Arianna Huffington: Laughing All the Way to the You Know What
Arianna Huffington had the privilege of being the subject of Hundred Eighty Degrees' very first spotlight on media "moguls." The cash prize? Nothing. Which is the same amount she paid 100,000+ contributing writers (those she dubbed "citizen journalists") and likely not much less than what she paid staffers before her exit.
I was one of those rather early contributors, when there was a fraction of the unpaid army in tow. Yes, the HuffPost model recently changed, but the legacy remains the same. They built the platform on the backs of suckers like me. It's the American Way, baby.
One of the objectives of Hundred Eighty Degrees was to let folks know that mega-media sites like HuffPost must be seen for what it is: a Ponzi scheme. At best, these aggregators are big biz ATMs, and at worst, they are the very embodiment of a disinformation infection that has zombified America.
Arianna has an undeniably fertile history of clearly seeing forests for their trees so that she can raze them to lay straight road toward the pot of gold waiting on the other side. In her 2011 book, Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream, she pronounced, "It's no longer an exaggeration to say that middle-class Americans are an endangered species." And her contribution to the cause is to write a book about it so she can cash in on the very folk for whom she so ardently cheers.
She pocketed over $20 million from her sale of HuffPo to AOL, for $315 million in 2011, and she commanded a $4+ million dollar salary. As writers began to rebel against her no-pay policy, she proudly exclaimed, "Go ahead. Go on strike." This response clearly indicated that she was willing to bet on those who would continue to toil pro bono. She was right. Such a model enabled her to afford her platinum-plated toilet paper holders in her 4,200sf $8.15 million SoHo loft and her 8,000sf $11 million estate in Los Angeles.
The claim that her unpaid writers received massive if not unparalleled visibility was inane. She and her staff were too busy either reimagining or outright stealing content (some of the myriad examples are here and here and here and here) to the point that information overload was the understatement of the decade. The average Joe or Jill did not reach the masses, but Arianna did. She was the beneficiary of the incremental traffic that her sucker workforce fueled. We believe aggregation (especially attribution of research) is fair to a degree. "Footnotes" have been a writer's friend for eons. But repackaging and claiming content as her own - especially in her take-no-prisoners context - was stupefying and sleazy.
HuffPost has been largely driven by ad revenue. Perhaps content generated by unpaid contributors generated but a small fraction of traffic to the site as purported by numbers guru, Nate Silver, in a previous FiveThirtyEight blog analysis. However, what Nate failed to understand is:
Ad revenues paled in comparison to what Arianna and her buddy, Jeff Zuckerberg, TRULY vied for: the personal profile information of folks that they could sell to the boundless bidders waiting like wolves to make them their next marketing victims.
Arianna spent her life caring about people as long as they stuffed her safe. More on that in a moment.
And by the way, Nate Silver got lured from The New York Times to the ESPN (Walt Disney Company) machine - 2nd largest media conglomerate (TV/radio/cable/telecom/print/Internet) in the world - where he commands a hefty salary, not to mention his prior $700,000 book deal advance and ancillary revenue streams. Welcome to the top of the world, Nate.
Eric Frazier was a Charlotte Observer journalist who covered economic development. Regarding the issue of unpaid content providers at HuffPost, perhaps he summed it best with, "Just because you can get people to work for you for free doesn't mean you should." Chris Hedges, famed author, speaker, thinker, could not have agreed more. "Any business owner who uses largely unpaid labor, with a handful of underpaid, nonunion employees, to build a company that is sold for a few hundred million dollars [the AOL merger], no matter how he or she (Arianna) is introduced to you on the television screen, is not a liberal or a progressive. Those who take advantage of workers, whatever their outward ideological veneer, to make profits of that magnitude are charter members of the exploitative class."
HuffPost published a number of my pieces over a few years. I was not nearly as active as others, because I had a day job that paid for my ideas and was grew less and less fond of being leveraged like a donkey in a canyon. When the editorial team refused to publish one of my pieces titled, "America's New Slavery" - which addressed absurd income disparity and slovenly conditions that consume the average 21st century American - something crystalized. Clearly, deploying the word "slavery" could not be the issue. Or could it? In absolutely no way was the content a wholly compare-contrast narrative. The average citizen knows that slave trade centuries before is not comparable. That being said, slavery, defined as submission to a dominating influence, is precisely what modern America suffers today. Having worked at nonprofits supporting the poor and homeless, I knew this to be true and appropriate.
In any event, the above story denial sparked a need to litmus test the HuffPost. Since the editorial team loves to litter its daily front page with TMZ-like headers, surely a more poisonous pen would yield better results.
I subsequently submitted a highly researched, fact-filled column on gun control with a little more satire than usual. Rejection. I submitted a similarly constructed column on media misdeeds. Rejection. And so on. And this after never having entertained such rejection from HuffPost. Hey, rejection is a way of life. Likely deserved more often than not. But something stunk here.
And here's the point.
How do Arianna's think-pieces such as how butt implants are on the rise or what happens when you put pit bulls in a photo booth deserve HuffPost front page gold every time? Likely answer: because they are low-hanging fruit for gluttons of idiocy they call faithful readers.
Mayhill Fowler was one of Arianna's greatest conquests. Graduate of Vassar, some high profile work on major media outlets, etc. She covered the 2008 presidential campaign for the HuffPost "Off the Bus" initiative. That's about 80 hard news stories over the course of 15-16 grueling months. Mayhill was the journalist who broke the Obama "clinging to guns and religion" story which was played out en masse and for which Arianna was a jubilant heiress. All tolled, she gave HuffPost about 200 stories. And Arianna gave her nothing. Not even the decency to offer her any form of stipend as she says "to do original reportage." Shameful manipulation. And for all of those of you out there who think Mayhill was naive, think again. What she was and is, is full of integrity, talent and belief that there would be a greatly deserved payoff in the end. Read her story here.
But Arianna's buddy, Bill Maher (for whom she used to write on the original Politically Incorrect) has been on countless HuffPost front pages, which of course props up his ratings and bottom line. Or formerly John Stewart or Stephen Colbert for the same reasons. As much as we may admire their wit and smarts, the joke is on us for watching them. Word is Maher makes about $2.5 million per season for Real Time on HBO and who only knows how much for his standup shows. Must be enough to sink $20 million into the New York Mets as a minority partner. John Stewart was the highest paid host on TV earning upwards of $25 million a year, and poor Colbert earned but a measly $6 million for his former satire. The irony? They earned a living railing against titans of news, industry and policy, and yet they worked for Viacom, the fourth largest media conglomerate in the world. Like all such empires, Viacom monopolizes and controls what we are able to see, hear and read. Those three sure weren't choosing to work for a web-based comedy platform where they may have earned enough to afford cable television in their 200sf studio in Hell's Kitchen.
Maybe most infuriating about Arianna and her ilk is that they are given absurd money and celebrity only to fail. HuffPo has failed to turn a profit since the $315 million dollar AOL purchase. In fact, Arianna only crossed from red to black since launching in 2005. How many small to medium sized businesses that power this economy can survive if they fail to turn a profit in nearly 10 years? Arianna's former boss at AOL, Tim Armstrong, made a jaw-dropping comment in 2013, calling it “AOL’s most successful year in the last decade.” And this is after net income for the year plummeted 91 percent! HuffPost followed that up by breaking even in 2014 with $146 million!
According to Vanity Fair, "In 2010, the site generated nearly $31 million in revenue but made a profit of less than $1 million. In 2011, Huffington expected to double revenues, to $60 million, and profit was expected to balloon to $10 million—no doubt helping to justify the purchase price, which was still more than 30 times Huffington Post’s projected profits. Armstrong seemed convinced by Huffington’s prediction that her business would explode in the coming years. She projected the company’s revenue and profit would surge to $115 million and $36 million, respectively, in 2012, and increase to $203 million and $73 million, respectively, in 2015. That did not happen"
When Verizon bought AOL for $4.4 billion, and Arianna was scrambling to identify with her new overlords, multiple parties reportedly approached her with billion dollar plus offers. This is what makes her brand of mass media massively foul. She paid puny wages to sleepless, lunchless, dinnerless, exploited employees, she didn't pay contributors a penny for their time or research or relevance, she largely lifted content, she used the platform to sell her spiritual and health books and secured $100K speaking gigs, and yet she somehow remains adored, valued, and venerated for creating such an inimitable hydra.
This piece on Gawker shed brilliant light on just how little Arianna cared about "journalism" and just how much she cared about walking in diamond-dappled heels.
Two editors were interviewed by Vanity Fair. Both were less enthused by their former commander's modus operandi. “I do believe she thinks of herself as a transformational figure. She thinks that she is Oprah plus Jesus or something, I don’t know. She genuinely in her heart believes that she can change the way journalism is done.” Another explained, “the main directive of the Huffington Post, at its core, is not about producing great journalism, but it is about maintaining Arianna Huffington’s position in the world.”
As AdAge said, "So, if The Huffington Post -- which is 10-years-old, hauls in more than 200 million unique visitors a month and cranks out roughly 1,200 posts daily [note: actually 1,900] on the backs of reportedly poorly paid or unpaid writers -- can't turn a profit on $146 million in revenue, then how are the other, venture-capital fueled sites with smaller audiences and fewer relationships with advertisers supposed to achieve profitability?"
We mentioned, the issue of attribution above. Here's some attribution worth checking out. Head on over to shameproject.com. This ultra-compelling illustration of a woman who will sell herself to her other self epitomizes the cult of personality that has barnstormed if not brainwashed a nation.
Or check out a former employee acutely describing Arianna's soulless, thankless work environment.
Perhaps the best illustration of her HuffPo empire came via The New York Times piece in which one employee described her working conditions as "a jury-rigged, discombobulated chaos machine."
The despot formula is all-too-familiar. Convince people that a sea change is coming. Use fear, celebrity, connectivity, magnetism, head games, money or any combination thereof to convince them that you can lead them through such change unto a better tomorrow. Build a kingdom that believers can be in awe of and non-believers can be denied access to. Require a handsome fee for protection. And finally, and most importantly, screw over as many folks as possible on ones' way to touching clouds.
We understand that this honor will likely reach but a grain of the HuffPost faithful. We are relative nobodys and Arianna is an everybody of the one percent. Is this harsh treatment? Indeed. But it is nowhere near as harsh as the role she played in scamming millions into believing her media empire is worth a fraction of what it asserted.