The woman at the helm of 'the Huff'

Sat, Oct 4, 2008, 01:00

Arianna Huffington is the dynamic power behind the Huffington Post - a website that has grown to become one of the most influential media organs in the US

THREE FLOORS UP from the Dean DeLuca store in New York's SoHo district more than a dozen twentysomethings, dressed casually in jeans, trainers, hoodies and flip-flops, tap away at their keyboards next to huge TV screens tuned to Fox News and MSNBC. This is the editorial office of the website Huffington Post, the main engine room of what has become, in the short space of three years, arguably one of the most influential media organs in the US.

Recently, the HuffPost, as it is increasingly known, became the world's most-linked-to blog, as ranked by internet tracker Technorati. In August, the site's mix of edgy commentary, news links and blog posts written by celebrities, politicos and high-profile analysts drew more than five million unique visitors. Long a must-read for journalists and politicians in the US, it is this year that the Huffington Post has truly come into its own in the heat of a presidential election campaign that has been shaped by YouTube, Facebook and an army of bloggers.

When Barack Obama made his first public comments about his controversial pastor, Rev Jeremiah Wright, earlier this year, he chose to do so in a post on the site. Obama's campaign took one of its heaviest blows when one of the HuffPost's "citizen journalists", 61-year-old Democrat Mayhill Fowler, posted Obama's now infamous remarks about bitter small-town Americans who "cling to guns or religion" after hearing them at a fundraising event that was closed to the media.

The woman behind the site, flamboyant Greek-born socialite turned media maven Arianna Huffington, says she didn't think twice about running the story, despite her own vocal support for Obama.

"Our site is about the news and the truth," she explains. "That story was clearly not good for the Obama campaign . . . We clearly like the Obama campaign, but we published it."

Huffington, who lives in LA, is in New York for the day. She is on her way to a meeting at Simon Schuster, the publishers of her forthcoming book on blogging, having just delivered the keynote address at a web convention in Midtown West. She discussed how the internet had drawn the contours of this presidential race like never before, arguing that were it not for Obama's use of Facebook and other online platforms, "he would not be the Democratic nominee".

As her chauffeur-driven black sedan glides through the mid-morning Manhattan traffic, Huffington, statuesque in cream jacket, black trousers and a slick of lip gloss, talks about the dynamics of this election campaign, the future of journalism, her own much commented-on political evolution and why she calls Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin "the Trojan moose".

When the Huffington Post first went live in May 2005, many dismissed it as little more than an online dinner party for Arianna and her glitzy coterie of A-list friends drawn from Hollywood, Washington and beyond. The first people she asked to contribute included Arthur Schlesinger - who faxed in his first post after explaining he rarely used a computer - Nora Ephron and Norman Mailer.

IT WAS YET another reincarnation for a woman who has reinvented herself so many times she was once described as an "intellectual lap-dancer". Born Arianna Stassinopoulos in 1950 in Athens, she has been president of the Cambridge debating society; the author of more than 10 books on subjects as varied as feminism, Picasso, self-help and the US's drift to the right; and a social butterfly on both sides of the Atlantic. It was her reputation as the latter that led one commentator to memorably dub her "the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus". Another called her "the Edmund Hillary of social-climbing". As a media pundit, she has lurched from right to left in the last decade, prompting some to deride her as a political gadfly.

A staunch Republican up until the late 1990s, Huffington was portrayed as something of a Lady Macbeth when she directed her then husband, Texan oil magnate and Republican Congressman Michael Huffington, in his unsuccessful bid for a Senate seat in 1994. Three years later the couple divorced and shortly afterwards Michael admitted that he was bisexual. Huffington puts her transformation from conservative pundit and Newt Gingrich cheerleader to fervent Democrat down to a realisation that her understanding of the role of government had shifted. "I was always pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-gay rights, so it was not the social issues," she says. "It was the fact that I really believe that we need government to help regulate, as we are now finding out, the economy, and to use the raw power of government appropriations to help those in need."

Five years ago, Huffington ran as an independent candidate in the election for Californian governor but lost to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Political office no longer interests her, she says. "I love my day job. I love the way that through the Huffington Post we can both report what's happening and provide our clear take on the news with instant opinion and analysis. That's very exciting.

"We are the first internet newspaper, by which I mean we have news aggregation, over 2,000 bloggers, a very vibrant community and multiple sections."

She puts the success of the HuffPost down to several factors, not least the disillusionment with traditional journalism felt in the US following the invasion of Iraq. Huffington is particularly scathing about those she dismisses as "stenographers of power" - the journalists who failed to challenge the Bush administration on its reasons for going to war. She is equally caustic when discussing what she calls the "Pontius Pilate approach" of much American journalism, which affords, for example, a climate-change denier the same status as scientific opinion in an attempt to present both sides of the case. "I consider this giving up on the central mission of journalism, which is ferreting out the truth," she says.

But when it comes to the old media versus new media debate, Huffington insists there is room for both. "I actually see a convergence. Many traditional papers are doing things online such as blogging and video. Many new media like the Huffington Post are adopting the best of traditional journalism such as reporting, fact-checking and accuracy, so I think will include both. It will be a hybrid."

KATHERINE ZALESKI (27), who left her job at CNN to join the site when it was a week old and is now senior editor, agrees, arguing that the site's linking to stories from traditional media organs creates a much wider audience for those outlets.

"I really don't believe in all this pooh-bah about the death of traditional journalism. I think it's a positive in many respects. We take their content and promote it more . . . It's more of a symbiotic relationship, and that's very much the future." Zaleski says the ethos of the HuffPost is to have attitude and be forward-thinking while being 120 per cent factual every time. There's no reason why something can't be presented in an interesting and exciting way, with the facts, she adds.

Her boss is never more animated than when she is talking about the current sprint for the White House. At the web convention and a later luncheon with representatives from New York's main publishing houses, Huffington spits out a succession of witty one-liners to the delight of her audience. Sarah Palin is a "Trojan moose" she declares, comparing the Republican vice-presidential nominee to an intriguing dinner guest who fascinates with her stories until "everybody suddenly realises the house is on fire".

Barely pausing for breath, Huffington continues in her trademark accent, which has been described as part Zsa Zsa Gabor part Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous. "Every minute spent discussing Sarah Palin . . . is a minute wasted away from focusing on the big truth of this election, which is what the Bush administration has done to this country over the last 7½ years and the fact John McCain is going to continue the same policy."

"Rome is burning," as she likes to put it, adding that the turmoil on Wall Street has made it more difficult for the McCain campaign to continue with the "distraction and fear-mongering" that Huffington argues is the Arizona senator's only hope to win the election.

"They did a great job of distracting us with Sarah Palin and the discussion of her family life and all these minor issues of what she did or did not do in Alaska," she says. "But it's really not working now because the news is really bad and the house is on fire. We're not going to be distracted by a soap opera."

Huffington laments John McCain's transformation from the Republican maverick she once admired to someone she believes "surrendered his principles . . . on taxes, the religious right, even torture".

Obama, she says, is the real deal, pointing out that she met him when he was running for the Senate, long before his break-out speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. "It was really his passion against the war in Iraq at a time when it was not politically correct because the Democratic establishment had supported it. That made me realise that this was somebody exceptional, and then of course the speech he gave at the convention confirmed that."

Only Obama can counter what she describes as a worrying amount of ill-will towards the US. "There's a lot of excitement about the possibility of a dramatic change, a real closing of one chapter and opening of another. That is what Obama represents, both in this country and outside."