The Huffington Post built itself into a multi-million dollar brand, in part, using unpaid contributors. It’s a quid pro quo: HuffPost gets content for free while activists and celebrities get a platform for their opinions. No harm, no foul. But when AOL ponied up $315 million for the site, onetime HuffPost blogger Jonathan Tasini thought, hey, we deserve some of that. So he filed a class-action lawsuit.
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BOB GARFIELD: As mentioned, The Huffington Post built itself into a mult-imillion-dollar brand in part with unpaid contributors. Oh, there’s a value exchange. HuffPo gets content for free and activists and celebrities and others get a platform for their opinions. No harm, no foul. But when AOL ponied up 315 million dollars for the site, one-time HuffPo blogger Jonathan Tasini thought, hey, we deserve some of that. He filed a 100-million-dollar class-action lawsuit on behalf of all unpaid contributors, like him.
JONATHAN TASINI: We're arguing two things in court. One is that there was unjust enrichment, which is a legal theory that says that even if you were not specifically promised a certain amount up front, if your work is exploited for economic advantage you can come back retroactively and demand payment. And the second thing we're arguing is there is a series of deceptive business practices that were conducted by Huffington Post.
BOB GARFIELD: To wit?
JONATHAN TASINI: Essentially, people were promised certain things that were not fulfilled.
BOB GARFIELD: But you wrote for HuffPo with the understanding that you would not be paid in cash, that whatever value you derived from being a blogger there was all that you were going to get out of it. So what changed your mind as to what is due you?
JONATHAN TASINI: I think it’s important to say that not only what changed my mind but what changed the minds of hundreds of other bloggers was the sale to AOL. We created the value and she basically took a Marie Antoinette approach, which is “Let them eat cake, we don't care, you’re not worth anything, hit the road,” when people said why don't you pay a little bit to people. And frankly, I think that it was her greed and her dismissiveness that led to people continuing to organize, 'cause had she been smart, had she sent everybody a small check, let's say 25 dollars or 50 dollars, this would never have reached the crescendo that it has reached.
BOB GARFIELD: Perhaps not, but let me tell you what seems the flaw in your argument and the kind of logical flaw in your outrage. You had a deal, and how do you change the terms of the deal ex post facto?
JONATHAN TASINI: When I filed the lawsuit in 1993 against The New York Times on a copyright violation on behalf of tens of thousands of other writers, everybody says, oh, you’re crazy, you’re nuts. You’re never gonna win that, that’s crazy. And so, we just proceeded with that and we won in the United States Supreme Court, seven to two in 2001, and set a landmark precedent. The second piece, which is, if you will, moral outrage, I do think it is significant. What got people going was not whether it was zero or a dollar-something. It was Arianna Huffington’s greed and hypocrisy. Remember, this is someone who has built her brand out of, “I am the one standing up for the middle class, the little guy, and against CEO greed.” And she, in fact, is the greatest representation of CEO greed to the very people who created the value to the company. And so, what we're trying to do is both get money for people retroactively, but also trying to set a standard going forward so that bloggers in the future can earn a decent living and our culture can flower, because without people who actually [LAUGHS] make a living from this, our culture suffers.
BOB GARFIELD: But are the courts the place to build a blogger economy?
JONATHAN TASINI: Well, I think that’s a very valuable point. The only way you build power, whether among bloggers or mineworkers or anybody, is through unions and through organizing. And that’s why I'm deeply involved in this organizing. There is a strike and a boycott at The Huffington Post. Anybody who writes for them, any liberal progressive elected official or person who comes to the labor movement for money, they are crossing a picket line. They are scabs. They are strikebreakers. So that’s a whole piece that I'm as excited about the legal case.
BOB GARFIELD: Just curious, how much money do you figure AOL owes you now?
JONATHAN TASINI: Well, the case itself asked for, I believe, 105 million dollars, as a starting point. That was a rough calculation, using various standards and estimates, about how much collectively is owed to all these bloggers. And ultimately, what happens if you win the case, then there has to be some figuring out how to distribute whatever pool of money is awarded to the bloggers.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's just say Arianna Huffington is a greedy hypocrite, on a grand scale. It’s not against the law -
JONATHAN TASINI: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - at least not any statute law I'm familiar with. In fact, it might even be the American way.
JONATHAN TASINI: [LAUGHS] As Goldman Sachs proves every day.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, and there you are. So, you know, how do you get remedy for that in federal court?
JONATHAN TASINI: You are right. Avarice is a part of the American way, partly because of the weakness of unions and the weakness of people to be organized. And the fight in the court is only a small piece of what has to be done. Let's say we win in court. Okay, we get a bunch of money. If there’s nobody there to set a standard and keep fighting year after year, in the way unions like AFTRA and SAG set standards for creators in the arts, going back for 80 years, if you don't have those organizations, you’re right, wins in court don't matter.
BOB GARFIELD: Jonathan, thank you very much.
JONATHAN TASINI: Thanks. It’s been a pleasure to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Jonathan Tasini is president of the Economic Future Group. He blogs at Workinglife.org.