Founder of The Huffington Post
Arianna Huffington (neé Stassinopoulos) is the perfect New Media symbol for the Obama Era, having conned progressives with the promise of a new, different, post-ideological model—and then delivering a cold hard dish of the same old exploitation, betrayal and hypocrisy. Arianna* sold the Huffington Post to AOL for $315 million, sparking a fierce backlash from progressives who accused her of exploiting free labor under the pretense of political idealism and “citizen journalism.” Although the surface of Arianna's career is marked by well-publicized "conversions," a closer look reveals consistent patterns of labor exploitation, strategic plagiarism, deception and hucksterism—all of which became important elements in the Huffington Post's lucrative business model. The Huffington Post has done some excellent investigative journalism, but violates basic journalism ethics by allowing corporate propaganda, lobbyists for dictators, bankers and quacks to share the same space with reporters. The Guardian called it the "grand master" of "blurring the line between advertising and editorial." Even Arianna’s long involvement in a New Age cult has been absorbed into Huffington Post's strategy, influencing the site's characteristic cult of personality and huckster model of convincing idealistic activists to work for free under the guise of a higher calling.
In light of Arianna's most recent ideological about-face, her past positions take on new meaning and significance, and are worth recalling in detail.
The recovered history of Arianna Huffington
- In 2005, Arianna launched the Huffington Post with her partner Ken Lerer. According to business reporter Nina Munk, Lerer "was best known for having represented Michael Milken in the late 1980s, generating sympathetic press for his clever client even while he was being accused by the SEC of stock manipulation, insider trading, fraud, and other violations of federal securities laws." Lerer described his work for Milken as “breast-feeding” journalists. In the early 2000s, Lerer was named in securities fraud lawsuits over the AOL-Time Warner debacle (Lerer pocketed over $10 million before the stock collapsed). [ 1 ] [ 2 ]
- In 2011, Lerer helped arrange AOL’s buyout of the Huffington Post for $315 million, with Arianna pocketing tens of millions for herself, and two hedge fund investors earning $75 million each, a 600% return. Outrage from journalists and progressives was fierce: Journalist Chris Hedges denounced Arianna: "Those who take advantage of workers, whatever their outward ideological veneer, to make profits of that magnitude are charter members of the exploitative class." Arianna had just published Third World America about growing inequality and exploitation, explaining, "Wherever I looked, and in so many of the stories we covered on the Huffington Post, I kept seeing all the ways the middle class was getting the short end of the stick."
- An LA Times columnist accused Huffington of committing "many of the worst abuses of the old economy's industrial capitalism — the sweatshop, the speedup and piecework; huge profits for the owners; desperation, drudgery and exploitation for the workers. No child labor, yet, but if there were more page views in it…"
- Seven months later, Ad Age reported on HuffPo plans to exploit free child labor in a story headlined : "The Astonishing AOL/Huffington Post Plan to Profit on the Backs of Unpaid 13-Year-Old Bloggers (Seriously): Well, That's One Way to Improve AOL's Balance Sheet: Persuade Children to Shovel Free Content Into Its Page-View Oven." [ 3 ]
- The Huffington Post has auctioned off unpaid internships to the highest bidder. "Jumpstart your career in the blogsphere," said one listing for an internship, where students paid upwards of $13,000 to win "an eye-opening internship at The Huffington Post in New York or Washington."
- Mayhill Fowler, the HuffPo "citizen journalist" who broke the Barack Obama “clinging to guns and religion” story during the 2008 campaign, went two years without getting paid by Arianna, even as the HuffPo nominated her for two Pulitzer Prizes. "Without pay and some editorial support and a reportorial community for belonging, I find it increasingly hard to find anything worthwhile to say," Fowler wrote. "I cannot help but feel that, at the end of the day, as I thought I was proving myself to her to be worthy of journalism, she on her part was milking me for everything she could get before letting me go," adding that the $315 million sellout "gives the lie to her frequent assertion this past year that she is pro Main and con Wall Street."
- In 2012, feminist author Erica Jong denounced Arianna's exploitation of writers: "I knew her when she was anti-feminist. I knew her when she was right wing. I knew her when she turned left wing. . . . I admire her energy. She can be very interesting and she’s very clever. But 'there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,' as Madeleine Albright once said. Artists who turncoat and exploit other artists—I have no words."
ARIANNA'S RECOVERED HISTORY: PLAGIARISM, HUCKSTERISM & CULTS
- Arianna’s debut book in 1973, The Female Woman: An Argument Against Women’s Liberation for Female Emancipation, was a “counter-attack” against the Women’s Liberation movement, which she dismissed as "repulsive... entirely destructive and vacuous.” She equated Women’s Lib to Nazism, and argued that it served the radical homosexual agenda against traditional womanhood: “Both the Nazis and Women’s Lib see the family as a political battleground and both despise the distinctively female virtues that the family epitomizes,” she wrote. "Women's Lib claims ...it would transform the lives of all women for the better, the truth is that it would transform only the lives of women with strong lesbian tendencies.”
- Arianna's second book, After Reason (1978), denounced social security as "a channel of subliminal manipulation" and charged "the welfare state has paved the way to the new totalitarianism." She pushed for eliminating all government social programs—which she called “welfare totalitarianism"—to be replaced by individual spiritualism and volunteerism. The Kochs’ Reason Magazine hailed Arianna as "an essential ally of libertarians" who "is to be congratulated on her able and thorough attack on collectivism."
- In the 1970s, Arianna became involved in the rightwing New Age Rajneesh cult led by “sex guru” Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a promoter of free-market capitalism, an admirer of Hitler, and onetime owner of the world's largest fleet of Rolls Royces. In the mid-1980s, the Rajneesh was involved in the first-ever bioterrorism attack on US soil, poisoning over 700 Oregonians on voting day in order to control the local vote in the cult's district. The Rajneesh was arrested along with top aides and deported.
- In 1978, Arianna was ordained as a minister in a New Age cult led by a former insurance claims adjuster who called himself "John-Roger" and who claims he is more powerful than Jesus Christ. According to the Los Angeles Times, as well as a 1994 TV news investigation, former followers of John-Roger's cult "claimed he engaged in sexual harassment, intimidation of those who tried to leave the cult, and lived a lavish lifestyle at the movement's expense." "John-Roger" was also accused of using eavesdropping equipment to spy on his followers.
- Arianna rose to the rank of "Soul Initiate" in John-Roger’s Church of the Movement of Spiritual Awareness, and convinced Sen. Alan Cranston and other Congressmen to introduce national legislation officially commemorating John-Roger's birthday as "Integrity Day". In 2003, Arianna's ex-husband, former Republican Congressman Michael Huffington, told the New York Times that cult leader John-Roger "has more influence on [Arianna] than anyone else in the world."
- In 1994, Nightline's Ted Koppel talked with mental health counselor and cult specialist Steven Hassan about Arianna's involvement in John-Roger's Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, which according to Hassan displayed all the tell-tale signs of a cult: "A pyramid structured authoritarian regime that uses human recruitment and mind control techniques to keep people dependent and obedient. People are instilled with phobias. If they question John-Roger, if they ever leave the group terrible things will happen to them. Peter McWilliams, who's a New York Times best-selling author, writes in his recent book about how he was told by John-Roger that he had AIDS, but that if he wrote books for John-Roger, John-Roger would keep him alive."
- According to Vanity Fair reporter Maureen Orth, Arianna hired a private investigator to hound her and possibly smear her over her critical coverage. Arianna's ex-husband, Rep. Michael Huffington, told reporter David Brock that Arianna "often hired private investigators to collect dirt on her foes." Brock claimed Arianna passed him a "file" on one of her political rivals, Joe Gaylord, smearing him as a racist and homosexual.
- In 1980, Arianna moved to the United States to advance her literary career. She was accused of plagiarizing at least three of her books. Her bestselling biography, Maria Callas (1981), was so rife with passages directly lifted from another author that Arianna was forced to settle out of court for “a substantial settlement, although Arianna has maintained that the amount was only 'in the low five figures.'"
- Her next bestseller, “Picasso: Creator and Destroyer” (1987) was widely accused of plagiarizing the life work of University of Virginia art historian Lydia Gasman, who called Arianna Huffington an "intellectual kleptomaniac" for appropriating her 4-volume study on Picasso and publishing it just before Gasman's opus. "What she did was steal twenty years of my work," Gasman told Vanity Fair. [ 4 ]
- In 1986 Arianna married Texas oil heir Michael Huffington, whose father formed a shady partnership with Indonesian dictator Suharto in the 1970s. According to reporter Maureen Orth, cult leader John-Roger "guided her every step in her pursuit of [Michael] Huffington, including how to negotiate their prenuptial contract." Shortly after the marriage was consummated, Arianna repaid the favor at a cult retreat in upstate New York, telling followers: "Dahlings, if you want to marry a rich man like I did, then tithe up!"
- In 1992, Republican Michael Huffington spent a record $5.4 million to win a Congressional House seat representing Santa Barbara. Just two years later, at Arianna’s urging, Michael spent a record $28 million in a failed bid to become a Senator, narrowly losing to Democratic incumbent Diane Feinstein. New York Times columnist Frank Rich described candidate Michael Huffington as a "Manchurian Candidate."
- Michael’s political agenda, under Arianna's direction, included huge tax cuts, abolishing all government social programs including Social Security, Medicare and food stamps, to be replaced with voluntary "tithing"—echoing the John-Roger cult's use of "tithing" to describe charity and volunteerism. However, when asked by reporters about their volunteer work, Michael said he couldn't name a single example, while Arianna claimed she volunteered at a Santa Barbara homeless children's shelter. The shelter's director refuted Arianna's claim and accused her of "using needy children...for political gain, and it's really disgusting."
- Arianna developed a reputation for exploiting and abusing her mansion servants. At her D.C. residence, home servants told Vanity Fair they were treated "like slaves" and quit. At their $5 million Santa Barbara mansion, the Huffingtons were caught using illegal immigrant labor, even as Michael campaigned on a tough anti-illegal immigrant platform. Arianna told reporters: "This was not a case of cheap labor. This is a case of a family falling in love with another human being . . ."
- In 1995, Arianna continued attacking illegal immigrants: “The fact that they can come here, and whether they succeed or not, whether they can make a living or not, they can stay on welfare. This is what drives the Americans nuts . . . I'm talking about the fact that an illegal, pregnant woman can walk into any California doctor and get all the services paid for free. Yes, I am talking about that."
- Newt Gingrich brought Arianna, a columnist for the right-wing Moonie-owned Washington Times, into his brain-trust to help guide the Republican Revolution after their 1994 election victory. After joining a Gingrich front-group, Arianna co-founded the Center for Effective Compassion, a religious free-market outfit that served as "a conduit for right-wing dollars to reach strategic conservative causes."
- In 1997, writing for a publication of the American Enterprise Institute, Arianna Huffington called herself an "unrepentant and unreconstructed conservative." [ 5 ]
- A year later, in 1998, Arianna declared that she was “disillusioned with the 'intellectual bankruptcy’ of the GOP Congress.” Arianna credited comedian Al Franken, who "opened my eyes to what Gingrich and Limbaugh were really saying." In 2000, a skeptical Laura Flanders wondered, “Has this former Gingrich girl turned into a progressive populist?” The Nation's Katha Pollitt called Arianna "dishonest" and "manipulative," telling the LA Times, "I find it amazing that anyone would take her seriously."
- In 2003, Arianna ran for California governor on a platform of “cracking down on ‘fat-cat’ tax evaders." When the LA Times revealed that the Brentwood multimillionaire paid just $771 in federal taxes over the previous two years, and $0 in state taxes—and that her private corporation set up by her accountants paid zero dollars in federal taxes over the previous two years—Arianna responded, "There isn't any loophole here. There isn't any dodging here." The hypocrisy echoed the hypocrisy in her previous conservative incarnation in 1994, when Arianna preached a harsh anti-immigration platform while privately hiring illegal immigrants to serve her.
HUFFPO'S UNDERBELLY: EXPLOITATION & JOURNALISTIC CORRUPTION
- In 2007, Huffington Post co-founder Kenneth Lerer told USA Today that HuffPo, despite securing millions in private investment funds, had no plans to pay bloggers, “Ever.” Lerer explained: “That’s not our financial model.”
- After Huffington Post sold out to AOL for $315 million, Ad Busters, the creative force behind the Occupy protests, organized a boycott campaign against the HuffPo, charging, "Socialite Arianna Huffington built a blog-empire on the backs of thousands of citizen journalists. She exploited our idealism and let us labor under the illusion that the Huffington Post was different, independent and leftist." Chris Hedges echoed that outrage: "If Huffington has a conscience, she will sit down when the AOL check arrives and make sure every cent of it is paid out to those who worked free or at minimal wages for her over the last six years..." The Newspaper Guild called for a virtual picket line to strike over unpaid labor.
- Arianna Huffington, author of Third World America, responded dismissively: "The idea of going on strike when no one really notices...Go ahead, go on strike.” She added that she could always find plenty of bloggers willing to take their place.
- In response to criticism over her sale of HuffPo, Arianna denied that the Huffington Post was ever intended to be progressive-minded, and dismissed the existence of political ideologies, telling PBS that "it is an obsolete way of looking at the problems America is facing."
- The Huffington Post has been widely criticized for appropriating content. The New Republic: HuffPo "does a great job of drawing traffic to its excerpts of other publications' pieces. Which is to say, it has become quite adept at reaping traffic—and profits—from other people's work." A former HuffPost employee told Gawker, "Arianna and the higher ups made a decision to stop linking out directly as much and rewrite stories . . . They even hired people specifically to rewrite other people's work. Whenever they get caught they just blame an underling."
- Huffington Post markets itself as a progressive publication, but publishes corporate propagandists, government flacks, lobbyists for dictators, bankers, cult leaders, self-help hucksters and medical quacks peddling false and sometimes dangerous medical advice, right alongside HuffPo's real reporting. Greg Coleman, Huffington Post president and chief revenue officer, bragged that the company's "sponsored content" strategy—which deliberately obscures the line between journalism and PR—had helped his company "more than double" its advertising revenue in 2010, saying "the level of interest we have in this marketing form is gigantic . . ." The Guardian called HuffPo the "grand master" of blurring "the line between advertising and editorial … via sponsoring schemes."
- Some in the medical community have condemned the Huffington Post for publishing dangerous medical quackery. In 2009, a physician published an article in Salon criticizing HuffPo's promotion of "bogus treatments and crackpot medical theories," including curing the Swine Flu with deep cleaning enemas, fraudulent spiritual healing techniques and risky cancer treatments. Science writer and Vanity Fair contributing editor Seth Mnookin wrote: "For whatever reason, HuffPo seemed to have a particular bee in its bonnet about vaccines and autism: If you made a list of the most irresponsible, misinformed people on the topic, it was a safe bet the majority of them had been given space for their rantings on the site." Many of these authors use Huffington Post to promote their books and services. [ 6 ]
- Arianna promoted the "Sweat Lodge" murderer. In October 2009, three people died at a "Spirtual Warrior" fasting and sweat lodge ceremony hosted by new age wealth guru James Arthur Ray, while 18 others were hospitalized with burns, dehydration, liver and kidney damage, as well as “scorched lungs.” In 2011, Ray was convicted on three counts of negligent homicide, and sentenced to two years in prison. Huffington Post published James Ray's blog right up until the deadly retreat, describing him as "a 'World Thought Leader' who has traveled the globe devoting over two decades to studying the thoughts, actions, and habits of those who create true wealth in every area of their life." Ray's bio has since been scrubbed from his HuffPo blog.
- The Huffington Post regularly features front-page PR by the CEO of the world’s largest bond fund, PIMCO, writing on subjects such as Greece's debt that directly conflict with the firm’s $1.7 trillion dollars of investments it manages. PIMCO, long a major sponsor of CNBC (including Rick “Tea Party” Santelli’s show), has been criticized for the way it has exploited the media in the past to reap huge gains for wealthy bondholders. According to the New York Times, in 2008, PIMCO co-founder Bill Gross successfully “used his access to the news media to get the government’s attention” — and secure its bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac creditors, netting PIMCO $2 billion in a single day.
- HuffPo has been caught pushing positive PR for foreign dictators. The New York Times reported that in 2009 HuffPo published a short article accompanied by a "fashion slide show" titled “Asma al-Assad: Syria’s First Lady and All-Natural Beauty" not long after the Assad family began using Western PR firms to "shape her image."
- During pro-democracy protests in Bahrain in 2011 at the start of the Arab Spring, HuffPo published a series of blog posts that whitewashed well-documented Bahraini police brutality, and instead blamed demonstrators for violence erupting in the country. HuffPo did not disclose that the author, Tom Squitieri, was "an employee of Qorvis Communications, a Washington firm that is registered to lobby for the government of Bahrain," as Ken Silverstein discovered. Squitieri had been a reporter for USA Today until 2005, when he "resigned" over charges of plagiarism.
- More labor theft was revealed in a 2011 lawsuit filed by two Democratic consultants against Arianna and Ken Lerer, claiming they'd stolen their idea for the Huffington Post. As of this writing, the lawsuit was allowed to move forward into discovery, despite attempts by the Huffington Post to block the suit.
- From Nina Munk's book Fools Rush In. [↩]
- The Christian Science Monitor writes: "The goal, Robinson and Lerer told their staff, was to turn public opinion from outrage to neutrality to acceptance, and finally to admiration," Stewart writes. "The campaign was remarkably effective." The fee included a $150,000-a-month retainer. This episode demonstrates once more how modern public relations can manipulate public opinion. Some of the press, sadly, was sucked in by the blather. [↩]
- Ad Age wrote: "Let's get real here: AOL is not just another benign outlet for aspiring teen writers; it's not the school newspaper writ large. It is, thanks to its combo with HuffPo, a massive, highly aggressive, cynically SEO'd page-view machine with a history of dubious ethics -- and let's not forget that AOL, despite all its troubles, still had second-quarter revenue of $542.2 million." [↩]
- Arianna reached out to Gasman to offer a settlement, “How much money do you think your work is worth?” Michael reportedly asked her. Gassman answered, “One million dollars. I worked all my life on it.” The Huffingtons told the UVA art historian to take a hike. [↩]
- That same year, House Speaker Newt Gingrich pushed Arianna out of his inner circle, which she blamed on Gingrich consultant Joe Gaylord. Arianna collected a file on Gaylord, and published a column strongly suggesting he was a closet homosexual. [↩]
- Dangerous quack remedies include a "baking soda" cancer treatment invented by an Italian doctor convicted of manslaughter and fraud in Italy. [↩]