Judging from Monday’s horrific debut of the humongously pre-hyped celebrity blog the Huffington Post, the Madonna of the mediapolitic world has undergone one reinvention too many. She has now made an online ass of herself. What her bizarre guru-cult association, 180-degree right-to-left conversion, and failed run in the California gubernatorial-recall race couldn’t accomplish, her blog has now done: She is finally played out publicly. This website venture is the sort of failure that is simply unsurvivable. Her blog is such a bomb that it’s the movie equivalent of Gigli, Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate rolled into one. In magazine terms, it’s the disastrous clone of Tina Brown’s Talk, JFK Jr.’s George or Maer Roshan’s Radar.
No matter what happens to Huffington, it’s clear Hollywood will suffer the consequences. It seems like some sick hoax. Perhaps Huffington is no longer a card-carrying progressive but now a conservative mole. Because she has served up liberal celebs like red meat on a silver platter for the salivating and Hollywood-hating right wing to chew up and spit out. I hear that prominent liberals in L.A. and N.Y. and Washington D.C. are aghast not just that she’s encouraged jejune rants by their liberal brethren, but that she’s also provided yet another forum for select right-wing blowhards. They don’t understand why Arianna has saddled progressives with that “Hollywood elitist” branding.
Only the fawning mainstream media didn’t see this coming. Instead, The New York Times, the New York Observer, the Los Angeles Times et al. were too busy breathlessly reporting Arianna’s big plans and bons mots to bother to do any reporting. (The L.A. Times’ praising of her preening is understandable, since the parent company’s Tribune Media Services stupidly signed on to syndicate the blog’s blather.)
In fact, there’s a juicy behind-the-scenes story: The L.A. Weekly has learned that the blog’s start-up was god-awfully conceived from the get-go. That Hollywood biggies gave her concept the cold shoulder. That Huffington tried to use smoke and mirrors to fund her venture. That she never told her house celebs that she was putting in charge of her Hollywood blog the one bloggist best known nationally for hating everything and everyone Hollywood: former Drudge Report aide-de-camp Andrew Breitbart, author of the salacious anti-show-biz book Hollywood, Interrupted: Insanity Chic in Babylon — The Case Against Celebrity. One of her Hollywood friends told me that “Arianna said merely she had somebody from this world of blogging to help her. She felt very secure someone they brought in knew what they were doing. People would have gone crazy here if they’d known it was the guy who wrote that awful book.”
Misstep after misstep. Sure, her Web address got a lot of post-launch hits thanks to links from its targeted competitor the Drudge Report and a pre-arranged AOL promotion. But car wrecks also generate heavy traffic. And bloggers are criticizing her for not being brave enough to include comments. More to the point, a lot of her pre-launch promises haven’t yet materialized. Not only is there no Gwyneth Paltrow as of yet, there’s nary a Big Media heavyweight like Tom Freston, Barry Diller or David Geffen in sight — although late word from inside the Huffington Post is that Arianna is still hopeful they will begin contributing. Geffen’s supposed involvement especially intrigued Matt Drudge, who asked the L.A. Weekly, “Am I going to have to cancel my subscriptions to the trades? Is Geffen going to announce DreamWorks news on her blog?” I can report that, despite the blog’s pre-launch hype that he would be a charter member, Geffen never had any intention of blogging on Arianna’s site at that time. Moreover, sources tell me that Geffen’s people quietly told Huffington to stop using his name as bait in her less-than-successful effort to fund the blog with Hollywood money.
When I asked Huffington about these problems that befell her during the blog’s planning, she kept trying to change the subject. Finally, she resorted to a different ploy: She extended an invitation to me to join her blog. (“When we were conceiving this, we said to each other, ‘Do you think we could we get Nikki Finke?’”)
Back to Arianna’s celebrity bloggers. I implore you: Forgive them, because they know not what they do. Not Seinfeld has-been Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her untalented TV-hyphenate husband, Brad Hall, making unfunny shtick of the anti-gay-marriage movement. Not has-been director Mike Nichols, using the forum to parade his high school grasp of U.S. history by mentioning “de Tocqueville” and “Dr. King” in the same paragraph. Not has-been brat-packer John Cusack, penning the 459,308th remembrance of Hunter Thompson for the sole purpose of letting the world know that the actor scored an invite to the writer’s intimate memorial service. Even lithely insightful screenwriter Larry Gelbart sounds flat-footed. Still, the celebs aren’t to blame here, because they allowed Arianna to sweet-talk them into casting pearls before swine. (“I was very moved, for example, by what Mike Nichols sent,” Huffington told Newsweek. “It was just such a beautiful expression of his thinking.” Arianna must have been swooning over the fact that Nichols is married to Diane Sawyer, because it can’t possibly be over the director’s bombastic blog b.s.)
They’re all lambs to the slaughter, — baa, baa, baa, suddenly standing for baad, baad, baad — led by a shameless shepherdess whose only interest in the Hollywood flock in the first place is its ability to secure yet another headline for Huffington.
Huffington’s plan for a Hollywood blog was first outed by Business 2.0. But a furor wasn’t created until the New York Observer issued an asterisk-and-exclamation-point-studded online exclusive that Warren Beatty would likely join. Beatty himself only said “Probably,” yet the Observer took that and ran with it because the paper’s editor, Peter Kaplan, became buddy-buddy with the actor after Kaplan wrote a bylined cover story fawn-a-thon on Beatty before the release of his 1998 box-office dud Bulworth. Yet, now that the blog is online, has-been Beatty so far is a no-show, probably because he hasn’t been able to utter a declarative sentence in this lifetime.
Huffington herself was telling media that she would not have anything to say on the record about her venture until it went online May 9. But she made an exception for The New York Times. That surprisingly uncritical article was the end-all-and-be-all for Arianna, given that she and her clique of gadfly cronies live and die for NYT coverage. Then she made even more exceptions for every big-time newspaper and magazine.
Again and again, Huffington made claims that her blog was not intended to compete with the Drudge Report, which already blanket-covers the mediapolitic terrain. (Full disclosure: I am one of the columnists whom Matt Drudge links on the Web site.) Yet several people who saw Arianna’s executive summary of the Huffington Post prospectus tell me that she said her blog was intended as a liberal response to what is widely perceived as the conservative bent of the Drudge Report. “When she sent it over and talked to me about it, she said again and again that she hopes it will be a place they go to like they go to Drudge: breaking news, information ahead of the curve, the effect like Drudge does of getting stories broken,” one Hollywood player tells me.
On the financial side of the summary, Huffington stressed the profit potential of her venture. And I’m told that, in conversations with those she fingered as potential investors, she spoke of her ambition to raise $5 million to underwrite her new company, which she amusingly likened to getting in on the ground floor of AOL “pre-merger.” Of course, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, everyone knows that AOL pre-merger was a house of cards whose stock value was artificially inflated by the Internet bubble. Given Arianna’s pitch, it’s all the more amusing that her start-up investor turned out to be none other than the former executive vice president at AOL Time Warner, Ken Lerer.
I’ve learned that Huffington was hoping that Hollywood would initially invest at least $500,000, in $100,000 increments. “She framed it to them as an opportunity to invest, to share in something we’re launching, to be with friends,” one source told me. “My sense was she knew that the people wouldn’t evaluate it as they would a real business deal, like an investment in stock or real estate, but as a friend to help her. If they’re looking to just make money, there are smarter places.”
Huffington approached five major players to ante up. Yet she did not go to some of the usual Los Angeles liberal suspects for money. Not Spielberg. Not Streisand. Not Saban. Not Bing. Not Burkle. Not the Resnicks (the Franklin Mint people). Instead, Huffington asked DreamWorks SKG partner David Geffen, All in the Family producer Norman Lear, Endeavor Agency partner Ari Emanuel, Pulp Fiction producer Lawrence Bender and Seinfeld co-creator Larry David’s wife, Laurie.
All have well-known liberal credentials. Geffen was one of the single largest political donors to Democrats during the Clinton years. Lear is the founding funder for the liberal think tank People for the American Way. Emanuel’s brother Rahm is a two-term Democratic congressman from Illinois and a former top Clinton adviser. Bender, a generous supporter of liberal political causes, lately has been outspoken about Israel. And David is an environmental activist best known for her ongoing anti-SUV campaign. Sources tell me that of the five, only Bender and David expressed real interest, and lo and behold, Laurie David shows up on the home page. Emanuel wanted no involvement, period. Lear “didn’t put any money into it,” his spokeswoman told me. “If he’s got something to say, he might participate, but he’s got no plans right now.”
Regarding Geffen, Arianna played her hand poorly. “It is a little bit of a shell game,” a source close to Geffen told me pre-launch. “You call someone and say, ‘I’ve got X committed for X amount of money.’ That’s what she did with David. He was not aware that she’s using his name as an investor.” I’m told that once Geffen was alerted, his people had to speak to Huffington and “straighten it out.”
Not only is Geffen not an investor, he’s not a blogger. At least not yet. “I asked him, ‘Are you going to be doing a blog for Arianna’s thing?’ and he said no,” the source informed me. At the time, Geffen didn’t want to attract attention to himself by going public with his denial, I’m told. Besides, the source said, “he sends me two-word e-mails. He’s not going to write a blog for her or anyone.”
Then again, that Arianna can be quite the celebrity seductress. But to a bad end.
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