Arianna Huffington: new media entrepreneur

It’s the eve of the mid-term elections. In the sunlight of an autumn Monday afternoon, downtown New York City, the last bastion of beleaguered liberalism, seems to be shrugging its shoulders, resigned to the worst; relieved that the Hudson River separates it from the madness it thinks is about to descend on the rest of the country. SoHo goes about its usual business. Sidewalk vendors are selling ersatz Vuitton bags; there’s a traffic jam inside Dean & Deluca for the Catalonian olive oil; tourists lug bags full of designer jeans out into the blaring traffic. But for some of us unrepentant liberals it seems time to circle the wagons and hunker down. Already we can hear the cackles of the rightwing radio ranters as a rain of Tea Bags buries us alive.

Arianna Huffington doesn’t do hunkering. In her sunny office, she stands tall – literally – in high-heeled black suede boots. The rest of Huffington is also dressed in Manhattan black, close to her trim figure, but with an edging of purplish-indigo-chiffon between bust and throat that says something more than corporate know-how. Mostly, as she turns from a window looking down on the SoHo street, she gives off waves of improbably invincible happiness. But this is the way she looked 40-plus years ago when we first met in Cambridge.

Arianna Stassinopoulos struck me then as the kind of Greek who wanted to tell Aeschylus to cheer up: a warm-hearted girl, impervious to toffish sarcasm and quaintly convinced that homo sapiens is by and large a good thing. Not much of that essential Arianna has changed. The dark hair is now a shade of California poolside honey and falls straighter to her shoulders. The mascara is generous but then it always was. Her laugh still proves you don’t have to smoke to sound smokey. And her demeanour is, as it was then, open and generous, baffled, if not wounded, by cynicism.

If she wants to rally the American centre-left she has her work cut out for her right now. But having been on both sides of the political spectrum in her career, Huffington is likely to take the populism of the Tea Party as evidence of an energy still running through the circuits of American social life. She simply wants to harness it for the Good Guys and the Good Cause. On this particular day she thinks she has. She is just back from the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” proclaimed by the political satirists Jon Stewart and Steve Colbert, which drew a quarter of a million to the Washington Mall.

For Huffington the latest rally was “not just an exercise in point and counterpoint” but ­“something much bigger”: a call to restore the civil society she wants to see replanted in an America polarised between destructively competing demonologies. And she was not going to be a mere bystander either. The Huffington Post – the über-blog she created in 2005, two years after an unsuccessful campaign for governor in California, and which has become an indispensable way to ride the news cycle – mobilised its own community of enthusiasts to travel to Washington in a fleet of specially hired buses. “How many buses?” I ask, having heard there were 20 or 30. “Two hundred,” she says, the lilt rising triumphantly, “20,000 people!”

The Huffington Post fleet was a vindication of everything its founder is trying to do to detoxify American politics. When I needle her a bit about whether there wasn’t too much oil poured on troubled waters at the rally, too much feelgood reassurance when there isn’t a whole lot to feel good about, Huffington disarms me with another statement of impassioned practicality. “It’s not that we were all nice people,” she says, but “it brought out the best” in the midst of the scapegoating that is the stock-in-trade of hard times demagogues. The aim of the Post and of the rally, she says with almost evangelical resolution, is to ask “how can we activate a countervailing force” to all that corrosive, aimless “mad as hell” negativity?

She cites admiringly the case of Seth Reams, unemployed in Portland, Oregon, who, turning to the only commodity he had left, founded, an online community that gets the jobless working – providing childcare, creating community gardens, mobilising lawyers to prevent foreclosures. The Huffington Post has given Reams a “Game-Changer Award”, but, more than just pinning a gold star on him, it’s enabled 75 cities to multiply his mutual help organisation in their own backyard. The Post is now raising money so that Reams can “scale up” his whole operation.

Huffington is sometimes mocked for her interest in anti-materialist spirituality, but she knows that this kind of social religion has deep taproots in American culture, especially in the 19th century, when local voluntarism and mutualist communities got fired up for causes such as temperance, abolitionism and women’s rights. Huffington says she wants people to re-examine the callowness of “consumption”. “When people have their back against the wall they re-evaluate their lives and what matters to them. That’s the positive to the dark side.” But she doesn’t want to come across as some sort of online Pollyanna in designer boots. She is, she says, the last person to make light of a genuinely tragic moment.

There is “a deep crisis in the lives of millions of people”; a middle class that has been “shorted” by the delirium of sub-prime derivatives; a whole generation now forced to deal with downward social mobility, the blighted hopes of their unemployed children; the assumption that cuts the heart out of the American dream – that the lives of the next generation look certain to be less fortunate than those of the last. Reflectively, she looks out of the window but her mind is further off surveying the wrecked landscape of the middle and working classes: 27 million unemployed or under-employed, five million foreclosures by the end of this year.

Her answer to the crisis: a combination of rekindling the spirit of community in America (she is much intrigued by David Cameron’s “Big Society” though puzzled about how it might take effect) plus bold action by the federal government, the latter not exactly the flavour of the month this side of the Atlantic. Usually – as in Britain – these options are alternatives not complements, but Huffington is determined to make them fit. The trouble with Obama is that he “has two Achilles heels – if you can have two” she says, laughing at the image. “Bernard [Levin, her famous, exactingly brilliant journalist partner of 10 years] used to say, when I mixed my metaphors, ‘draw me a picture’.”

We never get beyond the one Obamian heel: his reticence to use the power of the federal government forthrightly enough to promise success. Instead, guided by people like Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, who as Wall Street loyalists had been gung-ho for deregulation, Obama doomed the stimulus package to half-hearted inadequacy. She quotes Lloyd George to the effect that “you cannot jump across a chasm in two leaps” and I am so surprised by her choice of aphoristic model I forget to ask her apropos of what?

Of the $800bn committed, $300bn, she points out, came in the form of tax cuts designed to win the support of the business community who promptly stashed it in their vaults or delivered it to lobbying campaigns against financial regulation. She says that Obama is hobbled by his “very deep reverence for establishments”, whether Wall Street or the military. She professes astonishment that he insists on sticking with “an unwinnable war” in Afghanistan to the tune of $2.8bn a week.

That Arianna Huffington has gone from being a campaigner in her then husband Michael Huffington’s conservative campaign for the Senate to an anti-war, pro-government activist seems, to her, not especially fantastic. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” might be the motto of her life to date. But then she comes honestly by her impulsiveness. Her journalist father was punished with incarceration in a concentration camp for running a resistance paper during the second world war, after which she says he decided “he could do anything”, including much philandering and a separation, though the kind in which Elli, Huffington’s mother, would be as likely to cook him dinner as show him the door.

Living in a tiny apartment in Greece, a picture of Cambridge in a magazine with the usual punts and boaters and floppy-haired Jamies gave Huffington the idea, with no English to speak of, that this might be a fine place to go to university. Much laughter greeted this notion except from Elli, who thought it would be just the thing. An application was sent off, much intense language tuition followed, and then a recce by mother and daughter into the fens. A telegram duly arrived telling Huffington she had been awarded an “Exhibition”, which seemed to be a good thing, despite an uncertainty about what exactly she was supposed to exhibit.

She soon found out: determination, eloquence wrapped in a thick Greek accent, a thick-skinned confidence in the rightness of what she was saying at the Union (a manner that hid hours of anxious swotting), a refusal to be abashed, a willingness to laugh at herself and to make the most of a persona that was something other than crumpets and bicycles. This all translated first into becoming the third female president of the Union and then to the world of radio and TV, where she met the Schubert- and Wagner-crazed Levin. Invited to dinner, she plunged into non-stop homework “on Northern Ireland” and Die Meistersinger. The improbability of the statuesque Greek and the gnomic Jew delighted friend and foe, but Huffington speaks with wistful sweetness of 10 years with her soulmate and of the strength it took to leave him when he refused to have children. Why is it that very clever people can also be myopic idiots, you think?

Translated to New York, along with her mother, Huffington dated property and publishing tycoon Mort Zuckerman (no pussycat) and wrote controversial biographies of Maria Callas and Picasso, with commercial success but not unanimous acclaim. Nothing about Huffington has ever got bogged down in cautious deliberation. In Los Angeles in 1984 she was introduced to oilman Michael Huffington with whom she says she fell immediately in love and went off to lead the billionaire life in neo­Reaganite southern California. Two daughters arrived but so did Michael’s political ambitions.

In 1994 a “wave” of Republican mid-term victories broke over the foundering Clinton presidency, exceeded in force and scale only by this year’s election. But despite megabuck funding, and after a bitterly contested count, Huffington failed to surf to victory in southern California. The discovery of an illegal Latino nanny – now a regular source of political undoing – did not help. Huffington never got over the dismay and neither did the marriage. You get the distinct impression he blamed his wife for the nanny embarrassment, but his bisexuality, only discovered during the divorce, she says, must also have been part of the problem. But Arianna Huffington is not one to let these sorts of thing cast long and lingering shadows over family life. She and Michael remain close and will spend Christmas together with their girls, as they always do.

Unlike the current president, she never does things by halves. Asked when she moved left, she says 1996, but adds that she had long been interested in steering her conservative friends towards social activism and the problems of worsening inequities in American life. Increasingly treated as a traitor to conservatism she found herself cold-shouldered at a Washington dinner party. “Why is she here?” one conservative matron complained.

Soon she would give them something to complain about. First an ill-starred campaign in 2003 against Arnold Schwarzenegger for governor of California. Huffington’s showtime instinct billing it as “the Hybrid against the Hummer” was cute, but not cute enough to offset the obstinate thickness of her accent – absolutely unchanged after 30 years in America – and the electorally lethal combo of lightly worn wit and left-liberal polemics. In retrospect though, this all seems a prelude to her 2005 founding of the website that would change the whole institution of news journalism in the US. Asked why and what she had in mind she answers the question in three parts, suggesting a well-practised response, but one that makes a lot of sense in the way of all great ideas that seem, in retrospect, obvious but were in fact unthinkable until someone came along to act on them.

She could see “how conversation” about politics “was moving online” and wanted to “create a platform” that would organise its speakers and its audience. But she was also motivated by a strong sense that the old media had betrayed their calling by complaisance in the face of the two great crises of the Bush years: the run-up to the Iraq war and the financial crash. In the first case, those who prided themselves on investigative journalism had traded in their mission to cheerlead for the president’s policy, turning a blind eye especially to the lack of hard evidence of WMDs. The blind eye was followed by a deaf ear to the many predictions of financial disaster.

But beyond responding to this abdication of responsibility The Huffington Post was created as a way to allow writers blocked from print culture by the formality and laboriousness of essay-writing to “deposit something in the cultural bloodstream” with minimum fuss and time. “I called Arthur Schlesinger [the revered octogenarian historian of the New Deal and liberalism who had been close to JFK] and he said ‘what’s a blog?’” He confessed he still wrote by typewriter. “That’s alright Arthur,” Huffington said. “Fax me.” Up came an unfortunate allusion to Yalta in presidential remarks and Schlesinger (who could have been there) hit the keyboard and got his retort to the Post in 20 minutes flat. “Exactly what I had in mind,” she says, smiling fondly at the memory of the world’s oldest intellectual blogger – who died last year.

Other issues matter a lot to her and give The Huffington Post its strong presence: a refusal to adopt “a contrived neutrality” even while adhering to all the traditional ethics of traditional journalism; and an eagerness to respond to a new way to engage with the news. “People don’t just want to consume the news: they want to share it and evolve it, be part of the story, and the mainstream media don’t understand this.” This organic self-seeding, an unruly liberation of the news beyond the tight control of papers and networks, is indeed something that rattles the old guard because it presupposes an alteration much bigger than simply transferring traditional content online.

But the democratic openness of the blogosphere comes with its own problems: the unreliability of stories that can come hurtling in; the meteor shower of junk data and anecdote. Huffington employs 30 people, in addition to 190 regular staff, precisely to monitor this dodgy abundance. They weed out all the e-dreck she so hates – conspiracy theorists, malicious slander, ad hominem attacks. Editors, she concedes, are needed more than ever as gatekeepers of the truth in a digital world where every prejudice comes armed with imagined rights to be heard. Does the future belong exclusively to The Huffington Post and Tina Brown’s Daily Beast? She doesn’t think so. The future, she says, “will be hybrid”. There will be fewer printed papers and those that survive will be the ones that can properly integrate their reports and essays into the online world.

I take a stroll with Huffington through her football-field-sized open office and the scene – kids out of college, beavering away in their e-­baronies, food, entertainment, business, the arts as well as economics and politics – sure looks like the future to me. One of the many things that may change for good in the present crisis is reporting itself. “If you just look at the papers you would have no idea what is really going on out there in America,” she says with some justification. The Post though has reporters assigned to cover stories of heartbreak and courage around the country in its hardest of hard times. This may be nothing new, but the possibility of thousands of “citizen journalists” giving those who log in to The Huffington Post a whole panorama of social pain most certainly is. From outposts of hardship from coast to coast, bloggers write in to give their best to her reporters whom they feel have looked closely and sympathetically at their troubles. Whatever this is, she is right to be proud of it as something other than the mindless self-reinforcing herd mentality in which “enormous amounts of oxygen get consumed” on something as inanely picayune as the Florida pastor’s threat to burn the Koran.

Arianna Huffington may not single-handedly be changing the nature of journalism in American life, but against the shit-storm of hatred and rage that is currently engulfing the country the “countervailing force” of the Post does good strong work. So it’s not just the flashing wide smile, the merry look in her eye and the proffered cheek which, as we say our goodbyes, makes me feel warm in the happy hour; it’s that brand Arianna with its unrepentant embrace of social indignation and its laying about the fatuous and unjust has exactly what these miserable times call for: intelligent high spirit delivered with no mumbling or shuffling or equivocation. And then there’s that other thing she gets out online 24/7 and is not to be slighted: the truth.

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