in the U.S. alone, according to predictions from the two principals.

The merger follows last week’s launch of The Daily, another high-concept, big-money entry into the media marketplace. Founder Rupert Murdoch intends for the 100-page daily newspaper, available on Apple’s iPad and tricked out with all manner of electronic bells and whistles, to be “magic.”

The News Corp. CEO, in concert with Apple founder Steve Jobs, said he wants “to inform people, to make them think, to help them engage in the great issues of the day.”

Some remain unfazed by all the hype.

“I’m not sure what the Huff Post/AOL merger means,” said veteran CBS newsman Mark Knoller, whose frequent, content-rich Twitter posts about political machinations at the White House have become insider must-reads in recent days.

“But if anyone’s interested in purchasing my tweets for $300 million, I’m available for negotiations,” Mr. Knoller added.