PuffHo: Arianna Huffington Tells Her Writers ‘Ta-Ta!’

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The socialite, New Age diva, bon vivant and all-around uptown girl who built her brand and made her fortune off the work of a legion of scribes that she refused to pay a penny departs her media empire for a run as a sleep revolutionary and joy guru

By Mark Cromer

Well, you have to hand it to her. Whatever else they may inscribe on her gilded sarcophagus before her high priests lower it into a tomb secreted in Holmby Hills that’s filled with the Manhattanite’s treasures she decided she will need in the afterlife’s cocktail parties, one line of the sacred screed will surely declare:

“Behold ye who gaze upon this and kneel, for here rests the remains of Arianna Huffington’s human manifestation, she above all who knew that if someone does something well, then make them do it for free and convince them they should find joy in doing so. And they came to her with sacrificial labor, those privileged enough to bear her mark and bask in her glory, an offering that turned into a $315 million paycheck that bore her name alone. The Queen’s drones are but dust, yet here immortal is the woman who ruled them all, over a martini.”

Ok, that may be a little over the top—not the precious-gem encrusted sarcophagus, nor the hidden tomb crammed with treasured worldly possessions and surely not the inscription, which would only serve as a prologue to the Magnum opus homage that will surely line her burial chest—but the reference to the martini was probably edging a bit too far out on the proverbial limb.

It could well be that her royal scepter was a Cosmo, or even more likely: a Bombay Sapphire and tonic.

Still, as Huffington, the 66-year-old professional socialite and political shape-shifter who posed perhaps most frequently as a pundit, waltzed out of her role as Editor-in-Chief at the Huffington Post last week and into her new incarnation as a guru of sleep and a balanced life in something she’s dubbed ‘ThriveGlobal,’ there was again an inescapable sense that she had pulled off an epic scam, brilliantly closing her long-con and steering her colorful wagon into fresh pastures where she’ll set up her shiny wares again. [Note: In 2002, upon ditching her 3,700-square-foot Washington penthouse that she used as a flop pad when she was cavorting inside the beltway, Huffington told The Washington Post that she’d “always been a gypsy.” The newspaper dutifully noted that Huffington was giving her high-end furniture to her sister, but keeping her book “The Rich Are Different.”]

As expected, a fawning establishment media lauded Huffington’s departure from the vast encampment of blogs that she assembled as a noteworthy passage of a “mogul” who had revolutionized the digital landscape of news reporting since she first launched her nameplate enterprise in 2005.

And to some degree the sugary laurels offered in tribute by professional writers who are actually paid by their publishers are accurate even if not in the way they intended, as behind Huffington’s often ethereal musings were her stone-cold machinations that absolutely played a noteworthy role in the degradation of not only traditional news reporting in general but the devaluation to junk-bond status of writing as a profession where skill meets art.

Huffington didn’t just spearhead but rather came to epitomize the business model that exploded across the open terrain of the web that held writing wasn’t so much a skill, a craft or an art, but rather it was best described with the more business-friendly term: ‘content.’ Stripped bare in her boardroom of its passion, its elegance, its energy and thus denied its very essence, the written word became for Huffington what Big Macs became for McDonalds.

And Huffington didn’t value the more than 100,000 ‘bloggers’ who would come to toil under her banner any more than McDonalds values its cooks, actually significantly less. McDonalds pays at least minimum wage to crank out its ‘content.’

But not so at the ‘HuffPo,’ where Huffington and her court would explain through fake fixed-smiles when asked, or heaven forbid, confronted, about the empire’s refusal to share even a fraction of the wealth with those largely responsible for it.

In a column published in the International Business Times on February 18, 2016, headlined right-to-the-point as ‘Unpaid Huffington Post Bloggers Actually Do Want To Get Paid,’ writer Brendan James noted that “There are many reasons to be proud of running a news publication. Editors and publishers often speak of lofty ideals like uncovering the truth, funding good storytelling and forging a trust with everyday readers. But at the Huffington Post, one special point of pride, apparently, is being able to avoid paying writers for their work.”

James explained that Huffington’s U.K. editor-in-chief, Steven Hull had boasted in a recent interview “If I was paying someone to write something because I want it to get advertising, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. When somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real, we know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’ something to be proud of…our bloggers are happy with this arrangement.”

As James’ column in the IBT points out, Hull took his cue from Huffington herself, who has long maintained the unpaid writers for Huffington Post should be thankful she provided them with the opportunity to transition from “couch potato to self-expression.”

And if their work helped her company sell for more than a third-of-a-billion dollars along the way, well, what’s it to them?

No one should begrudge Huffington for her successful career, but no one should mistake what that career has ultimately turned out to be: a brand she crafted herself but one that was built-out directly on the labor of so many others that she refuses to pay one shiny penny, even as she wears her faux progressive politics on her sleeve and manages to keep a straight face as she snarls about ‘income inequality’ and those rotten Republicans, one of which she used to be.

Perhaps it is time for her to return home to the executive class cabin of the GOP, where her business model must surely be a vibrant inspiration.

I met Huffington in passing a few times in years long ago in journalistic circles, back when she was in Los Angeles and making the rounds at various media functions after her marriage to Michael Huffington had come to an end, a divorce that appeared to coincide fairly neatly with the end of his political career in California. At the LA Weekly’s 20th anniversary shindig back in 1998 she arrived with Bill Maher and I recall she seemed coiffed, sleek but with a cold brittleness just behind that fixed smile that she could drop like a guillotine.

Even by then she was already something of a brand, a rather seamlessly self-marketed author and newspaper columnist that double-timed as a sharp and attractive pundit that seemed to be in high-rotation on the cable networks. My colleagues and I saluted her success, but we also knew by that stage she had to have been getting some ‘help’ with her work, given her prolific output, her media appearances and her social calendar.

Our benign suspicion that Huffington had transformed herself into something of a journalistic Mark Kostabi—the artist who (in)famously had other artists create ‘his work’ and then turned it into ‘a Kostabi’ by merely signing it—was confirmed for me a few years later when my girlfriend at the time was hired by Huffington to work on one of her pet projects you don’t hear much about now: Parents In Charge.

It was 2002 and Susan had just graduated from Claremont Graduate University with a PhD in education and had specialized in the emerging roles of charter schools in public education when Huffington tapped her for an ostensibly nonpartisan policy group she was co-chairing that was “dedicated to educating Americans about the real problems and possibilities in education.”

It all sounded very promising in a wonkish sort of way but over just a few short weeks Susan discovered that she had dropped down a rabbit hole and emerged in the surreal world of AriannaLand, a place where Huffington asked employees to provide “energy reports” that, apparently, would help her deduce how her workers were expending their chakras as well as their time.

One evening over dinner Susan described meeting with Huffington at her home in Holmby Hills that day, not far from Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion, and mentioned that Huffington was “working with her stable of writers” on whatever was being cranked out under her byline at the time; syndicated newspaper column, new book, whatever else she had baking or on ‘warm’ in that oven between her ears. I remember laughing and shaking my head and feeling somewhat vindicated that my fellow writers and I were on the money in our collective estimation of how much of Huffington’s ‘content’ was actually flowing from her own fingertips. By that time in her career, apparently, not all that much.

Huffington had ideas and a stable of writers—whom she presumably paid.

I suppose it wasn’t really any more surprising then as it should be now when one listens to Bill O’Reilly launch into his nightly self-promotions of his new books, television series, movie productions and regularly updated exclusive Bill O’Reilly content on BillOReilly.com that he manages to write between his nightly cable show on FOX News, his traveling roadshow with Dennis Miller and whatever else is rolling off his production line that I may have missed. All that fabulous ‘Factor gear.’

Susan and Huffington parted company not much later but I recall her estimation that Huffington’s crew seemed to constantly shift from awe to bewilderment but were always mildly intimidated whenever the Queen Bee buzzed in to see how the honey was coming along, never certain exactly what Huffington was really saying or wanted or what she meant as she held forth in New Age-ladled lingo that seemed to keep everyone guessing even as they were nodding and dutifully taking notes.

Parents In Charge sank quietly beneath the waves not all that much later and Huffington went on to her spectacular success at harnessing all that “energy” from writers willing to expend for her for little more than the almost fame of it.

And now she’s off to chase her latest dreamscape, ThriveGlobal, and you just knew it had to be something ‘global.’ ThriveDetroit or ThriveBaltimore for a party progressive like Huffington would likely pose too many clear and present dangers of failure, like her Dandelion days of drifting through the public school reform movement in Los Angeles.

No, ThriveGlobal will not be hemmed in by discernable markers of success or failure or even making an impact real world terms. Its genius rests in its grandiose-if-amorphous goal: “Changing the way we work and live.” In her mission statement, which is printed in purple across her face on ThriveGlobal’s website, Huffington declares “For far to long we have been operating under a collective delusion that burning out is the necessary price for achieving success. This couldn’t be less true.”

It makes me wonder if Huffington’s writers who actually wrote those words for her, either for pay or just the pleasure of her presence, are sneakily goofing on her, but either way it reads all so very genuinely Arianna.

And one thing is for sure, she may be delusional (or a genius, in a very Robert California sort of way) but she hasn’t been burning the midnight oil let alone burning herself out to achieve her smashing financial success for decades.

She leaves that to her writers.