Vanity Fair’s odd HuffPo story

January 6, 2011
big Vanity Fair piece on a slightly skeevy lawsuit where a pair of Democratic party operatives are trying to pull a Winklevoss on Arianna Huffington?

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What to make of Bill Cohan’s big Vanity Fair piece on a slightly skeevy lawsuit where a pair of Democratic party operatives are trying to pull a Winklevoss on Arianna Huffington? Arianna’s flack, Mario Ruiz, is clearly enjoying being asked to comment on it:

It’s a great story — if you read it backwards. At the end of the article, the writer takes apart Boyce and Daou’s case piece by piece, leaving it in tatters — and rendering everything that has come before it pointless.

Meanwhile, the plaintiffs’ attorney seems much more well-disposed towards the story, despite the fact that — as Ruiz says — it’s almost impossible to read the whole thing and think that they have any case at all.

The question of who’s got the stronger moral and legal case is pretty clear, from Cohan’s reporting: it’s Arianna. As Jay Yarow says about the Winklevii, “ideas are a dime-a-dozen. It’s execution that counts. Mark Zuckerberg executed. The Winklevosses didn’t.” Similarly here: Peter Daou and James Boyce had an idea for a “liberal Drudge Report” in late 2004, at much the same time as about a million other people had exactly the same idea. (Even Gawker launched one such site, Sploid, in April 2005; it closed in August 2006.)

The idea was, as Larry David says in the piece, “terrible”: the site was to be called, after the number of days between presidential elections. It had hypocrisy baked in to its business plan: will be a Democratic-leaning site with enough non-partisan news so as to appear more mainstream than it truly is; this is critical for credibility and for advertising revenue.

And rather than build one big site, the idea was to build lots of little ones, including (I’m not making this up), “a blog aimed at Democratic supporters over the age of forty”.

On top of that, the site was envisaged as a way to sell the services of political operatives:

1460’s staff technical and web-communication strengths will enable 1460 to offer candidates a full range of strategic and technological tools…

1460 will also help shape a candidate’s overall communication strategy, develop television and radio communications and coordinate that strategy through the Internet. Utilizing Peter’s extensive knowledge of online political communication, 1460 will develop and manage a candidate’s web site, email acquisition and communication strategy, blog communication strategy, volunteer acquisition and deployment, and more.

The plan goes on to detail all the different ways this would make money for the site, including taking “a percentage of monies raised, online and off”, as well as a percentage of all media buys.

No wonder that, when he saw the plan, Kenny Lerer told Arianna that “this doesn’t work for me on many levels”; the two of them went on to do something much smarter, much more innovative and, as befits a news site, much less beholden to party-political interests. And, I daresay, much less likely to ever dream of writing the words “blog communication strategy”.

But what of Cohan’s story? Given that this entire lawsuit seems to be a nonevent, is it reasonable for the Huffington Post to criticize Vanity Fair for printing it in the first place?

There are certainly good reasons why VF might have spiked the story, or buried it on somewhere. Rich and successful people get sued opportunistically all the time. There’s little new news in the piece. And the conflicts are enormous: not only has VF’s editor hosted Arianna’s book party, one of the plaintiffs has actually worked as a consultant for the magazine.

On top of that, Cohan overstretches in his attempt to demonstrate that there even might be a real story in the lawsuit:

The questions raised are profound: Did Huffington and Huffington Post co-founder Kenneth Lerer take ideas from Daou and Boyce—ideas the two men call “groundbreaking”—without properly compensating or acknowledging them? Or is this just a case of sour grapes, with Daou and Boyce looking to cash in on the hard work of Huffington and Lerer now that the site is successful and valuable?

Er, no, those aren’t profound questions at all. Even if Arianna and Lerer did take an idea or two, it’s hard to see that the plaintiffs would have any claim to compensation — and indeed neither of them asked for compensation or even the opportunity to invest in Huffington Post for six years, before they suddenly decided that they had been so egregiously wronged that they had no choice but to sue.

But the fact is that Vanity Fair loves nothing more than a gossipy tale of celebrity entanglements and the name-dropping in this piece is truly something to behold: Larry David, David Geffen, Brian Grazer, Aaron Sorkin, Meg Ryan, Tom Freston. Graydon Carter simply isn’t capable of passing up a story which includes a sentence like this one:

On Election Day 2004, after attending a Bruce Springsteen concert for Kerry the night before, he, the Davids, and Kristen Breitweiser, a 9/11 widow and political activist, were visiting polling places in Ohio before boarding a private jet to fly to Boston.

The biggest celebrity of all in this piece, is Arianna herself, a blow-dried visionary in a glamorous large-format portrait by Robyn Twomey. The picture speaks much more loudly than the words: she’s clearly the winner, not the men wearing suits lent to them for the duration of the photoshoot by VF staffer Peter Holleran.

This story isn’t bad publicity for Arianna then — the vast majority of VF readers will look at her picture but not read the article. And most of the ones who do read the article will come to the obvious conclusion. My guess is that when Arianna next bumps into Graydon, it’ll be kisses all round, like nothing happened. Especially if he agrees to write something for her website.

(Cross-posted at CJR)

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