We asked, earlier this week, if "editors are 'retards' and servants to Arianna" Huffington, subject of an all-too-squishy New Yorker profile this week. After hearing from still more Huffington Post insiders, it would seem the answer is a resounding "yes." And an obvious "yes" to those who have come to appreciate that the ambitious divorcée draws few boundaries between her own professional and personal lives, working manically, phoning and emailing editors in the middle of the night, obsessively arranging the order of stories on HuffPo's front page and in its various sections, and hollering at her staff over an intercom in her Brentwood mansion even while she has her nails done. The only clear line, it seems, is between the smart, charming image Huffington projects to her celebrity friends and the world at large and the rather nastier and more careless Arianna seen inside HuffPo.
On the strength of its left-leaning political coverage, the Huffington Post has become a breakaway success, with more traffic than Drudge and more inbound links than TechCrunch. But advertisers hate politics, Arianna's favored and strongest topic, so the site is trying to diversify. As it does so, Arianna's skills — and flaws — as a manager will become more visible and more important.
Why does Huffington push herself to the point where, as both the recent New Yorker profile and those who have worked with her made clear, she has few, if any, serious friends outside of HuffPo? Why is she focused on her project to the point where associates wonder when she could find time for an affair with Cory Booker, as was bizarrely (in their eyes) rumored?
There is speculation as to the reasons. Bipolar disorder, perhaps? (There is no known evidence, only the guesses of laymen.)
Or maybe Huffington's priorities come from the teachings of the cultish Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, with which she has long been involved, for which her frequent contributor Russell Bishop launched a lucrative series of corporate "Insight" courses, and to which her live-in sister Agapi is said to be an especially fervent devotee?
Or perhaps Huffington is driven simply by ego. Within her publication it is understood, after all, that videos of her own media appearances are to be posted posthaste, top priority.
The cost of Huffington's poorly bounded ambitions are not born by her alone but also by her beleaguered staff, including aspiring journalists who until recently were hired, some claim, with no knowledge whatsoever they would take on some of the duties of administrative assistants or household servants. Duties like:
- taking heavily accented email dictation,
- arranging haircuts or troubleshooting BlackBerrys for Huffington's daughters,
- fetching lunch or coffee,
- or writing talking points for Huffington's television appearances.
There are far worse jobs, to be sure, than editor and part-time admin for one of the top sites on the internet. But a great many of those who have worked with Huffington seem bruised, and compelled to talk about — vent about — their experiences and those of others. (And yes we, of all sites, should know this sort of thing when we see it.)
From their stories one can piece together a kind of coterie of miserable self-sacrifice. Here are three members of that dubious clique:
Huffington is known for forgetfully leaving essential gear behind as she jots around the world, including, most frequently, between her Brentwood home office, HuffPo's New York office and the Mercer Hotel in SoHo. The most infamous example of this, multiple sources said, occurred when Huffington, or more likely a carelessly-instructed housekeeper, neglected to pack Arianna's passport for a trip from Brentwood. Once in New York on the first leg, Huffington realized she needed the passport to enter Canada for a fast-approaching trip to Toronto.
There was no time. An unnamed female HuffPo staffer was dispatched in the wee hours on a flight to New York. She delivered the passport to the Mercer and was promptly placed on a return flight to Los Angeles, another 18-hour day in the service of Arianna's Vortex. She may or may not have been treated to lunch in between!
Sterling became blog editor at the Huffington Post, and a top conduit between Arianna and the New York office, following the departure of two seasoned journalists, BBC's Elinor Shields and Rolling Stone's Frank Wilkinson, who did not fit into the publishing culture Huffington had created. Maybe Huffington couldn't let go of the site and provide them sufficient autonomy, or maybe they just couldn't mesh with Web publishing, it's not clear. (They each lasted at most a year.)
Today in his mid-20s, Sterling earned Huffington's trust as a researcher for her out West. By all accounts, his new job, with crushing demands from the very top, has taxed him. Called upon to, say, cram together TV talking points on less than half an hour's notice while riding herd over a massive, oddball stable of blog contributors, most of whom will be relegated to vertical sections far from the coveted front page, Sterling has been known to pound his desk with his fists and yell curses (a simple "Fuck!" being a favorite) immediately after hanging up on a call from Arianna, an act guaranteed to be noticed in HuffPo's open-plan 15-person Gotham newsroom.
Sterling is also, at times, short tempered with those underneath him: The public yelling and cursing are not directed only at the Gods in the wake of Arianna's calls, it seems. His "nasty" temper has made enemies, one person said, and contributed to a "Lord of the Flies" atmosphere during the three or four weeks of each month Huffington is not in New York. Other observers are much more sympathetic, but still concede his personality seems to have bent sharply to fit that of his loved and hated boss.
In fairness, it should be noted that Huffington is said to have her own short temper. Though no one has been able to confirm that she called one editor a "retard" before he quit in protest, as we reported in our last HuffPo story, none doubted she would have said it, and some insiders said it would be in keeping with other nasty slights — calling people "fucking" liars, incompetents and worse.
Thanks to Arianna's manic work schedule, hours never quite end at HuffPo for anyone on staff, by all accounts. Fairly or not, Sterling seems to have become a bit of a poster child for the ill effects of that phenomenon.
This is the man who, everyone seems to agree, writes Arianna's blog posts, the ones she pledged would "never" be ghost written. The process will be familiar to anyone who has similarly ghosted a column for an EIC: Huffington briefly sketches an idea, Sekoff (or perhaps, on occasion, another editor) researches it and puts it to words, and Huffington does a quick check prior to publication.
Sekoff also happens to be HuffPo's top, founding editor and Huffington's right-hand man, based in Los Angeles. A family man in his late 40s, he is described as not only older but more loyal than Huffington's other editors, many of whom are in their 20s. Thus eyebrows were arched when he gave this quote to the New Yorker, implying that Huffington is often unfamiliar with the topics she is called upon to discuss on television:
I've literally seen her stand somewhere, look at a piece of research, and then-boom!-go on TV and, word for word, nail the three most important points and leave out everything else.
One wonders how often the research in question came from Sekoff himself, and if his quote to the New Yorker wasn't a bit of subconscious revenge on Arianna for taking credit for so much of his own work.
If anyone has more information from inside the Huffington Post, for example on the clubby process of front-page story selection, or on the parade of editors through New York, we'd love to hear from you. And we're not even sure we could stop you guys from writing in at this point if we wanted to.