Arianna Huffington, well-known pundit and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, took the stage last night at Irvine Auditorium with wit dryer than sandpaper, despite the rain and snow.
Asked to speak by the Social Planning and Events Committee — which in the past has brought in speakers like Anderson Cooper and Madeleine Albright — Huffington discussed everything from her own personal journey, the state of print media, to election coverage and the possibility of the American dream.
Entering cane in hand, she explained that after a hiking accident five years ago she had waited until recently to get surgery. “I didn’t want them to give me a goat’s hip,” she joked, in the Greek accent she has never left behind.
Huffington began with an assortment of personal anecdotes that colored her speech and made the room of 500 people seem intimate.
Born in Athens, Greece, in 1950, Huffington grew up with a journalist and newspaper editor father whose papers always seemed to go bankrupt. The family had to move into a one-room apartment, but Huffington’s mother always put her children’s education first. When the young girl saw a picture of Cambridge University in a magazine, she knew at once that she wanted to go there.
She persevered, and despite her lack of English, was accepted to Cambridge and became head of the Cambridge Union, a prestigious debating society.
Down and out after college, Huffington reminisced about walking into a London bank penniless, with nothing but her “Greek chutzpah,” and getting a loan. She soon fell in love with a columnist for The London Times — the well-known journalist Bernard Levin — whom she described as “half my height, and twice my age.” But Levin never wanted to have children and Huffington decided she could not stay in Britain without him.
So, in 1980 Huffington emigrated to the United States.
Her website, the Huffington Post, which recently won a Pulitzer Prize, has been luring prestigious journalists and thinkers away from traditional news outlets since 2005.
In an introductory speech, Penn President Amy Gutmann praised Huffington as an exemplar of what it means to be a powerful woman in what she called “the century of women.”
“We at Huffington just launched a dedicated section for that” was a constant refrain in her speech. The terms “media brand” and “content aggregator” were thrown about.
In short, Huffington is adamant about creating an online community where anyone can express their thoughts and ideas about the news. She was so enthusiastic about the idea that she gave out her email to the crowd, saying “send me what you write.”
This kind of polyphony can be liberating, or it can drown out the truth. “It was a little peculiar that she urged anybody and everybody to blog on her site,” College junior Nora Donovan said.
At the same time, Huffington warned against “fetishizing” social media. “A lot of what is social and going viral and trending is meaningless,” she said. Instead we should focus on “ferreting out the truth.” Huffington herself called the site “a mixture of high- and lowbrow content.”
Last year, Huffington came under attack from Bill Keller, the ex-editor of the New York Times, over plagiarism and the role of compensation in news journalism. The majority of The Huffington Post’s contributors aren’t paid for their content, and questions have been raised as to The Post’s “impartiality” in moderating its political content.
All controversy aside, Huffington had particularly inspiring things to say to college students. “The speech was meant to be tailor-made for students,” said SPEC Conaissance member and College sophomore Gabe Jimenez, who was happy that Huffington had “let herself open” for her audience.
During her talk, Huffington urged the audience to do just that. “Self expression is the new entertainment,” she said. And for Huffington, we’re all in the show.