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Opinion Huffington Post killed story pitch critical of Uber

Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post. (ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

Uber yesterday announced that Huffington Post Editor in Chief Arianna Huffington would be joining its board of directors, a move that put the site’s reporters in an instant bind. To fight the notion that Huffington Post would somehow take it easy on Uber because of these ties, Huffington’s folks noted that her news operation has churned out various hard-hitting stories on Uber while the announcement was “impending,” as spokeswoman Lena Auerbuch put it.

There was an omission, however.

On April 6, reporter Sarah Digiulio sent a note to some colleagues apprising them of this story in the New York Times: “Uber Driver Napped as His Passenger Led Highway Chase, Police Say.”

An editor replied: “Thanks, Sarah. Let’s hold on this one please as we’re partnering with Uber on our drowsy driving campaign.” That editor is Gregory Beyer, according to two Huffington Post sources and confirmed by spokeswoman Lena Auerbuch. Beyer is listed on the Huffington Post masthead as executive features editor. According to his LinkedIn profile, he formerly served as “senior editor to Arianna Huffington,” and a newsroom source says he’s still a top lieutenant of the boss.

The day before Digiulio’s note, Huffington and Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick jointly published a piece on Huffington Post titled “A Wake-Up Call to End Drowsy Driving.” The piece outlined a partnership among the Huffington Post, Uber and Toyota “to raise awareness of the issue and help save lives.” For this particular venture, Huffington pledged to do some miles. “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,” noted the piece. The arrangement was pegged to the launch of Huffington’s book, “The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time,” as well as to a college sleep tour for the Huffington Post. The site’s top editor tweeted:

The brush-off received by Digiulio should end any fanciful thinking that somehow a news organization can cover the news with a conflicted boss. According to several sources familiar with these events at the Huffington Post, Huffington was not directly involved in the decision to refrain from aggregating the New York Times story. Someone possibly looking to protect the Uber partnership, however, was standing right over the Huffington Post spike. Yesterday Huffington said she’d stay out of editorial deliberations involving Uber. The email exchange above, however, suggests that extracting her influence will require construction equipment.

This incident sits astride two dicey projects by Huffington. Digiulio started working as Huffington Post’s sleep reporter just weeks ago, just in time for the launch of “Sleep Revolution.” Huffington insists there was nothing intentional about the overlap, and that Digiulio’s hiring stemmed from a December partnership with mattress maker Sleep Number. Crazy that Digiulio flagged a story that encompassing one of Huffington’s favorite activities — sleep — with one of her favorite companies — Uber.

Asked about the incident, Auerbuch responded, “Arianna heard about the email and asked Greg to apologize. . . . It had nothing to do with Arianna joining the board and no one, including Greg, knew that the board position was in the works when this email exchange occurred.” Here’s the apology that Beyer sent along:

Hi everyone, just wanted to bump this because a few people have asked me about this email and I realize it gave off the wrong impression. Obviously our partnerships never affect our coverage, and I was moving quickly in the moment and sent the wrong message as I read it in hindsight. For any confusion or concern I caused with my note, I apologize.

A site with many corners and apertures, the Huffington Post did host a brief video recap of the napping-Uber-driver story.