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Opinion Arianna Huffington is an Uber board member: Huh?

Huffington Post co-founder and editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington. (Peter Foley/European Pressphoto Association)

Editors in chief of news organizations are well advised to steer clear of corporate entanglements. They generally avoid doing paid speeches for special interests, stay off of the boards and councils of companies and groups that their reporters cover. The goal is to lead coverage of all newsmakers without fear of polluting the product.

Today Uber announced that Huffington Post editor in chief Arianna Huffington was joining the company’s board of directors. The announcement came in a first-person letter from Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick, which reads in part:

From the start of our friendship it was obvious that she believes deeply in our mission: transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere for everyone. At a staff event last fall, Arianna told the crowd how she once used Uber to conjure a little magic of her own.
She recalled a panicked phone call from her former sister-in-law, Terry, who needed a ride for her daughter, who was stuck in Brooklyn during a snowstorm. Terry had tried every car service in town before calling her. “No problem,” Arianna said. “Tell Lindsay to look outside her window—there will be a car waiting for her in five minutes.” The crowd roared when she told them, “For the first time in my life, I felt like a genuine Greek goddess.”

The Uber chief executive appears to be right. The top editorial executive at Huffington Post does indeed appear to believe deeply in the mission of Uber — so deeply that her affection for Uber is wound up in her latest book project, “The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time.” As this blog noted last week, “The Sleep Revolution” is a project that in itself raises questions about boundaries at the Huffington Post, as in: Where does Huffington’s personal business as an author end and the editorial prerogatives of Huffington Post editors begin? In rolling out “Sleep Revolution,” Huffington benefited from a number of stories on Huffington Post tracking publicity events for the book.

As part of the “Sleep Revolution” phenomenon, Huffington has launched a college tour promoting sleep and handing out copies of her book. Uber is in there, too:

And coinciding with the publication of “Sleep Revolution,” Huffington and Kalanick co-authored a “story” on Huffington Post titled “A Wake-Up Call to End Drowsy Driving,” which outlines a collaboration of sorts among Huffington Post, Uber and Toyota. Here is a key paragraph: “Over the next month, Arianna will be carrying that message to college campuses in Denver, Las Vegas, Nashville, Chicago, the Bay Area and throughout the country. If you’re interested in a sleep tutorial, order a ride with Uber and you could win a chance to have Arianna ride along with you.”

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Huffington Post journalists: Isn’t that precisely what you want your editor in chief doing?

A few days later, a Huffington Post editorial fellow contributed this story to the mix:

Toyota Is Giving Away Cheap Uber Rides To College Students
It’s all part of the sleep revolution.

Now turn your attention to this video in which Kalanick talks to his father, Donald Kalanick, about their lives together. It’s heart-warming, perfect material for the Kalanick family Facebook page. It’s part of the Huffington Post’s “Talk to Me” series. A peek back through the Internet Wayback Machine indicates that this newsless video secured some pretty favorable promotion on the Huffington Post:

Lena Auerbuch, a spokeswoman for the Huffington Post, noted that the “Talk to Me” series has also netted videos with Oprah, Laura and Barbara Bush, Richard and Sam Branson, Michael and Emma Bloomberg, and Melinda and Jenn Gates. “All our original video content gets great placement on the homepage!” Auerbuch said. As to the editorial independence issues raised by Huffington’s new corporate responsibilities, Auerbuch notes, “Arianna has already told our leadership team that she will be recusing herself from all of The Huffington Post’s coverage of Uber going forward.”

That sounds so easy: For articles with “Uber” in the headline, Huffington can simply recede from the discussion. But what about pieces that are topically contiguous to Uber? Like transportation funding, highway safety, union politics and so on? How broad will be her recusal? According to Auerbuch, Huffington will recuse herself from those issues as they related to Uber, but not “generally.”

The benefits that Uber extracts from this partnership are plain to see. It has been beset by safety issues for some time now, and positioning its chief executive alongside Huffington in a safety initiative is not much of a brainer. Neither is securing a pipeline to Huffington Post’s college audience. The upside for the editorial operation of the Huffington Post requires some squinting, however. Who wants to be covering Uber while your editor in chief is sitting on the company’s board? If you genuinely, authentically, truthfully, with your entire body, feel that Uber has done something very good, you write it up at your own peril. Because everyone will think you’re trying to please the boss.

On the other hand, consider writing something negative, and then encountering Huffington herself in the canteen. How will that go?

Auerbuch noted that Huffington Post has provided straight-up, tough coverage of Uber over an extended period. Huffington and Kalanick became friends in 2012 at a tech conference in Munich. “[T]he impending announcement has not in any way affected the coverage,” notes Auerbuch.

Fair enough, but: Pointing to strong coverage of Uber is just a way of saying that this news organization has the capability to overcome a powerful conflict of interest at the top of its editorial operation. A better question is why this conflict exists in the first place. Why does Huffington need to get involved with Uber? Is running the editorial operation of Huffington Post insufficient? She told CNN’s Dylan Byers, “I would love to tell all the stories around what is happening in cities beyond transportation. Do some cities want to give free rides to cancer patients? Do they want to work with the Red Cross? There are so many possibilities.” Why does she need to be on the board of directors of Uber to do all that?

Whatever the answers to that question, this setup stinks.