Fact-Checking Arianna Huffington: Glass Houses and Balloon Boys

"We'd like to have more biopsies and fewer autopsies," Arianna Huffington said Tuesday night during a Q&A sponsored by Bloomberg Businessweek at Manhattan's 92nd Street Y. The Huffington Post founder was on one of her favorite riffs, lashing "the media" for getting so distracted by flash-in-the-pan controversies that it fails to notice huge developments -- like the destabilizing of the financial system -- until it's too late.

Huffington was, in fact, quoting herself, as she often does, in this case recycling a line from her new book, Third World America, where she writes:
[W]e've had far too many autopsies of what went wrong and not enough biopsies of what was about to go wrong. The media is also addicted to covering what Bill Maher describes as the "bright, shiny objects" over here, distracting attention from the real story over there. . . . We saw this last year with the media's breathless, wall-to-wall coverage of the Balloon Boy nonstory -- coverage that continued on for days even after we learned that the balloon was empty.

Just who were the chief perpetrators of that coverage? To find out, I plugged in "balloon boy" to Google, and saw, on the first page of search results, a link to a Huffington Post page with the headline "Balloon Boy ALIVE (VIDEO)." It's just a generic Associated Press story, but it floated into the search stratosphere thanks to HuffPo's mastery of the dark arts of search-engine optimization: The story bears no fewer than 40 tags, including "Baloon Boy" and "Boy in Ballon." Don't want to miss out on all those lucrative clicks from the semi-literate!

And did somebody say wall-to-wall coverage? Other HuffPo stories about l'affaire Balloon Boy included "Falcon Heene Vomits: WATCH Balloon Boy Throw Up on Today and Good Morning America"; "Richard Heene Tells Larry King that 'Balloon Boy' Saga Was Not a Hoax"; and "Balloon Boy Parents Get Balloon Back After Agreeing to Pay Restitution." All of these were published "even after we learned that the balloon was empty."

And did somebody say bright, shiny distractions? Stories currently linked on the Huffington Post homepage include "PHOTOS: Venus Williams' Super-Skimpy U.S. Open Outfit," "WATCH: Lion Attacks Trainer at MGM Grand" and "Anna Nicole's Last Days: Lists of Drugs, Bloody Syringes." Those are the Page One stories on the self-proclaimed "internet newspaper," whose readership is larger than the online audiences of The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the Washington Post.

Okay, so maybe there is a bit of a crisis in American journalism. But then, to quote something else Huffington said Tuesday, "A crisis, as the Chinese say, is also a huge opportunity." Or something like that.

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