Earlier this morning, I had an opportunity to talk with Melinda Henneberger, AOL Politics Daily’s editor, over the controversy surrounding the site’s abrupt removal of an article critical of Playboy’s widely-reviled piece on conservative women and the firing of writer Tommy Christopher immediately afterwards. Henneberger responded this weekend by denying that Christopher got fired strictly because of the article. She also criticized the response of the blogosphere in not attempting to get AOL’s side of the story before launching near-universal condemnation, to which Newsbusters responded in detail on both charges, as did Tommy.
Asked about her reaction to the original piece, Henneberger explained that she didn’t read it, although she said she was the one who hit the delete button on the story. Another editor informed her that Tommy’s article contained “a lot of f* f* f*”, and Henneberger demanded that it get removed. Henneberger says that even the asterisked version of the profanity was unacceptable; she insisted that newspapers would not have represented the profanity at all, and that AOL-PD will follow a traditional set of editorial principles. “I don’t want cursing on the site, and I don’t want pretend cursing,” Henneberger said.
Henneberger still hasn’t read the original Playboy article, either. “I have no interest in seeing it,” she responded immediately. “It sounds disgusting.” She expressed a general revulsion of Playboy and its content as degrading to women. “My reaction is, ‘Isn’t that what Playboy does?’ Everything they do degrades women!”
AOL-PD’s efforts to remake itself have put in place a completely different paradigm, Henneberger explained, one that moves away from a blogging environment. “People used to be able to self-post,” but now they have to be edited prior to publication. Tommy’s article was not approved for publication before it hit the site, Henneberger said, and she didn’t want it reposted, so she deleted it. Melinda says that she asked Carl Cannon to talk to Tommy about standards specifically on this article and in general for the site, but that Carl reported back that Tommy didn’t want hear it on this or any other article. No one contacted Tommy to redo the piece, because “the communication wasn’t really happening.”
Was that the catalyst for Tommy’s firing? Melinda says the question was whether any of the existing AOL-PD staff could work in the new editorial standards. She made the decision that it wouldn’t work, based on her perception that Tommy wouldn’t work with them on standards. She refuted that anyone had decided that Tommy would stay — “no promises were made” — and said that e-mails saying anything to the contrary didn’t accurately reflect their thinking or the fact that they hadn’t made any firm decisions on final staffing.
Henneberger refutes the idea that Playboy’s relationship with Time Warner had anything to do with her decision. If anyone had demanded that kind of editorial action for corporate reasons, Henneberger says she would have quit immediately. In 25 years as a reporter and editor, including stints at the New York Times, Dallas Morning News, Newsweek, and Slate, Henneberger says she has never been pressured into coverage or non-coverage on a story. Time Warner is splitting off AOL at the moment anyway, and the cable division has been spun off already.
Henneberger wants AOL-PD to reflect “traditional journalistic values” and “absolutely” a traditional journalistic model. This isn’t ideological; she wants opinions, when they get published, are “well supported, well written” and worked through the editorial model. There are “a million places” where you can get the alternative, but she wants a “respectful” dialogue. They want a news/opinion magazine, not a blog, in the same model as Newsweek or Time, but built for the on-line audience rather than just as the website for a print-directed periodical.
AOL will be launching more of these on-line sites; they want to be the new model for journalism. Henneberger called it a “preservation society”, half-joking. They will be sending a reporter to Afghanistan to cover the war, and AOL wants to establish itself as a vanguard of the new economic model for the traditional journalistic model. Staffers have to commit to the traditional journalistic model and practices to be a part of AOL-PD, Henneberger says, in order to build their credibility as the next iteration of journalism.
Needless to say, AOL (in the form of their political site’s editor, Melinda Henneberger) is doing its level best to push back against even the suggestion that there was any causal relationship between Tommy Christopher’s Playboy criticism and his firing. First Ms. Henneberger claimed that Mr. Christopher was going to be let go anyway. Newsbusters quickly published an article that indicated that they had emails showing that Christopher was on good terms with AOL up to the very day of the firing. Newsbusters also addressed Henneberger’s claim to not have even seen the article in question with a screenshot of the record of her deleting it** (and here’s another one of an internal AOL email indicating that the whole subject should be dropped). Henneberger is now claiming that while she apparently did delete that article, after all, she didn’t actually read it; and that any internal/external emails out there that indicate that Christopher wasn’t getting fired until after this happened are not reflective of what was going on in real life; and how dare anyone criticize the motives of somebody who has worked for such bastions of journalistic integrity and couth as the New York Times, Newsweek, & Slate***. And oh, yes: she wants you to know that Playboy is disgusting. The exact quote is “Everything they do degrades women!”
Good to know, given that AOL/Time Warner has been doing business with the women-degraders for some time now.
Update II: Tommy Christopher has responded to the interview:
In a new interview with Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey regarding the recent Playboy controversy, Politics Daily editor-in-Chief Melinda Henneberger told, perhaps, her most stunning lie to date …
In fact, the article in question had been promoted to the AOL.com home page prior to Henneberger’s deletion of it. This process involves review by several editors, and only content deemed especially meritorious is even given consideration for the AOL.com home page, which is the portal by which every one of the millions of AOL users log in to the internet. Several meetings are held daily in order to select content for the home page.
That means that, not only was the piece reviewed, not only was it reviewed by several editors, not only was it the subject of a meeting of editors, but the piece was specially selected for its merit.
Tommy also challenges her account in regard to Carl Cannon and the communication between Carl and himself. Be sure to read the whole response.
Also, others have pointed out that the flagrant foul that Henneberger cited — the “f***” euphemism — also appeared in Melinda’s own response this weekend to the controversy:
I never even read the Playboy post I supposedly fired Christopher for writing. It was killed because the editor who handled it said it contained profanity, which Christopher had been asked not to use in his work. (To be perfectly precise, what the editor wrote was, “Hey chief, whole lotta f*** in this Christopher piece; that OK?” And what I replied was: No, it isn’t.)
If that was the problem, why did she herself use it? I suspect because there was no other way to explain the story … which is arguably also true of any critique of the Playboy story. That explanation really doesn’t fit with her own writing at AOL-PD; if that really was the reason, then she herself owes her readers an apology for violating the same standard she claims to have imposed on Tommy. In fact, during our conversation, Henneberger specifically claimed that newspapers and other traditional media outlets would not use the “f***” euphemism, but would find less explicit ways to characterize that language.