Thursday, August 28, 2008
It’s a mythical story– one in which our (super) heroine/goddess, realizing her power, uses her smarts, sexuality and social connections to climb her way to the top of the greasy pole of the Hollywood, Washington D.C. and media elites.
At the epicenter of the saga– and clearly having the time of her life in the process– is Arianna Huffington, the 57-year-old Greek-born, Cambridge-educated, author turned socialite turned Republican wife turned liberal activist and gubernatorial candidate.
Her most recent incarnation, of course, is as the media mogul who co-founded the Huffington Post, the irreverent, if sometimes self-righteous, Internet site that has helped turn political discourse in this country upside down.
Mainstream media mavens may fume– Huffington’s people have famously said that paying writers for their contributions is “not our business model’’– but traffic on www.huffingtonpost.com has been steadily growing. The site drew 3,989,000 unique visitors in July, according to Nielsen Online.
As November approaches, it seems only fitting that the woman at the center of all this furor will be speaking in Monterey on Sept. 8 on– what else?– “Ethical Dilemmas on the Campaign Trail.’’
It’s a subject of which Huffington’s critics, who are legion, think she has personal knowledge.
HuffPo “citizen journalist”/blogger Mayhill Fowler raised eyebrows by posting Barack Obama’s off-the-record comments about “bitter” blue-collar voters at a San Francisco fundraiser. Fowler also recorded– without Bill Clinton’s knowledge, and again, without identifying herself as a reporter– Slick Willie’s ropeline rant describing Vanity Fair writer Todd Purdum as “sleazy” and a “scumbag” after a piece that raised questions about Clinton’s personal life.
But Huffington has captivated friends and foes alike with her wit and feisty political insights, delivered with her trademark Greek-accented purr.
People worship– and fear– her.
She’s the ex-wife of oil tycoon and Republican Congressman Michael Huffington (who unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in ’94 and came out following the couple’s 1997 divorce). In large part because of the divorce, she has money, influence and power, which she wields for good or evil, depending on one’s view.
In short order, she changed her political stripes, stepping into the ring herself in 2003 in an unsuccessful campaign for California governor during the Gray Davis recall. (She withdrew at the last minute, announcing that she’d decided Schwarzenegger was a worse alternative.)
Unfazed, she launched Huffington Post in 2005, part news aggregator (a left-leaning Drudge Report) and part celebrity blogosphere, a cyber dinner party of sorts where invited guests included Bobby Kennedy Jr., Larry David, Nora Ephron, Gary Hart and Rob Reiner.
Pundits quickly dismissed HuffPo as a vanity project, but it continues to expand.
In mid-August, HuffPo rolled out its first local version of the site with HuffPo Chicago, featuring a (shabbily edited) essay by John Cusack in a typical version of celebrity stunt journalism.
But whatever one thinks of Huffington, it’s impossible to dismiss her as simply a self-promoter– and hard not to wonder what she’ll do, and who’ll she become, next.
In a recent conversation with the Weekly from her Brentwood home office, Huffington stayed firmly on message, with a discipline the pols she covers might do well to emulate. She carefully steered the conversation to HuffPo’s journalistic contributions and to her recent blogs (“Obama’s Vacation Assignment: Prepping to Make the Case that McCain Isn’t ‘Ready to Lead’ on National Security” and “Swing Vote: What It Tells Us About the ’08 Race, and Why Obama Needs to Put Kevin Costner on His iPod”).
Parodying her own celebrity, she has a bit role playing herself in Swing Vote, and has blogged about sitting under the stars with Kevin Costner while he played guitar.
She discussed HuffPost’s Oasis, which will give “harried conventioneers” at the Dem convention in Denver yoga, massage, Ayurevedic consultation, mini-facials, healthy snacks, music and comfortable seats.
A few days later, filing from Lefkada, Greece, she blogged further:
“For the last year now– ever since I passed out from exhaustion, broke my cheekbone and got five stitches over my eye– I’ve been working on bringing more balance in my life,” she wrote, adding that she was reading In Praise of Slowness. This is her version of slowing down, of course: still connected, 24-7, blogging, e-mailing and spinning from a Greek isle, instead of L.A. or D.C.
“So in the midst of the convention craziness, along with bringing you the latest in convention news, scoops, gossip, and on-scene video, HuffPost will be featuring extensive coverage of all the goings on at The Oasis, including blogging and interviews about how conventioneers unplug and recharge,’’ she continued.
“Check in next week to see what happens when America’s political obsessives unplug their laptops, turn off their iPhones and Blackberrys, and step into The Oasis.”
Whatever happens, it’s sure to produce something cocktail-party– and HuffPo– worthy.
What would our readers be surprised to learn about behind-the-scenes Washington?
Among those of us involved in new media, there’s a lot of excitement about how the Obama campaign and the McCain campaign are going to use new media. Especially the Obama campaign has used the Internet very effectively, both to raise money and to organize. Already, the Obama campaign has sent an e-mail [so] you can sign up to be the first to know who his nominee for VP will be. It’s really exciting to see what else they are going to do.
What advice would you give to either of them about using new media in their campaign?
It’s incredibly important to try to energize the 83 million Americans who did not vote in ’04. How to bring them into the process, get them excited about this election. That is really key and it could have a huge impact on the campaign.
How do you get those people involved in the process and excited about voting?
Well, part of it is to inspire them. Many have given up on the political process. Have you seen Swing Vote? Kevin Costner plays one of those 83 million voters who has given up. It’s how to inspire them, how to make them believe they can actually make a difference.
You’re in Monterey to discuss “Ethical Dilemmas on the Campaign Trail.” Would the McCain ads comparing Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears fall into this category?
I thought those ads really trivialized the political process. We’re dealing with so many major problems that it seems really sad to see the process brought down to this level. Paris Hilton’s mom, Kathy Hilton, wrote on the Huffington Post. She [had] contributed to McCain, and said it was a waste of her money as a contributor, a waste of the nation’s time and attention, really not a way to be choosing the leader of the free world.
“THE GREATEST THREAT OF A MCCAIN PRESIDENCY WOULD BE THAT IT COULD BE THE THIRD GEORGE BUSH TERM. ”
You have some personal experience in being attacked for celebrity, and by McCain for your celebrity…
I was never attacked by McCain…
Not by him but one of his advisers, who called you “a flake and a poser and an attention-seeking diva.”
Oh yeah, that is when I said that, about a conversation about [the reports that McCain had not voted] for Bush [in 2004]. I don’t really think that the celebrity issue has any relevance in this campaign. We use the word to mean so many different things, like the Obama ad demonstrated. McCain could be called as much of a celebrity for the appearances he has done…
HuffPo is now a must-read not only for liberals, but for the media, pundits and politicians of all stripes. What role do you see HuffPo playing in the new media landscape?
Our goal is to continue expanding into new sections. We launched Green and Style, and already have Living and Business and Entertainment and Media. Half of our traffic now does not come from politics; even the most politically obsessed people have other interests and we want to be able to cater to those. That way we are bringing in other people who may not be primarily politically obsessed, but then they discover politics after they come to us for one of the other sections. That’s why at the convention, as well as at a lunch that we are hosting on new media, we’ve also organized the Huffington Post Oasis where we are saying you can unplug and recharge.
What role do you see HuffPo playing in the November election?
Obviously, we are going to continue to cover all the most important news with our own clear perspective. For example, we believe the war in Iraq continues to be a huge drain on our resources, and it’s putting the lives of so many young Americans at risk. It’s not as much on the front page of traditional media. But [recently], we had a big story about another suicide bombing in Baghdad, which is not getting as much attention, so as a result [the public] may be lulled into thinking that things are going well.
Why do you think the war in Iraq isn’t getting much attention?
The media suffer from attention-deficit disorder. And, that’s what I like about the new media: that we suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder. We obsess over stories and sometimes that’s what it takes in a multimedia universe to break through the static.
What are some of the other stories that the mainstream media isn’t covering, but should?
We are covering with a lot of skepticism, for example, polls. The mainstream media are obsessed with polls. If you look on the Huffington Post, you’ll see HuffPollstrology. We are putting polling results in the same area where we have the horoscopes of the candidates, the signs of the candidates, and astrologists discussing the presidential race. The reason we do that is just to begin to look at the polls with a little more skepticism. Response rates are dramatically down, to sometimes 25 percent, 30 percent, and therefore we can’t continue to act as though the polling results are an accurate reflection of all that is happening.
You’ve criticized Obama for moving to the center…
It’s not so much moving to the center, it’s more the need to be strong and unequivocal and clearly following his own principal beliefs. That’s his brand, not any particular issue, it’s more that he undermines his brand when he is not perceived to be true to himself, to the things that really matter to him and the way he wants to change the way the political system operates.
Your newest book is titled Right is Wrong: How the Lunatic Fringe Hijacked America, Shredded the Constitution, and Made Us All Less Safe (and What You Need to Know to End the Madness). Yet you used to be on the right. Why, now, the intensity to prove the right is wrong?
I have been writing about this for the last 12 years. The book is, more specifically, about all the ways in which the right has undermined America during the Bush years, in terms of our foreign policy, our safety, our economy. These are now accepted by the majority of the American people, which is why the president’s approval ratings are down to 28 percent. But that has been one of the great shifts in American politics. What used to be considered left-wing positions are now solidly mainstream– concern about global warming, concern about the need for corporate responsibility, wanting to bring our troops home– so these are some of the fundamental changes that have happened that I’m writing about in the book.
What would the public have most to fear from a McCain presidency?
The greatest threat of a McCain presidency would be that it could be the third George Bush term. In foreign policy, it does not enhance American safety. In domestic policy, it does not address the needs of the majority of Americans.
What’s been the most enlightening thing about your political migration?
To me, it’s been really exciting to see how the new media are giving a platform to so many voices that didn’t have a platform before. I’m very excited about our citizen journalist program on the Huffington Post, Off the Bus, which now has over 1,000 contributors, and which broke significant stories, like Mayhill Fowler’s stories– Obama’s remarks [about working-class people being bitter] at a fundraiser or Clinton’s remarks at the rope line [calling Vanity Fair writer Todd Purdum “sleazy,” “dishonest,” “slimy” and a “scumbag.”]. So it’s a really exciting time to see citizens have that kind of ability to help make their voices heard.
“THAT’S WHAT I LIKE ABOUT THE NEW MEDIA: THAT WE SUFFER FROM OBSESSIVE- COMPULSIVE DISORDER.”
What else can the average, busy American realistically do to participate in the political process?
There are so many ways to get involved, definitely participating in campaigns, getting involved, covering the campaigns with Off the Bus, the director of Off the Bus is Amanda, Amanda@huffingtonpost.com. A lot of people have discovered that they can really make a difference in the way campaigns are covered. And, of course, helping the candidates of their choice organize, and getting involved, understanding how campaigns are run, and making their voices heard through blogging.
What’s next for Arianna Huffington?
The expansion of the Huffington Post. We launched local news in Chicago, and we’ll be expanding to new cities. We plan to launch a lot of new sections, Books is next. And we have a book coming out: the Huffington Post editors have done a complete guide to blogging. A lot of plans for expansion, including more reporting locally.