Last Thursday, I was “fired” as a labor blogger from the Huffington Post by executive business editor Peter Goodman for helping a group of union construction workers disrupt a conference of bankers. (I put fired in quotations marks because I, like the majority of people who blog for the site, was not paid for my contributions by Huffington Post.) The workers demanded to know why Pulte Group’s vice chairwoman was leading the summit, and how her company grabbed a $900 million government bailout made up of funds that came from the Worker, Homeownership and Business Assistance Act of 2009. That bill was intended to create jobs and extend benefits to unemployed workers, but union workers said no jobs were created with this money.
Goodman, who was recently hired away from the New York Times, informed me in a phone conversation that he received complaints from the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) about my role in disrupting their convention. I received media accreditation for the conference based on my status as a blogger with the Huffington Post. I then shared my accreditation with a union leader in order to help him gain access to this event.
Goodman said this warranted the termination of my role as a blogger with the Huffington Post. During our phone conversation, he said I misrepresented my relationship as a blogger with the Huffington Post, and he compared my actions to those of disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair. Up until last week, my relationship with the Huffington Pot consisted of me producing over 100 posts without them paying me a dime.
Goodman sees this as an issue of journalistic ethics; I see it quite differently. Goodman was likely paid a substantial amount to leave the New York Times for the Huffington Post.
While Business Insider’s sources said Goodman might be getting $300,000 a year, the exact amount isn’t as important as the fact that the Huffington Post doesn’t have a full-time labor reporter.
In contrast, I am a freelance labor journalist, mostly likely making a tenth of Goodman’s salary through various contracts that I desperately cobble together. As a result, I identify heavily with the struggle of the workers whose stories I report. I write largely for an audience of workers in order to amplify their struggles and issues. Our differences play a large role in our style, the perspectives we bring to what we write, and the tactics we use to report on economic issues. Up until last week, the Huffington Post had no issue with these differences.
A History of Collaboration
I was told* that the Huffington Post recruited me because its editors thought I could tell an entertaining and often edgy story by personalizing my involvement in labor struggles. National editor Nico Pitney contacted me about contributing to the site after reading an unconventional piece of mine puiblished in AlterNet, Union Busting Ended My Love Affair with a Beer. In it, I waxed nostagalically that “women had come and gone, dogs had died, but Yuenling had always been there for me – until now.”
I would go on to produce 105 unpaid pieces for the Huffington Post. At a certain point, readers and more than a few Washington PR people assumed that — due to the frequency, professionalism, and prominence of my articles — I was on the payroll of the Huffington Post.
From the start, my arrangement with the site always seemed unclear and somewhat exploitative. (Though, obviously, I went ahead with it.) I was never asked to sign a contract of any type. As a 24-year-old freelance labor journalist, Huffington Post editors offered me little guidance on what I could and could not do as a blogger. They justified not paying me by saying I could write about whatever I wanted — no matter however controversial and edgy — whenever I wanted.
It didn’t take long before my relationship with the Huffington Post became different from that of most of the unpaid bloggers the site relies on for a significant amount of its content and traffic. My 16 months of prolific blogging helped the site establish credibility with labor audiences, even while the “the newspaper of the Internet” has declined to hire a full-time journalist to cover labor struggles.
Eventually, I started receiving funding from outside groups to write for the Huffington Post. Social Security Works, a coalition of trade unions and progressive organizations, recently provided me with a grant to deliver exclusive original investigative reporting for Huffington Post about an accident caused by picket line-crossers operating a Honeywell uranium plant in Metropolis, Illinois. I worked independently on this project, but I coordinated fact-checking with Huffington Post’s editorial staff and maintained frequent contact with its DC bureau.
During four months of work on this project, Huffington Post never once objected to the fact that I identified myself as one of their contributors when speaking with Nuclear Regulatory officials. Their Huff Post Hill newsletter even described me as “a labor reporter/blogger” in previewing exclusive reporting on the Honeywell story, which I provided to the site.
Why I Helped Crash the Conference
In light of that history and working arrangement, I felt it reasonable to identify myself as a “Huffington Post labor blogger” on January 19 when I attended the MBA summit in DC. I chose to share my credentials with a union leader — a decision that helped 200 workers enter the conference — because I had seen labor struggles get ignored by the mainstream media. Recently, a publication canceled a story I wrote about a town that tried unsuccessfully to use eminent domain to save a factory from closing. The editor said that “it was simply not that interesting of a story if the workers couldn’t save the factory.”
At the MBA meeting, I felt faced with a choice: Either help the union members make a newsworthy stand, or see their story ignored altogether by the mainstream press. Some would say it’s not right for a labor journalist to help workers in this way; but is it right for the media to completely ignore their story if there isn’t something sexy enough to report on? I helped give the press what it wanted.
The disruption of the summit received widespread coverage from CNBC, the Wall Street Journal and, yes, even the Huffington Post. (The story was written by a paid staffer, Shahien Naisiripour, who was thankful when I provided him with background information on the protest and introduced him to a union spokesman.) Here’s the CNBC report:
Up until last week, the Huffington Post had never dismissed a blogger for using guerilla tactics to expose right wing opponents. Even though Naispour’s story received nearly 2,000 online comments, Goodman, his boss, was not happy with my actions.
The Huffington Post editor told me, “You pulled a stunt and damaged our reputation and that’s why you’re not writing for us anymore.”
Goodman didn’t see that my primary role as a labor journalist at the event was to help expose the misuse of over $900 million in funds. Had we not interrupted this event in dramatic fashion, the Pulte Group’s unethical practices would not have become news.
Disavowing Its Confrontational History
Huffington Post has in part made a name for itself by allowing bloggers to challenge and sometimes violate so-called journalistic ethics. One of its unpaid bloggers, Mayhill Fowler, famously recorded and exposed Obama’s “bitter remarks” during an event that was closed to the press.
Staff reporter Arthur Delaney even filed a series of “party crasher” stories, where he would attempt unsuccessfully to “crash” and cover corporate lobbyist events, which refused to allow him entrance. Delaney, in a non-traditional move, wrote about how he was refused entrance to these events. Although it should be noted that Delaney never used his credentials to help 200 construction workers into an event where such workers were uninvited.*
The Huffington Post has helped redefine journalistic rules and ethics. Now, with actions like my dismissal and the hiring of mainstream establishment journalists like Howard Fineman and Peter Goodman, it’s signaling that it is abandoning its guerilla roots and adopting a more mainstream, corporate style of objective journalism. This strand of corporate journalism was unable to expose unnecessary wars and looming economic catastrophes. It has failed us time and again. In contrast, my unconventional actions helped expose a nearly $1 billion scandal.
Was helping union workers disrupt a conference of bankers an ethical thing for a journalist to do? This is a subject for debate. In my view, however, it’s unethical for publications like the Huffington Post to not have a single full-time labor reporter, and for corporate media to routinely ignore workers’ struggles. This reality forces freelance labor journalists like myself to pull stunts in order to hold corporations accountable and get workers’ voices heard.
Editor’s Note: When Huffington Post was asked by a MediaShift editor why Mike Elk was dismissed, HuffPost’s senior vice president of communications Mario Ruiz said: “We severed ties with Elk for the very simple reason that he abused a media accreditation by handing his pass to someone else, enabling them to disrupt an event he was supposedly there to cover.”
*Corrections: This story originally said that Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim was part of the “party crashing” team at the Post, when that wasn’t the case. The paragraph with the asterisk above was added by Elk to clarify.
The original version of the story also included the name of the person who told Elk about Huffington Post’s interest in him. The source subsequently said the conversation was intended to be off-the-record, so their name has been removed.
This story also said that the Obama event attended by Mayhill Fowler was “off-the-record.” While it was closed to the press, it was not off-the-record. Finally, the story initially said Huffington Post editor Peter Goodman told Elk “You pulled a stunt and damaged our reputation and that’s why you’re not writing for us anymore” via email. In fact, that was said in a phone conversation.
UPDATE (1/27/15): Mike Elk later thought better of what happened in this incident, and wrote a longer thought piece about it on Huffington Post.
Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer and labor journalist based in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent contributor to the American Prospect and In These Times and has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/mikeelk.