Arianna Huffington: Politics, Punditry and the HuffPo Family

This is the fifth and final interview in our impromptu “Fishbowl Final” series.

arianna huffington.jpgOn May 9, 2005, The Huffington Post whooshed into being, captained by the ever-energetic and, it seemed then, highly optimistic Arianna Huffington. A lot can change in nine months — in nine months, you can break news, collect an impressive array of pundits, generate incisive commentary, flog under-represented stories, relentlessly scrutinize people on TV, and go double that for the New York Times.

The Huffington Post did all that and more, collecting a truly mindblowing list of contributors along the way like a rolling stone gathering very smart moss, and now boasts a revolving roster of talent from Tina Brown and Harry Evans, Nora Ephron, Walter Cronkite, Larry and Laurie David, Rob Reiner, John Cusack, Lizz Winstead, Cindy Sheehan, Deepak Chopra (for your chakra), Jonathan Alter, Eric Alterman, Eve Ensler, wait-weren’t-you-supposed-to-be-Canadian-by-now Alec Baldwin, Rep. Russ Feingold, and FishbowlDC’s own Patrick Gavin. That is SO not an exhaustive list.

At the head of it all is Arianna, leading the charge by being prolific and proactive, posting on all manner of hot-button issues while goading her charges on to further heights of bloggery (if you don’t believe me go check out her list of blog posts that’s as long as your arm, if you had a really long arm). Together with partner Kenneth Lerer, so far she’s managed to needle Tim Russert incessantly, challenge the NYT over Judy Miller (also incessantly), and champion creativity on the internet with HuffPo’s “Contagious Festival,” inspired by the socially-conscious successes of HuffPal Jonah Peretti. Also, she actually didn’t fire Gutfeld. That alone bespeaks guts.

We had the opportunity to have a proper sit-down with Arianna in November at her party in LA, and she kindly answered a few follow-up questions more recently in between bouts of multi-tasking (“I’ll try to get to as many of all these excellent questions as possible as soon as I’m back from carpool and do a refresh of my blog”). Politicians, pundits, boom-box hoisting movie stars — all that and more await in the paragraphs below. Ta leme sto Blog!

How do you feel after six months of doing this? What’s the difference between where you are now and where you started?

It’s very different. The relentlessness of it has become sort of part of my life – at the beginning it seemed like I couldn’t catch my breath – it seemed so…constant. and now it feels almost normal. It’s an amazing thing.

It is your breath now.

Yes. It is my breath. It’s sort of at the beginning…I could never disconnect from it. It’s really become part of my life. Waking up in the morning and seeing [an important story], and then seeing how we’re going to cover it, going through what the bloggers are saying about it…it’s like knowing that’s exactly where I want to be. And I really love it — there’s such great work being done today by other bloggers, and then deciding to put them all on the news site, so we can keep updating what all the other bloggers are saying…it’s such a new model from the model I came from, from column writing and book writing — where if you’re writing about something and somebody else is writing about that thing, they you are competing. In the blogosphere it’s all about linking.

There’s a little bit of competing, sometimes it’s about scoops. (You’ve had a few doozies.)

Yes, scoops, absolutely. But the fact is you’re all covering the same stories sometimes.

Two words: Judy Miller.

Exactly. It’s a plus, it’s not a minus, because everyone’s developing the story and building on the story.

Especially with Judith Miller – different sites had different pieces of the puzzle, and it was such an enormous puzzle and the pieces were so deliberately hidden that it just took so much to put it all together.

Exactly. And it really wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for bloggers staying on it.

Is there anything you look back on from the beginning and kind of cringe, and think “I never would do that now,” like a post that you wrote, or is everything part of the learning process?

I definitely consider everything part of the learning process. The lesson at the beginning was that I had to unlearn habits — I had to unlearn being primarily a columnist.

Huff n' Stuff.jpgSo you now have this instinct: “this happened – react,” “react – post.” Do you ever wish there was a middle ground, a space for “react-reflect-post?”

I think it is “react/reflect/post” but the “reflect” mode is shorter, and part of it is because it’s not going to be your final piece on the story. As a columnist, your editors don’t like you to return to the same topic that often. One of my topics as a columnist has been the war on drugs, and how unjust it is and how it’s become a war on blacks and other minorities…and constantly my editors at different papers say, “you wrote about that last month.” That for me was a big shift.

[Ed. We turn to journalistic standards in blogging.] I would never blog anything without checking. It’s in my writer’s DNA, especially because often I take such controversial stance, whether in my books, for example with my book Picasso: Creator and Destroyer — acknowledging his genius but taking him on as a human being — you can imagine how the art world reacted to it. So I took an extra six months to fact-check everything — so they could question my interpretation, but they couldn’t question my facts.

I feel the more you challenge the status quo, the greater your responsibility to get your facts absolutely right. It just takes one inaccuracy, and then it will be used to discredit you.

This is something I’ve noticed: the Huffington Post is kind of about family! You’ve got Larry and Laurie David, the Schlesingers, Gary Hart and his son John…

(Laughs) I went to lunch with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and his wife when I invited him to blog, and he took me his club in New York and I thought it was like the juxtaposition of an incredibly old-world with me asking Arthur Schlesinger to blog — he uses this really old-fashioned typewriter, otherwise he’s not online — he faxes me his blogs and then we type them in, I thought it was such a great juxtaposition. Anyway, in the course of lunch they were telling me about their son, Robert, and I thought, “How great, I’m going to invite Robert to blog.” And so I invited him to blog, and then Aruthur said, “What about Stephen?”

So, are your daughters going to blog?

I would love it…but I think they’re more likely to blog on somebody else’s site! (laughs)

But we also have young bloggers — since you noticed the family thing, we have Rob Reiner and Jake Reiner — he’s been blogging on the Dodgers — actually, he’s done some really fun blogs about how to improve the Dodgers as a team. And our youngest blogger: Madeline Lear, who’se just ten, and both her parents blog, Norman & Lyn Lear; and our first young blogger was Carson Meyer (11), the daughter of Ron and Kelly Meyer . I took her to the MTV awards, and she liveblogged it on the blackberry (Ed. “Jessica Simpson has enormous blonde hair, very curly, obviously extensions.”) I love to encourage a lot of young people to blog.

contagious.gifBlogging is so much about voice — not only what you say but how you’re saying it. And as you repeat that and you have an audience you really start to feel really comfortable with your audience, like you’re buddies with them. For me, I’ve had to watch that because the filter’s dangerously worn down. Do you feel that way sometimes, that the assumption is that everybody has been keeping up, and kind of knows you and how you feel?

I feel like you definitely take more risks. It’s so funny how you responded to my Macbeth blog, because you know I was hiking with friends, and describing to them how Cheney’s becoming like Lady Macbeth now. And then I came back and I wrote that blog post about Macbeth and I thought — I started to question myself, and I thought “wow — isn’t this a little farfetched?” (laughs)

That’s what I really love about this — there’s commenting on the stuff that’s happening but what I think the real excitement is in finding the links, to the stories that keep happening over and over.

Yes, always sort of a risk in that, because you take it to the next level, and you make links which might not entirely work. Blogging — like any good writing — is about taking risks. Sometimes pulling back is good and sometimes it’s not. You know, I love being edited…I really, really trust my business partner Kenny Lerer, he’s a wonderful sounding board.

What about the voices of other people? Was that one of the things that motivated you, knowing some of these people, hearing the things they’d say, and thinking “I want people to know this!”

Oh, absolutely. Part of it was capturing voices, great voices of our time, that would never get their own blog, like Arthur Schlesinger or Norman Mailer or Larry David are not going to create their own blog — or Nora Ephron, who has been a great, great blogger. But if you provide them a platform and make it really easy for them — and although at the beginning some bloggers thought it wasn’t pure, that if you don’t do it in Movable Type it’s not blogging–I don’t care, I’ll capture it any way they’ll give it to me. Like, Larry David has called me from his trailer when he was taping “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and dictated his “Why I’m Supporting John Bolton” blog. Ari Emanuel has called me from the Golf course (Ed. Ari Emanuel is either confused, frustrated or hating on “Desperate Housewives“). As I told you, Arthur Schlesinger faxes to me, others email me and we post it for them. I would say about 95% of our bloggers just post themselves.

[At this point Mickey Kaus wanders by to offer some color. Who surprised him on the blog? “My brother [Stephen]…” (HuffPo is all about family!). “Gutfeld surprised me” (and probably Arianna when he first posted this) and, charitably: “I was surprised that Lawrence O’Donnell was right about something.” I think the amazing this just that there’s now this thing on the American Media that’s like this player that wasn’t there before. It’s this place where anyone with an idea can go and get it heard.” Thanks, Mickey! You’re so fine!]

(Feb. 2/05)

You are prolific — you blog from Tahiti, Aspen, New York (I’m sure I missed a spot). When you’re struck by inspiration do you leap to the laptop no matter what you’re doing? Are you constantly berry-blogging? Are there days when the relentless march of the 24 hour news cycle is overwhelming and the last thing you want to do is look at a computer? Has blogging fatigue ever set in, or are you completely galvanized every day?

What I love about blogging is how you can integrate it into whatever you are doing. I do constantly carry a BlackBerry with me, but I don’t find staying connected stressful — I find it energizing. The only time I try to leave it all behind is when I’m with my daughters because they have zero tolerance for multi-tasking. I think they remember every time I look at my BlackBerry instead of being completely focused on which of the twelve tank tops they’re considering they should buy.

Russert ariannna.jpgOkay – Tim Russert. After months of relentlessly critiquing him on “Meet The Press,” he finally noticed. Were you surprised that it happened now? Were you
expecting them to cry foul re: Maureen Orth? What has been your goal in zeroing in on Russert?

We launched Russert Watch on May 22, 2005. I picked Tim Russert to focus on because his is the most powerful political show on TV and we wanted to make it clear that the Huffington Post is not just about taking on the low hanging fruit like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh but (to mix our metaphors) taking on the sacred cows of Beltway conventional wisdom.

I was not surprised that they attacked me. But I was surprised they turned the NBC publicity department into a vehicle for dispensing completely unsubstantiated rumors. Russert is the senior vice president and Washington bureau chief of NBC News, for heaven’s sake.

Maureen Orth’s piece about me was in 1994, which feels like another lifetime for me. And it’s clear from the dozens of other bloggers who are taking part in the critique of Russert without having had hit pieces written about them by his wife that these are very legitimate criticisms that speak to the lack of accountability in the mainstream media — criticisms that should have been made a long time ago.

In addition to being a Judy Miller-watcher, Russert-watcher and Democrat-advice-giver/forehead-smacker you are an ever-vigilant critic of this administration. Indeed, you live-blogged the State of the Union address. Which part of the speech outraged you the most?

The part of the speech that most outraged me was his blatant lie about a “strategy for victory” in Iraq. I longed for an Oprah moment from the media, demanding that he come clean about his fabrications (didn’t get one). I also longed for a powerful response from the Democrats (didn’t get that either, until the next day when Jack Murtha offered a passionate and detailed response in a letter to the President (on HuffPo) and in a powerful interview with Wolf Blitzer).

You got Murtha! How? Was it as easy as asking?

Murtha first blogged for us in November, a week after he went public with his denunciation for the president’s strategy in Iraq. He then did a blog correctly predicting the swift-boating of him orchestrated by the GOP hit machine. As for how we got him, I called and talked to his chief of staff John Hugya, who was a Colonel in the Marine Corps.

How do you feel when you look at the Huffington Post and see the diverse people arrayed on it – proud, excited, maybe even a little misty?

It’s like watching your kids grow up. You start with certain plans and expectations for them, but then the site, like children, has in all sorts of unexpected ways, developed its own personality and style beyond those plans and expectations.

I will NOT be ignored.jpgWhat’s an example of one of those unexpected ways? Is there a series of posts that you’re particularly proud of, or a result that you can trace back to HuffPo that puffs you up with joy?

I’m very happy with our Judy Miller/Plamegate coverage. The MSM was portraying her as Judy of Arc. We saw it differently — early and often. I also thought Harry Shearer‘s series of of-the-moment posts on Katrina were amazing. It was great to see the way Nora Ephron’s posts caught fire. I also get a kick when I invite someone to blog and then, sometimes months later, an offering from them suddenly pops up on the blog, as happened with the playwright Chris Durang. And I always love to see what topics explode on the Post — for instance, the James Frey story really hit a nerve with our bloggers, long before Oprah caught on and decided that “truths matters.” And I love, love, love the humor pieces — whether it is the utter madness of Greg Gutfeld‘s “secret blog” or some of the satiric videos we’ve run lately, like the ones on the State of the Union by Bob Cesca and by our editor, Roy Sekoff.

Last question, and the most important: Do you think John Cusack would like me?

Of course, Cusack would love you!

There you have it: Arianna Huffington is an optimist, and very kind.


Fishbowl’s Random Favorite Recent Blog Posts/Excerpts Off HuffPo:

  1. Carson Meyer, School Lunch Blog, Part 2 (Feb. 5/06): “The Tyson Machine is a vending Machine that you press a button with a picture of what you want, it is frozen in the machine, wrapped in plastic, then nuked and brought down the shoot for you to eat. First of all, the plastic melts into the food — im guessing that can’t be good for you — and most the frozen food is meat. I would not trust the machine to provide fresh healthy meat.” “I’m guessing that can’t be good for you” — love that.
  2. Marty Kaplan, How Do You Solve A Problem Like Urea? (Feb. 5/06): Rolf, Liesl, Von Trapps, and not one but TWO “Sound of Music” songs. I don’t invent the trends, people, I just report ’em.
  3. Eric Boehlert, How the Press Played Dumb About the K Street Project (Jan. 19/06): This never did gain much traction, did it? Never too late! (Do I hear “Downing Street Memo?”)
  4. Arianna Huffington, Condi: Clueless at Foggy Bottom (Jan. 30/06): May I add one? She may not have technically said “I don’t think anyone could have anticipated the breach of the levees,” but she could have NOT BEEN SHOPPING FOR SHOES in the aftermath. To paraphrase Carson, I would not trust that machine to provide fresh healthy meat.

That’s it for the Fishbowl Final! Thanks to all our fascinating and charming participants. I hope you enjoyed it, and if you didn’t I pledge to resign in protest. Oh, wait.