Arianna Huffington needn’t worry about her central place in the brief history of Internet journalism. A co-founder of her namesake site, the Huffington Post, she helped create a digital beast that understood aggregation (perhaps a bit too well), verticals, sharing and, yes, good, old-fashioned journalism. Networking was Huffington’s metier; she pulled in celebrities and other big shots to blog for the site. “Without her marketing genius, her editing and her contacts, none of this would have happened,” said Kenneth Lerer, another Huffington Post co-founder, in the Wall Street Journal.
“She does have incredible star power and in many ways would help us with access at times,” says a Huffington Post staffer who declined to be named while saying positive things about Huffington.
Those are fair assessments. But as Huffington Post employees learned, the boss’s book of contacts has its drawbacks as well. And as the 66-year-old Huffington prepares to leave the Huffington Post and her corporate bosses at AOL and Verizon for a new venture — Thrive Global, a site that’ll focus on her obsession with relaxation, sleep and the like — some of her fellow journalists will not miss the pressures that came with her leadership of the Huffington Post — pressures related to her high-profile friends and luminaries.
Back on Oct. 25, 2014, the Huffington Post published an innocuous piece of journalism. Lululemon, the maker of smooth-to-the-touch active wear, had promulgated a partnership with the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education. People responded with piss and indignation, bombing the Lululemon site with negative comments, some of which the Huffington Post republished, just to give readers a feel for the backlash. From the story: “A few who spoke out against the partnership claimed not to like the Dalai Lama, with one calling him ‘cruel’ and another calling him ‘greedy.'”
And that was that: The Huffington Post published the short news piece and moved on to other things.
Like, an event in Boston with the Dalai Lama. That’s where Huffington found herself about a week after the story surfaced. She posted a note on Facebook about the get-together:
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and Huffington were both speakers at the symposium.
A couple of days after that symposium concluded, a change visited that Huffington Post story on Lululemon and the Dalai Lama. This italicized passage at the foot of the story explains:
Note: This article has been revised throughout from its original version to remove anonymous quotations sourced from the Lululemon website.
What possibly could have driven such a change? An email conversation at the time sheds some light on it all. On Nov. 4, Senior International Editor Tom Dan sent a note to fellow editors at the website: “Here’s the post Lama Tenzin was talking about — on a collaboration between the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education and Lululemon. Here’s the piece and I’ll take a look at the accuracy with the author…and with [other editors].” From the sound of it, someone at the Huffington Post got an earful about the story.
Huffington herself opined in that email chain, “I can’t really say enough about how appalling this piece is on so many levels, including of course getting no one from the Dalai Lama’s foundation to respond and a real breakdown of our editorial process. We need to of course both change the piece and hold those responsible accountable. And I would suggest we have an editorial meeting and put this up as an example of what should never happen again, and explain why. This is very serious and I would love us to prioritize.” An original version of the story included in the email chain included this line, “Lululemon and the Dalai Lama Center did not respond to requests for additional comment.”
Consider, too, that Huffington was seeking to “prioritize” post-publication edits to the yoga-apparel-company story on the same day as the national mid-term elections. Her lieutenants complied with the request, stripping colorful quotes from the piece, including the line carrying criticisms of the Dalai Lama as “cruel” and “greedy.”
Then came the part about holding “those responsible accountable.” The reporter, editor and copy editor responsible for the Lululemon-Dalai Lama story were suspended for their actions. A media reporter can spend a great deal of time in a futile effort to find editors at the Huffington Post who’ll defend those suspensions in hindsight: The story contained no factual errors, no errors of attribution, no taste problems. As for the anonymous quotes from those who’d posted their thoughts on the Lululemon site — 100 percent legitimate. Those quotes demonstrated how people were reacting to the maneuvers of a brand-name company; it’s not as if Huffington Post reporters had called these people and granted them anonymity.
Huffington, in an interview with Politico Media’s Joe Pompeo, denied that she’d received complaints from any representative of the Dalai Lama Center.
In an extensive reply to questions about the matter, Huffington told the Erik Wemple Blog that she didn’t speak with the Dalai Lama at the event, and that the changes to the story stemmed from a “complaint from the Dalai Lama Center” directed to Dan. “We publish over 1,000 stories a day, and we’re always very responsive to any issues that any of our readers raise,” she says, “The story on the Dalai Lama Center violated a cardinal newsroom rule, by being entirely based on anonymous comments posted on the internet – in this case on Lululemon’s website — which among other things described the Dalai Lama as ‘cruel’ and ‘greedy.'”
She continues: “There are, of course, cases in which anonymous sources are justified and necessary —and in the rare instances in which they are, the source is quoted anonymously but is known to the reporter, who can thereby vouch for the credibility of the source, since the reader, of course, can’t.”
In recent months, some employees of the Huffington Post have taken a second look at this sequence of events. Impetus for the review comes from the effort of Huffington Post editorial staffers to unionize under the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE). Newsroom negotiators have identified editorial independence as a significant component of the collective bargaining talks, and earlier this year requested from colleagues examples detailing breaches of this noble yet subjective principle. “We have yet to present our editorial independence proposal, which includes language related to branded and sponsored content, who makes editorial decisions and editorial policy. If you have had an experience related to editorial independence that you would like us to include in that presentation, please reach out to your bargaining committee rep,” read the appeal.
Those bargaining committee reps must be busy. Huffington, after all, has spent years at Huffington Post promoting her products and the agenda of her buddies. Though each instance of Huffington meddling is distinct, the Dalai Lama episode is instructive: To show proper deference to a world-famous icon of tranquility, Huffington hesitated not one bit to jeopardize the careers of her editorial underlings.
2016 alone provides plenty of corroboration of her leanings. In April, for instance, she came out with a new book, “The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time.” Nowhere was this tome a more newsworthy matter than at Huffington Post, several of whose bona fide journalists found cause to write stories linking to it. “Why The Huffington Post Is Going On A Sleep Tour On College Campuses,” read the headline on a promotional story from a Huffington Post education reporter.
After the Erik Wemple Blog wrote a story highlighting all the Huffington Post staffers who’d written posts on Huffington’s book, we heard through multiple sources that these folks were irked at having had their names published as participants in an Arianna Huffington logrolling venture. We sympathized; it’s hard to adhere to journalistic ethics when the boss has little regard for them.
Pressure to promote Huffington’s books commonly came from Huffington’s intimates, who were prolific on email channels. Just weeks before the launch of Huffington’s March 2014 book “Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder,” editorial staffers received this morale-boosting correspondence from a Huffington Postie:
We need your help. In honor of Arianna’s book launch, we’re putting together video mashups for all four components of the Third Metric: well-being, wisdom, wonder and giving.
We have reserved studio space and will be shooting over the course of the next week, starting TODAY at 2PM with the theme of wonder. PLEASE make every effort to sign up for one day or even all four here: [Link redacted]
Given your busy schedules, we promise to keep everyone moving through and stick to the timeline. You’ll see the Google doc has the times, locations and themes for each day. I’ve included below the suggested questions/ideas to help you think about each theme. Please let me know if you have any questions.
Again, please don’t be shy! We need your voices.
THE BEST PIECE OF HEALTH ADVICE I EVER RECEIVED WAS FROM _________, WHO TOLD ME______
–What is the single-best piece of advice anyone gave you about your health, and who was it from?
(IE My mom told me to always go to bed by 11pm; My grandmother told me to eat egg whites.)
–What’s your best trick for balancing work and personal?
(IE I shut off my email for 3 hours when I get home, then go back to it.)
–What do you make a priority for your overall happiness everyday?
(Meditation for just 10 minutes every morning; Bathing my daughter every day)
THE MOST INSPIRING WORDS OF WISDOM I’VE EVER HEARD CAME FROM ______ WHO SAID________.
–Who has MOST inspired you with wisdom?
(My grandmother, my first boss, my mom….)
–What’s the best piece of wisdom you’ve received?
(Make choices that work for YOU, not other people.)
THE MOST WONDROUS MOMENT I’VE EVER WITNESSED WAS _____________.
–WHAT IS THE MOST WONDROUS MOMENT OF YOUR LIFE?
–When was a moment you’ve been in awe of something or someone?
–What brings you wonder?
–When have you been inspired by your surroundings?
GIVING BACK TO ______CHANGED ME BECAUSE ________.
It’s not just her own work, either. Years ago, Huffington established a friendship with Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber. For any top editor at any general-interest publication, that’s a bad friendship to strike up. Uber draws controversy around the country for a number of very good reasons, and it’s nice when a news organization takes a fully disinterested view. No such luck at Huffington Post, which earlier this year forged a partnership with Uber concerning drowsy driving. To keep that partnership strong, a Huffington Post editor killed a story pitch that would have reflected poorly on the company, as this blog reported.
After that story surfaced, Huffington told her top staffers that she wanted to find the person who leaked the story to this blog.
One way to decode the site’s corporate leanings is to sketch out Huffington’s friendships among titans of industry. Three years ago, she announced her accession to something called the “B Team,” a group committed to “prioritize people and planet alongside profit.” With this move, Huffington was verily shopping for conflicts of interest: The “B Team” includes Sir Richard Branson (founder, Virgin Group); Marc Benioff (founder, chairman and CEO of Salesforce); Paul Polman (CEO, Unilever); among many other big thinkers and significant doers.
A former Huffington Post employee tells the Erik Wemple Blog that top Huffington lieutenants commonly pushed positive coverage of Unilever and Salesforce under the site’s “What’s Working” banner and elsewhere. But please don’t accept the word of some anonymous source of the Erik Wemple Blog. Check the Huffington Post archives:
One global leader in addressing climate change is Unilever, which has pledged to reduce the company’s environmental footprint by 50 percent by 2020. Under the leadership of CEO Paul Polman, Unilever — which includes hundreds of recognizable brands, including Ben & Jerry’s, Dove, and Lipton — has launched a global Sustainable Living Plan, which aims simultaneously increase the company’s impact and its profits. Polman believes that businesses can help solve the world’s biggest problems, but as he put it, these problems “cannot be solved just by quarterly reporting. They require longer-term solutions and not 90-day pressures.”
That bit of promo comes off the keyboard of Huffington herself in December 2015, under the headline, “Business and Climate: A Match Made in Paris.” More: This piece profiles CEO Polman as a “model for other executives who might want to reject a Milton Friedman-esque, profit-above-all mindset and instead embrace a worldview that recognizes the need for long-term sustainability, even if it costs money in the short term.” This piece: “Take Your Child To Work Day Taken To A Whole New Level At Unilever Offices.” This piece: “Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, Discusses Actions to Achieve Inclusive Capitalism.” This piece: “These Leaders Prove Big Business Can Make The World A Better Place” (Polman included).
No wonder, then, that Unilever formed a partnership of sorts with the Huffington Post, sponsoring “Talk to Me,” the site’s parent-child interview series. One of the videos in the series features Polman chatting about his commitment to gender equality and other good things. In the interests of balance, the site did post this unflattering post on Unilever.
For a flavor of Huffington Post coverage of Salesforce, sample this headline: “Another Huge Company Is Harnessing The Power Of Mindfulness.” Not to mention this: “New Employees At Salesforce Volunteer Out Of Office On First Day At Work.”
What’s Working is not a section, it’s our sitewide solutions journalism initiative and one of our three editorial pillars. A What’s Working story is not code for puff piece. It’s about reporting on solutions, often alongside problems and crises in the very same piece. So it’s not as if anyone, including me, is “pushing” feel-good stories about these companies at the expense of hard-hitting takedowns we might otherwise be doing. We report the stories that are there, period. We do not have any sort of calculus that says that if we publish a story, for example, about Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff taking on Indiana’s anti-LGBT law[huffingtonpost.com]– which, by the way, notes plenty of criticism he received at the time — we must therefore publish a negative story about him or his company. And I don’t know of any newsroom that does.
Nor does the Erik Wemple Blog know of any newsroom that produces a (favorable) product review of a high-tech mattress manufactured by a company that is a partner of the Huffington Post. As Huffington moves on to her new venture, presumably the push to crank out this sort of content will enter a prolonged slumber. In a few days, accordingly, the editors she leaves behind could find themselves with some additional journalistic bandwidth.
Not all of the roughly 300 editorial staffers were affected by Arianna Huffington’s force field of wellness-oriented journalism. Many have managed to pursue their own passions, and the Huffington Post has some hardware to prove it. Senior Military Correspondent David Wood won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2012 for a series on wounded veterans, “Beyond the Battlefield.” Just this past spring, Jason Cherkis (a friend and former colleague of the Erik Wemple Blog) snared a Pulitzer finalist designation for a deeply reported series on opioid addiction. The site routinely produces penetrating investigative reporting on its Highline magazine. And its D.C. bureau has frequently brought forth fresh reporting on Washington corruption and depravity, with a recent example being a story bearing this headline, “Aetna CEO Threatened Obamacare Pullout If Feds Opposed Humana Merger.” The site’s chief media reporter, Michael Calderone, is a model of reportorial integrity and enterprise.
Asked about her chief accomplishments, Huffington responded with this list:
There are a lot of levels of pride, including that HuffPost is one of the most visited sites in the world, the first digital outlet to win the Pulitzer*, that we are expanding, that we’ve been able to have so many incredible people, especially young people just starting out in journalism, be a part of the team.
Currently, I’m very proud of our Trump coverage. Very early on, we decided we would refuse to treat him as a normal candidate, or play any role in laundering his rhetoric and beliefs into the realm of acceptable political discourse. We’ve refused to euphemize what he stands for.
Our international expansion. HuffPost Mexico will be our 16th edition.
Our wellness coverage: striving to always add value to people’s lives, including helping readers avoid burnout and exhaustion in a hyper-connected world.
What’s Working, our solutions journalism editorial initiative. We’re committed to going beyond “if it bleeds, it leads” and giving our audience the full picture of all that’s happening in the world.
Our contributor platform: HuffPost has always been both a publisher and a platform, giving a voice to people who would otherwise be left out of the conversation.
Bolding added to highlight a strange choice. The site last year relegated Trump to its “entertainment” vertical, a decision that caused a traffic crisis in the “politics” vertical and attracted some criticism for apparent grandstanding. Later on, the site dragged Trump items back into “politics.” That came off like a Trumpian flip-flop, though Huffington views it differently.
I’m both confident and indeed proud of our approach. When Trump’s campaign began, we decided to cover him out of our Entertainment section. It was a rhetorical device, signaling to our readers that this was not a normal candidate and that we’re not going to pretend otherwise.
And deciding, on the day he proposed banning 1.6 billion Muslims from the country, to move our coverage of Trump out of Entertainment and adding our editor’s note was completely consistent with that guiding principle of doing our part to not let Trump and what he represents become part of the normal, acceptable political discourse. And as Bob Garfield put it, “The voters will do what the voters will do, but it must not be, cannot be, because the press did not do enough.” I’m entirely comfortable with the side of history we’re on with our coverage of Trump.
Had Huffington continued in her job as editor-in-chief, she would have pursued this strategy: “Definitely more international editions, more doubling down on video, mobile, and solutions journalism – all of which, I’m sure, will be in HuffPost’s future,” she writes in an email.
Her last day with her namesake site is Sept. 1, in Mexico City. “Excited to end my time as editor-in-chief while launching our 16th edition,” notes Huffington.
No longer will Huffington have to evangelize a bunch of reluctant journalists on the merits of meditation and relaxation. As founder and CEO of Thrive Global, Huffington will be assisting companies in managing their employees’ well-being, as well as serving as an e-commerce site for all kinds of products connected with her passion, according to this explainer. In her new world, partnerships with CEOs and big companies are an unambiguous asset, not an ethical problem waiting to embarrass hundreds of journalists.
As a coda, this blog commends Huffington for answering quickly and completely the questions we’ve put before her, even when she had good reason to believe the coverage wouldn’t be flattering. Most media executives, especially in TV, hide behind “no comment” and “the story speaks for itself.”
*UPDATE: As this story explains, ProPublica, a digital outlet, beat the Huffington Post to Pulitzer glory.