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How Arianna Huffington became Miss America Add to ...

Though Ms. Huffington claims to eschew traditional political labels, she has positioned The Huffington Post as the go-to news site for progressives.

"Our mission is really to define what is in the public interest, beyond left and right," she says of the site she founded with media executive Ken Lerer in 2005. "We really believe that the way so many in the mainstream media divide every issue into left versus right is very obsolete."

The post-paradigm talk sounds like spin. HuffPo, as it is known, tends to run all-upper-case, boilerplate headlines with alacrity, giving the Pearl Harbor treatment to events and utterances that resonate with liberals. Ergo, "WARREN BUFFETT: TRICKLE-DOWN THEORY A FAILURE," as HuffPo blared last weekend.

"I was on then, yes," Ms. Huffington declares, establishing that her editorial responsibilities involve actual story handling and placement. "I like to take the Saturday nights and Sunday nights because I can do it from wherever I am, at a dinner party or whatever, with my BlackBerry."

Of course, HuffPo is more than a liberal organ. Only 20 per cent of its more than 24 million unique monthly visitors (making it second in online news traffic after The New York Times) come for the political fodder. Most check out the celebrity bloggers or enter one of its 26 sections, ranging from travel to divorce.

"The way the mainstream media suffer from attention deficit disorder, we suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder," Ms. Huffington asserts.

Still, HuffPo derives much of its traffic from one-off Google hits. Indeed, stories are structured to move to the top of search engine results. And they more often than not involve the "bright, shiny things" that Ms. Huffington criticizes the mainstream media so much for. Trivialities such as 29-year-old Illinois Republican congressman Aaron Schock's abs, or his gay icon status, are at least as common as more serious fare.

But HuffPo is evolving rapidly. Ms. Huffington has just hired two big names - Howard Fineman from Newsweek and Peter Goodman from The New York Times - to beef up the site's political and economic content, respectively. And then there are its citizen journalists.

"Huffington Post includes a very vibrant community," she declares proudly, pointing to the nearly four million comments posted monthly on the site. "As the news is increasingly social, people don't just want to consume it. … They want to be part of the story of their times."

The story of the times includes the rise of the Tea Party movement and Sarah Palin, both of which come in for disparaging criticism on HuffPo.

Ms. Huffington herself is kinder. For her, their popularity represents the legitimate defiance of a middle class that feels under assault.

"It's really an extension of people saying the elites have failed us, so let's try something else," she says of the Tea Partiers and former Alaska governor.

Ms. Huffington is particularly hard on Barack Obama for what she sees as his failure to appreciate the depth of middle-class angst sweeping the nation and his unwillingness to take on the lobbyists who conspire with lawmakers to concentrate American wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

"The fundamental problem here is Obama's reverence for the establishments," she laments, blaming the President for deferring to the Wall Street recruits in his administration by passing a loophole-filled financial reform bill and to his military advisers by escalating U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

Third World America is Ms. Huffington's biopsy (her word) of her adopted country and it proposes a treatment, starting with a fundamental reform of campaign finance laws. Getting Congress to enact such a change seems like a liberal pipe dream.

"Reform always seems impossible until it happens," Ms. Huffington retorts, pointing to Lyndon Johnson's resistance to passing the Voting Rights Act until the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches forced him to act.

Ms. Huffington is continually reinventing herself. So a natural question is: How long will her current incarnation last?

There is speculation that she and her partners are preparing to sell HuffPo, or take it public, to cash in on the site's estimated market value of $100-million.

"It depends what you mean by ultimate," she responds when asked if selling out is indeed her ultimate goal. "I love what I'm doing. Whatever I want to do, I can do through The Huffington Post."

On that note, a housekeeper bearing a platter of food enters and Ms. Huffington slips back into Greek mother mode. The woman is clearly happiest when others are consuming whatever it is she is offering.

Arianna Huffington will be the keynote speaker at Canada's Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Awards Summit and Gala in Toronto on Monday.

Konrad Yakabuski is the chief political writer in The Globe and Mail's Washington bureau.

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