While her ethics were clearly correct on this question, there were some in the business community who were unimpressed. Even her friend Barry Diller said, “You buy this company because it is absolutely the voice of a single person—primarily; there are some other people working for him—but it’s Michael Arrington’s voice. And you know when you buy it that voice is biased and mean, and capable of saying anything, and is playing 100 different games.” He pauses. “And then somebody calls you up and says, ‘I’m the editor-in-chief, and you can’t let him do that because he’s now in a conflict of interest,’ and instead of saying, ‘Shut up and go back to your room’ … So now they own this thing which has no voice. Congratulations. What a good piece of business.”
“You know, Barry sent me a very classy apology about that,” Huffington has said. “And what he said is that he did not have all the facts.”
Underneath Huffington’s smiling Earth Mother exterior, there can be a hardness. She sometimes could be heard saying things like “I’m disappointed in you—you’re weak” to employees. She can cry easily if she doesn’t get her way. Within a day of an argument, though, she disperses hugs and laughter again, explaining that she’s sorry to cause stress. After a staffer in her style department quit, she called the department into a conference room: “I want to go around the table and have everybody in here tell me what brings you the most joy,” she said. One person said, “Jackets”; another said, “Danish street style.” Armstrong eventually began to put up a fight about some of the site closures, but he was worried about confronting Huffington directly. According to a source, he even asked Desiree Gruber, a fearless publicist who represents Heidi Klum (AOL has recently done a deal with Klum for digital content and a new TV show), to accompany him to a meeting with Huffington about the fashion site Stylelist—a strong female to have his back against an even stronger one.
Armstrong is right to seek reinforcements, because Huffington has just about absorbed AOL—these days, you can barely see its outline. They have launched 21 new sections since the merger, like HuffPo Gay Voices and HuffPo Weddings. “What’s next, HuffPo Kickboxing?” Huffington jokes. “Maybe HuffPo HuffPo. That would be quite a site.” She’s launching in France soon, and it has been rumored that Anne Sinclair, the wife of DSK, will be running the operation. “I’m doing a science site now, called Talk Nerdy to Me, with video of a sexy, fun scientist—Bill Maher’s [ex-]girlfriend!” Some think Huffington’s title may soon catch up with her role. “I truly believe that Arianna is going to run AOL in the near future,” says Paul Carr, a technology blogger formerly with TechCrunch. “The AOL board is going to walk in one day, and she’s going to be sitting there, and they’re not going to know quite how it happened.”
The future of AOL, though, is unclear: Though Armstrong maintains Patch will be successful (“It’s a risk worth taking”), it’s currently losing about $140 million a year, and there are weekly stories in the business press about AOL breaking up the company. Top managers are leaving, fed up with Huffington’s power. “With the Huffington Post, AOL has all the pieces in place to achieve Tim’s vision, except maybe one: time,” says Saul Hansell, a former New York Times journalist who was at AOL for two years before becoming an entrepreneur at Betaworks, a New York venture firm. “I worry that impatience, either from investors or management, will force them to change plans again before they can learn how to take advantage of what they’ve got now.”
Armstrong has also been the subject of rumors that have him leaving to run against Senator Gillibrand. (“I’ve never considered public office,” says Armstrong. “I’m running probably the most public turnaround in the U.S. today, and enjoying it.”) Or maybe AOL will figure out a way to merge with Yahoo, which would make sense in terms of increasing scale and saving money by reducing duplicative services, but seems unlikely, since AOL has only 14 percent of the market cap of Yahoo. Armstrong denies this—“The only plan we have is to execute a big, broad media vision on a go-forward basis”—but wouldn’t it be delicious if Huffington could run the media operation for both sites?
The other night, at the Skylight Soho event space, she held a massive event for about a thousand well-wishers, to honor what she called this year’s “game changers.” The Occupy Wall Street protesters, who heard that Governor Cuomo would be in attendance, amassed outside to protest his failure to reinstate the millionaire’s tax, but cops told them to go across the street (“Can’t someone go in there and ask Arianna if we can stay on her rich liberal sidewalk tonight?” one man complained). It’s a bit sticky for Huffington, but she finesses it. “I feel absolutely fine that we are honoring Andrew Cuomo, and at the same time I share some of the protesters’ concerns,” she says later. “You know, we are doing a series on members of the one percent supporting the 99 percent, because at the heart of every social movement there have been people who are not direct beneficiaries, ranging from Abraham Lincoln, who was not going to benefit from the Emancipation Proclamation, to white students in civil-rights protests.”