POSTSCRIPT TO THE BELOW: as you probably heard by now, Bill Keller decided not to attend SXSW after all. Something about a nuclear meltdown -- whether his or Japan's wasn't clear.
Although it's already spawned a full-blow webternet kerfluffle and a full-body-contact response from its target, Bill Keller's NYTimes Magazine hit-piece on Arianna Huffington officially comes out in print today, the same day he's scheduled to appear at a South By Southwest Interactive panel on "The Evolution of the New York Times."
Keller's hysterical rant opened with what has to rank as one of the best humble brags ever, in which he excoriated several very large media companies for naming him to lists of the world's most important people. It's worth quoting at length, if for no other reason than Keller hates being quoted at length:
According to the list makers at Forbes, I am the 50th most powerful person in the world — not as powerful as the Pope (No. 5) but more powerful than the president of the United Arab Emirates (56). Vanity Fair, another arbiter of what matters, ranked me the 26th most influential person in the country. The New York Observer, narrowing the universe to New York, put me 15th on its latest “Power 150,” a list that stretches from Michael Bloomberg to Lady Gaga. New York magazine asked Woody Allen to name the single most important person in our city; he named — aw, shucks — me.
The world conspires to convince me of my significance. A respected Hollywood screenwriter has purchased an option on my “life rights” (a Faustian-sounding transaction, yes?) so that someone can portray me in a movie. When I did a radio call-in show a while back, a media reporter considered it an event of such urgency that he live-blogged the entire hour. Whatever I do, or don’t do, seems to be an event. Recently my sleepless wife sent out a midnight Twitter post — “Insomnia. Who else is awake?” — but she inadvertently sent it on my Twitter account rather than her own, prompting a global Twitter forum on my state of mind...
My putative status as the 50th most important person on Planet Earth derives in part from a belief that the editor of an important newspaper does not merely harvest the initiative of hard-working journalists but personally directs a vast, global conspiracy. I don’t. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Wow. Admirers of the humble brag understand that after the brag comes the humble -- but Keller, being a Times man, manages to advance the form to the next level by conspiring to interlace the humble-reveal with a corkscrewing move: he tacks on a self-plug at the end:
Possibly I am old-fashioned, but in these days when actual journalists are laboring at actual history, covering the fever of democracy in Arab capitals and the fever of austerity in American capitals, the obsession with the theoretical and self-referential feels to me increasingly bloodless. Then again, I am somewhat complicit on this score; as this magazine lands on doorsteps, I am due in Austin to be interrogated once again about The Future of Journalism.
On its own, that would have been enough to enshrine the column in tubes history. But the earthquake that heated the internet's nuclear reactors into full-blown meltdown came from a non-sequitor transition into . . . aggregator-bashing? If that seems a little 2006, maybe even Keller realized that he wouldn't be able to draw blood with generalities. No problem: he went after Arianna Huffington personally:
The queen of aggregation is, of course, Arianna Huffington, who has discovered that if you take celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications, array them on your Web site and add a left-wing soundtrack, millions of people will come. How great is Huffington’s instinctive genius for aggregation? I once sat beside her on a panel in Los Angeles (on — what else? — The Future of Journalism). I had come prepared with a couple of memorized riffs on media topics, which I duly presented. Afterward we sat down for a joint interview with a local reporter. A moment later I heard one of my riffs issuing verbatim from the mouth of Ms. Huffington. I felt so . . . aggregated.
Last month, when AOL bought The Huffington Post for $315 million, it was portrayed as a sign that AOL is moving into the business of creating stuff — what we used to call writing or reporting or journalism but we now call “content.” Buying an aggregator and calling it a content play is a little like a company’s announcing plans to improve its cash position by hiring a counterfeiter.
This is great media theater, and don't think for a second that Keller doesn't know what he's doing. In the mediasphere, all press is good press, and hell -- even the New York Times can use a Huffington-aggregator web-traffic bump every now and again. If Keller needed to play the heel, he's probably happy to play it.
And Arianna's response was a pretty beautiful piece of reporting, by whomever she didn't pay to do it. She had someone track down the supposedly "aggregated" comment, then went back to the vaults to offer up a Jon Stewart-like montage of instances where she'd espoused the ideas that Keller accused her of stealing from him. She also didn't pass up an opportunity to smack him around on his humble brag:
"And was he too busy scanning all those lists of "most powerful people" he's on to notice that he also lost one of his top editors, Tim O'Brien, to us?"
For good measure, the HuffPost dug in and aggregated one of the ugliest recent moments in recent Times history: reader outrage over a piece about an 11-year-old gang-rape victim, which some readers felt blamed the girl for the attack. The Times' public editor sided with the readers. It's now lodged firmly in one of HuffPosts high-profile "Most Discussed" sidebars, where no blogger who happens to be at SXSW could possibly miss it.
We'd love to tell you that since we're here in Austin, blogging our faces off all week, that we'll be all up in Keller's grill when he takes the stage this afternoon. But we'll have to leave that one to the old-media goons who still give a turd. (Keller's program takes place up near the university, a cab ride from where the real action is -- even at SXSW, evidently, the Times guy sought the refuge of the ivory tower.) There's about thirty million future of journalism panels going on simultaneously, and when Keller pontificates uptown, I'll be listening to someone from Mother Jones talk about investigative tweeting. Cheers!