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RK: My guest tonight is Arianna Huffington. Arianna was just featured on the cover of Forbes magazine as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World, Technorati ranks her website, Huffington Post, as the number one blog in the world, Mediarite ranks Arianna just second under the editor of the New York Times as the most influential editor. Welcome to the show Arianna.
AH: Thank you so much. It's really great to be with you and I love your focus on bottom up solutions.
RK: Well, thank you. You've just come out with a new book, Third World America, and I have to say it's a fabulous book. I read while I'm working out and it was really easy to kind of pump a little extra while I was reading this because it really gets you mad. There's a lot in here about how we are becoming a third world nation and moving where the middle class is in big trouble and things are not looking good. You've spent an awful lot of work on putting this together and I have to congratulate you on it.
AH: Thank you so much. I really wanted to do this book because as an immigrant to this country I really believe in the American dream. I experienced it, I've seen so many people, so many immigrants who came to find it, to experience it and here we are now seeing a real assault on the middle class. The dream is crumbling and what used to be at the heart of the American dream, upward mobility, has now become downward mobility.
RK: You have a quote in here that there's nobody advocating or lobbying for the American dream, or something along those lines, I love that line.
AH: Yes, well there are plenty of lobbyists undermining the American dream every day.
RK: Yes, now you write in the beginning of this book, "My goal for this book is to sound the alarm so that we never do become third world America" and you say that "if we don't correct our course we could become a third world nation. Think Mexico or Brazil where the wealthy live behind fortified gates, that we could become a place that failed to keep up with history, that we won't be taken down by a foreign enemy but by the avarice of our corporate elite and the neglect of our elected leaders."
That's some scary stuff. And what you do in this book is that you document it in so many different areas of our lives and our nation.
AH: Yeah, what I wanted to do was provide the data, but also to tell the stories because sometimes the data don't really bring the emotion that we need to create a sense of urgency. I can tell you that there is 26 million people unemployed or underemployed, that 3 million homes are going to be foreclosed this year. I can tell you all that, but in the end it's the stories that drive it home. It's writing about Dean Blackburn who grew up in Minnesota, brought up by a single mom who is a teacher, worked hard, got into Yale, had solid jobs in technology for 17 years and lost his job two years ago and can't get another job.
The reason that I started with this story in chapter one is because here is somebody who is educated, who has a job not in a collapsing manufacturing industry but in high-tech and he is in trouble too. So, we see that across the board and yet that sense of urgency that was very present in Washington when we wanted to save Wall Street is not at all present when it comes to saving the middle class.
RK: You've talked about Obama's loss of a sense of urgency particularly with foreclosures it seems.
AH: Yes, well foreclosures are actually a case study for what went wrong and the failure to pass cramdown legislation, which would have prevented over a million families from losing their homes, I mean can you imagine what we're talking about here? And to allow the banks to win that one, after they brought the economy to near collapse, it shows just how dysfunctional and broken our system has become.
RK: You have a couple chapters; you have one chapter on infrastructure that walks us through all the different ways that our system is just breaking down and falling behind. You've got a section called the Flintstones versus the Jetson's describing how America is nickling and diming its way into the future and then you list our water supply, our bridges, our roads, our educational system and how each time we're spending just a fraction of what we need to just to keep things fixed not to improve them.
AH: Well, exactly and you know we had a demonstration of that in San Bruno recently when pipes that had not been properly maintained ended up exploding and killing people and destroying homes. That is really what we are dealing with across the country. We could have hundreds of San Bruno's. Here is really where the betrayal is coming into play. You know if we were a full employment economy we would still need to do something about that infrastructure. Imagine, now that we have unemployment almost at double-digit levels how desperately we need a real infrastructure policy, rebuilding our infrastructure which would offer the additional advantage of creating jobs that cannot be outsourced and helping local industries.
RK: Yet we didn't see it happen, hardly any of the money that went into TARP went into it and the money that was dedicated to it wasn't all spent, right?
AH: Well, what's happening is that the stimulus bill clearly had the desired effect of making sure that things didn't get worse. But, we saved some jobs, we created some jobs. But it wasn't enough. So that the problem was that it was an inadequate response to the crisis. And, as Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, said "You cannot jump across a chasm in two leaps."
RK: Good line. By the way, I've got to say I have a quotation website and have built a quotation database for OpEdNews and your stuff is, you're very quotable. I've got more "Qs" to quotable lines in this book. You're competing with Jesse Jackson.
AH: Ahh [laughter]. That's sweet, I like that.
RK: Well, it's good stuff. You talk not just about the disintegrating infrastructure which you just mentioned, but also the need to expand and one of the areas that you say is most important is education and you mention the new movie that is just out. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
AH: Yes, I write about the release of Waiting for Superman which basically, in a very evocative, powerful way connects us to the crisis in education. We all know that again our public schools are failing our children, that there are many good public schools, but there are also many dysfunctional public schools. We all know that there are many phenomenal teachers, but also there are teachers who cannot teach who nevertheless have tenure and continue to teach children. And you know we have this phenomenon where only 1 in 2500 teachers is ever fired compared to 1 in 37 or 1 in 67 lawyers and doctors so clearly there is something askew here.
We have not again brought that sense of urgency that Geoffrey Canada who is turning lives around in Harlem is bringing into the movie and when you see the lottery that takes place in the movie for children to be able to leave their dysfunctional public schools and go to a decent public charter school nearby, you see that the middle class American dream has beame of chance, literallcome a gy.
RK: You know, it's interesting because just a couple of weeks ago I interviewed John Taylor Gatto who is an award-winning, the best teacher of the year for New York City and then New York State and he wrote a couple of books about how schools dumb us down. You and he describe the same thing, how the history of American education comes from the Prussian educational model, preparing students to be obedient soldiers and compliant citizens and that that's what our schools are still working to do and really what you talk about is how they really have to drastically change and just doing that anymore is just no good for America. So, where should it go?
AH: Well, first of all, we need to acknowledge that right now we cannot possibly continue to fail our children. I mean we need to all agree that what passed as education reform, the Leave No Child Behind Act, was really a sham. It was exactly a bipartisan coming together that did not address the problem and that is what our system is capable of producing, it appears, just bipartisan sham. So now we really need to challenge those who stand in the way. If teachers unions stand in the way because of tenure that needs to be addressed. You know I think the President is doing some really good things here, the Race to the Top is a really good step forward. We see a real tipping point here. The people and parents are organizing, the movie is capturing people's attention and really the movie is incredibly pro-teacher. We need to make that very clear. It just acknowledges that we need to separate the good teachers from those that need to find another different job.
RK: I think that applies in so many different areas. You talked about the economists in Obama's White House and that talking with them about our financial crisis with them is like beaming back to the second century and discussing astronomy with Ptolemy. What do you think about the changes that are happening in the White House now?
AH: Well, they are good changes. I like the fact that Larry Summers is no longer or will soon not be the chief economic adviser, because Larry Summers is a brilliant man, is unfortunately somebody whose view of the world is entirely Wall Street-centric. And, that is why once Wall Street was saved, he really convinced the President that the rest would follow. You know we got Wall Street out of the woods and that is the problem-- that they underestimated the crisis in Main Street. But right now frankly what is happening in Washington is not going to change fundamentally in the next few months. I mean no dramatic bold proposals are going to come out of Washington of the kind I am suggesting in the book like the payroll tax holiday, huge infrastructure projects-- so while we are pressuring the government to do the right thing what I am saying is that we need to have some of your bottom up solutions and they are all over the country. They are happening. People are taking matters in their own hands. People are innovating. People are actually creating their own jobs rather than applying for jobs, like ETSY.com. I don't know if you've been there.
AH: There are a lot of people that are practicing their crafts, bartering with each other in swap.com, using social media to innovate, to connect with each other and to help each other. One of my favorite examples in the book is the case of Seth Reams who lost his job in Portland, Oregon as a concierge. He recognized that the one thing that he had in abundance was time and so he started a site called WeveGotTimeToHelp.org and ever since I've been talking about him and including him in the book he started getting a tremendous amount of emails and letters from around the country from people asking if he could help in their cities and towns. Over 50 cities now want to launch branches of wevegottimetohelp.org
RK: Now, I just want to point out that when you put this book together that you really did it with both head and heart. I like to quote a saying from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr that "Sometimes the head steals the heart's best blood" particularly for writers and you've really put it together, because you throw a chapter together, you really put a solid chapter together, based on statistics and analysis and discussion and then you balance it with an anecdote of somebody who is actually living through what you've described with statistics and you did a great job with that throughout the book. I really like it.
Now, going to bottom up because that is what the show is about, you say in the book "In this time of economic hardship political instability and rapid technological change, empathy is the one quality that we are most going to need if we are going to flourish in the 21st century." You mention somewhere in the book, you wrote a book a while back called the Fourth Instinct which is about connections. I think we are shifting from an information economy to a connection economy and I think that you are helping make it happen.
Basically, I an doing a transition from talking about the book to talking about Huffington Post because I really believe that what you've done with Huffington Post is to create a really cutting edge media operation that is changing the ground rules for everybody and everybody has to look at what you are doing to see how things are done. Like your new Divorce section. You're gradually, it seems like you're rolling out, one by one, new dimensions of our lives to explore as a news angle that is not done elsewhere.
AH: Well, thank you for saying that. First of all, I completely agree with you that we are moving to a connection economy and I believe actually that there is something in the zeitgeist that is about connection. Jonas Salk before he died told me that we are moving from epoch A to epoch B and he saw epoch A as based on competition and survival and epoch B as based on collaboration and what he called a sort of a meaning-based life and we are seeing that. We are seeing that in the people who are connecting with each other to do good. You know Biz Stone said that Twitter is a triumph of humanity not a triumph of technology. Now this is clearly still an aspirational statement. You know it's not yet a triumph of humanity, but it can be. So can facebook. You know that is the kind of future that we can work for and in order to get there we have to each make sure that we each do our part in the real world as well as accelerating the positive contagion in the virtual world.
RK: And, you're certainly leading the way there. You know there is a new article out, one that lists you as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world and it gives some pretty good in-depth information about Huffington Post. It says you have 186 employees now. I'm curious, how many of them are there to do site architecture or software or web design?
AH: Well, basically almost all of the, almost 90, I think between 86 and 90, we just made some new hires, are edit-- are basically editors and reporters. The rest are working on our technology and also in our marketing and advertising.
RK: And you're doing some very creative, innovative things there too it looks like; integrating facebook and tying together people. It just amazes me what you're doing with that. Is there a star there that you have that does that or is it a secret?
AH: We have a great senior team. We have Greg Coleman who came from Yahoo where he was head of sales, he heads our advertising team. Paul Berry heads our technology team so we have a really good senior team. The important thing, as you know, is to constantly see ourselves as a work in progress, to keep adopting while remaining true to our DNA.
RK: Now, you've got 6500 bloggers? That's incredible and so many of them are such famous people. I kind of refer to your platinum Rolodex there that you have...
AH: Well, you're one of our, we love having you cross post what you are doing on your site...
RK: Well, thank you. Yea, OpEdNews is a small site that has a tiny fraction of what yours does, but we've got our people and our vision.
AH: Yeah, you do great work and I think one of the things that we like to do is cross post good things and just basically expand the reach of the good work being done in different fields. As you said, we're launching Divorce on November 2nd which was Nora Ephron's idea because as I know being divorced it affects people in very deep ways that we all need to discuss. How do you parent after divorce?, how do you date after divorce? All of these things and having an engaged community discussing issues can only help.
RK: You say in your book our slide into third world America may not be televised, but it will be "blogged, tweeted, posted on facebook, covered with a camera phone, uploaded to YouTube and by shining a spotlight on it you might be able to preserve it.
AH: We might be able to prevent it.
RK: Prevent it. Right, I typed it in, I got it wrong.
RK: So you're doing incredible things, you've reached heights that are pretty amazing. What are your visions for how you would like Huffington Post to make a difference and how is it making a difference in your eyes and changing the media, in changing the world, in changing politics?
AH: Well, I believe that we're living through a very dangerous transition moment and as we always do in times of economic anxiety, a lot of forces have been unleashed that appeal to the worst in us. So, it is now up to us to also do whatever we can to appeal to the best in us, to the better angels of our nature and that is where working at the grassroots level, giving back is absolutely critical. Because, unfortunately when this distracting demonizing force is unleashed it is not susceptible to logic, but we can unleash these forces of empathy and engagement that we were talking about and that is the way to make sure that we rebuild America and prevent it from becoming a third world country.
RK: Huffington Post has evolved from first being a lot of politics to now politics being less and less and some say it's 20 percent of your content. You've got lots of things on entertainment and what have you. How do you respond to people who criticize that and how do you think that fits into this vision of yours of making a difference and helping to find your higher angels?
AH: Well, I am profiling a lot of people who do that. They range from unemployed people like Seth Reams or unemployed people who are skilled-- lawyers and accountants-- helping people prevent foreclosure to very wealthy people like Susie Buffett, Warren Buffett's daughter, whom I write about in a section called Find your own Calcutta, who is using her money to rebuild Omaha, her hometown, you know. Whenever a problem occurs whether it's a library shutting down or preschool program shutting down she is there to help and I feel that this is just something for us to focus on instead of constantly focusing on our deficits and our shortages to focus on our surpluses. The surplus of skills, the surplus of time, and the surpluses of resources that we do have but we are not using.
RK: Okay. You've got an offer to give people a ride on the bus, the Huffington Post Sanity bus. [the Jon Stewart Rally to Restore Sanity].
AH: Yes, if there is anybody going from New York to Washington the Huffington Post is offering buses. And we have over 11 thousand people have signed up.
RK: Oh my God, 11 thousand. That's fabulous. Amazing.
AH: Maybe you'll come join us.
RK: Ah, I'm in the Philadelphia area. Are you going to send any from Philly?
AH: Well, who knows. Maybe that's the next thing.
RK: That would be a lot of fun to go that way. I was just...did you go to the one last weekend?
AH: No, unfortunately I was in Los Angeles.
RK: Now, you've moved to New York. Did I understand that?
AH: I'm back and forth. I haven't moved, but my daughters are both now in college. So, I am back and forth especially since our offices are in New York. But, I really hope that you will come and visit us at the HuffingtonPost office in Soho.
RK: I would love to do that. Thank you so much.
AH: Thank you for all you're doing.
Researcher/writer Cheryl Biren contributed to this interview.