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Agent MattPosted: Jan 06, 2011 - 09:55

Genuine American Monster

Level: 70
CS Original

Reminiscent of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Arianna Huffington is being sued by two political consultants, Peter Daou and James Boyce, who claim a critical role in creating her top-ranked Web site, the Huffington Post. So what exactly happened in the fall of 2004 when Huffington, Daou, Boyce, and such liberal lights as David Geffen, Larry David, and Norman Lear discussed a Democratic answer to the Drudge Report? And why did the two men wait nearly six years to claim credit? The author walks back their she-said-we-said collision.

Democratic political consultants Peter Daou and James Boyce, both 45, reached the point of no return last November 15. On that day, they sued Arianna Huffington, the doyenne of Democratic dish, for failing to acknowledge what they claim was their critical role in the creation of the Huffington Post, her online juggernaut. The two men say their lawsuit, or its timing, had nothing to do with The Social Network, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant movie about the legal battles over the founding of Facebook, which had hit theaters a few weeks earlier. Both point out that their first communications to Huffington about the matter occurred at the end of August. But the question still lingers: Why then?—since the two men had never uttered a word to Huffington about their claim for nearly six years and blogged for her during that time.

Daou, the former Internet director for Hillary Clinton for President, whom The New York Times once described as “one of the most prominent political bloggers in the nation,” says the dénouement came for him when he picked up a March 2010 Wired magazine profile of Andrew Breitbart, the conservative blogger and agent provocateur, in which Breitbart brashly claimed that he had created the Huffington Post. “I drafted the plan,” Breitbart said definitively. “They followed the plan.” When Wired asked Huffington to respond to Breitbart’s statement, she could barely contain herself. Although admitting that he helped with the strategy, Huffington said that Breitbart “wasn’t present” at the seminal December 3, 2004, meeting at her Brentwood mansion, where the idea for the Huffington Post was hatched—and therefore could not possibly have been the originator.

In her pointed response, Huffington made no mention of Daou or Boyce, who were at the all-day gathering of the 30 or so influential progressives and Hollywood types—including comedian Larry David and his then wife, Laurie, Hollywood mogul David Geffen, movie producer Brian Grazer, screenwriter Sorkin, legendary TV producer Norman Lear, actress Meg Ryan, and David Thorne, a close friend and former brother-in-law of John Kerry and Obama’s ambassador to Italy—trying to figure out how to win back the White House. “Arianna put together this room,” Boyce recalls. “It was a very powerful room. There’s never been a room like that before.”

Daou and Boyce say that they were the ones who conceived of “a Democratic equivalent of the Drudge Report”—a shorthand description of what the Huffington Post is all about—and called it (for the number of days between presidential elections). According to their 15-page November 14, 2004, memorandum about “1460,” which Boyce gave Huffington before the December 3 meeting, the core objective of the Web site was to “use the potential of the Internet to the fullest extent possible to continue the momentum started during the [2004 presidential] campaign and re-organize the Democratic Party from the outside in, not the inside out.” Daou and Boyce say that they presented their general thoughts about 1460 at the December 3 meeting. (Full disclosure: Boyce has worked as a consultant for Vanity Fair.)

The lawsuit has all the makings of the kind of gossipy soap opera among onetime friends that often lands on the digital pages of Web sites like the Huffington Post. There is a delicious Schadenfreude about the dispute, and 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?

There is little question anymore that the Huffington Post is a big deal and has helped Huffington, 60, transform herself from a nationally syndicated columnist and flaky, washed-up 2003 candidate for governor of California into a Washington–Hollywood–New York power broker and one of the most sought-after political commentators on the scene today. In 2009, Forbes named her the 12th-most-influential woman in the media.

The Huffington Post has 26 million unique visitors a month, according to the research firm ComScore, and is one of the top 10 current-events and global-news sites in the United States. In October 2008—not exactly a robust time for the market—The New York Times reported estimates that valued the Huffington Post at $200 million. (These days, the unconfirmed value is closer to $350 million, based on expected 2011 revenue of $60 million.)

Daou says he had stewed for some time about not being credited for his role in the Huffington Post’s creation, and then “I was reading about Breitbart. And I hit that part and I said, ‘You know, damn, this is the last straw.’ [Huffington and Lerer] had claimed credit before and every time it just burned. It was like ‘Really? Are you completely erasing us from so essential a part as to how this whole thing came about?’”

He thought about picking up the phone and calling Huffington or e-mailing her to suggest that they just sit down and talk rationally about what had happened once and for all. “We’ve been friends all this time,” he continues. “Essentially the Huffington Post is our family I mean, these were my people. This was my community. This was a Democratic-activist community. It’s a very small, tight-knit community. I love all those people. They worked their asses off to make this site successful. So, it’s like sometimes you have beef with family, sometimes you have beef with a friend. And this was one of those situations.”

Daou spoke with a few lawyers. “They all said the same thing: ‘You have a legal claim if you want to assert it,’” he says.

He called Boyce, a peripatetic strategist and the founder of Common Sense New Media Strategies, a consulting firm for progressive causes, companies, and candidates. Daou and Boyce had met and become friends on the failed Kerry presidential campaign, for which Daou had been paid to direct “blog outreach” and “online rapid response,” and Boyce was an unpaid senior adviser and the chief of staff to Kerry’s brother, Cam.

“It was a flash moment with James, too,” Daou says. “It’s like ‘Yeah, this thing’s been burning me the whole time.’”

The two men hired Partha Chattoraj to see if they could right the perceived wrong. A graduate of Harvard and Yale Law School and a former associate at Wachtell, Lipton, he had set up a small litigation practice in a nondescript office tower on East 40th Street, in Manhattan, in 2007. “It fully dawned they just weren’t going to do the right thing,” Daou explains. “We needed to go there and say to Arianna, ‘Look, you’ve got to make this right. We can’t let that stand.’ And whatever. The chips will just have to fall. I mean, if this becomes a big confrontation, well, it is what it is. We went in with eyes wide open.”
The Facebook Effect

Hoping to avoid litigation, if possible, they sent a long e-mail to Huffington, which Chattoraj reviewed, on August 30. “As we hope you know, both of us value your friendship greatly,” they began. “We have done everything we can to help promote and provide content for HuffPost from the very early days and to bring as many good bloggers to the site as possible. In the context of our friendship with you, we are writing to find some resolution to an open issue that has been of great concern to us ever since we met with you and Kenny [Lerer] at your house in early December 2004 and conceived the Huffington Post together.”

They then gave their version of the details of their role in the December 3 meeting and the breakfast meeting the four of them had the next morning at Huffington’s home—where Boyce was staying—“to discuss our concrete plans for next steps,” done “with the understanding that we were sharing with you ideas and specific plans that we had spent considerable time refining in the lead-up to that larger meeting the previous day. We were both extremely pleased and encouraged by the fact that over the course of that long breakfast we were able to conceive and plan what has become the Huffington Post.”

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