Spotlight: The Huffington Post's 'Winklevi' Problem

Vanity Fair releases an expose airing the grievances of two consultants who are suing The Huffington Post and saying they had a "critical role" in the creation of the site

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After teasing readers, Vanity Fair has released a lengthy article about two Democratic consultants who are suing Arianna Huffington over claims that they had a "crucial role" and "partnership" in the creation of The Huffington Post. Peter Daou and James Boyce--whose lawsuit on first glance recalls the infamous Winklevoss/Facebook settlement--were present in a December 3rd, 2004 meeting of prominent liberal activists and John Kerry supporters who conceived of a "liberal Drudge" website that could operate as a "tool for the Democratic Party" (according to Boyce). Here are the highlights of the accusations, as explained in the Vanity Fair piece by William Cohan, coupled with the media response:

Key Question:

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?

Why Are Boyce and Daou Filing a Lawsuit Six Years Later?

True, for years they had "kept silent about our feelings," partly because "both of us had relationships with third parties who would be harmed if we were to provoke a dispute over this issue" and partly because, "in our hearts, both of us expected, year after year, that the situation would be rectified, because we genuinely believed that you would do the right thing, recognize our early, crucial role in the creation of the site, and acknowledge the partnership understanding we all had after that critical meeting of the four of us." They wrote that with their previous professional obligations resolved they could finally share how they had been feeling for years. "All we want is to find closure and an equitable resolution of our belief that the partnership we formed and the ideas and plans we contributed to the genesis of the Huffington Post should be recognized in a tangible way."

How Arianna Huffington Felt About Their Claims:

"I read your email," she wrote. "I must say, it left me speechless. Your suggestion, after nearly 6 years, that you understood all along that we were in a 'partnership' to create and operate the Huffington Post is stunning. And ridiculous. We never entered into any partnership or other agreement with you--either written or oral--concerning ownership of the Huffington Post. During all these years, you never shared in any financial obligation or risk relating to the Huffington Post. You never participated in any kind of management at the Huffington Post. You never shared in or asked for any financial or management information. Hardly a partnership."

What Boyce and Daou Want:

They are seeking both recognition and an unspecified amount of financial damages, although they say any money they end up collecting, after legal fees, will be used "to support progressive causes and citizen journalists and bloggers who are active in support of those causes."

(Huffington calls these claims about donations "pure fantasy.")

Vanity Fair Writer William Cohan's Revealing Note:

Indeed, until the August 30, 2010, e-mail to Huffington, neither Daou nor Boyce ever voiced any frustration with her or Lerer about being cut out of the Huffington Post creation myth.This fact, more than any other, seems to weaken their case.

Why the Facebook Analogy is Problematic:

What really gets Huffington's goat about Daou and Boyce, according to someone who knows her well, is their chutzpah. "The fact that you mention the Facebook matter--the day Facebook went up, you had claims made against it. That's only human nature," this person says. "If they really thought they had created the Huffington Post, when the Huffington Post was launched, they would not have said anything? They would not have sent a single letter but kept blogging on the Huffington Post? Can you imagine the equivalent in Facebook? Can you imagine the people who claim they created Facebook creating a Facebook account and then participating in what they thought was stolen from them? It defies human nature. It is the point of all this for which there is no answer."

Media Response to the Article:

  • Business Insider's Glynnis MacNichol - "Short version: this lawsuit sounds a whole lot like sour grapes."
  • Slate's David Weigel - "It's a good read that does not do much to convince the reader that Boyce and Daou were right."
  • The Cutline's Michael Calderone - "The Vanity Fair piece--which stretches over nine pages, including glitzy photographs of Huffington and the plaintiffs--doesn't cover much new ground regarding the suit."
  • Politico's Ben Smith - "The story doesn't really advance the argument on the merits, but it does offer a copy of the document which the consultants had circulated, and on which they say Huffington Post is based." [Vanity Fair document here]

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.