To gawk, a passive verb, denotes observation and, more deeply, a sense of slack-jawed amazement at the actions of others. This otherization is clear, though implicit: that’s them, not us, acting so magnetically crass. Don’t kill the messenger; we’re just the reporter, the conduit, the middleman showing you what you want to see. We are you are we.
Gawker, the Internet gadfly site, was created to report on that showing. Founder Nick Denton wanted specifically to focus on a direct, two-way conversation between reporter and audience, as opposed to a historical top-down journalism.
“That conversation,” he wrote in Gawker’s statement of purpose in 2012, “is more revealing than what passes for news in newspapers and on television. That conversation should be the story. That conversation is our story. The uninhibited expression of a writer’s mind — the gossip, the revealing anecdote, the politically incorrect analysis, the skepticism about a source’s motives — is our purpose.”
Later in Denton’s statement of purpose, he described the “Gawker ideal, a system for arriving at the truth, however uncomfortable.”
Less than three years later, a series of uncomfortable truths has forced Denton and his constellation of sites now named Gawker Media to reexamine their position in the online universe.
David Geithner, a Conde Nast executive and brother to former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. allegedly tried to arrange a night with a male escort on a recent trip to Chicago. The escort researched David Geithner’s background, then asked him to use his federal connections for help with a dispute over alleged housing discrimination in Texas. Frightened that the escort found out his identity, Geithner called off their meeting, though he paid the escort in full.
In retaliation, the escort told his story to Gawker and sent corroborating text messages and photos. Reporter Jordan Sargent took the information and ran with it, posting the escort’s account alongside the texts and images on July 16.
Geithner, who is married to a woman and has three children, denied the allegations in a statement to Gawker, saying, “I don’t know who this individual is. This is a shakedown. I have never had a text exchange with this individual. He clearly has an ulterior motive that has nothing to do with me.”
Reaction was swift and merciless against Gawker, and much of the criticism focused on the fact that Geithner was not a public figure, that Gawker outed a family man and maybe ruined his life for seemingly no purpose other than prurient base interest. Other criticism focused on the fact that Gawker published Geithner’s name but kept the escort’s identity secret, despite knowing that publishing the uncorroborated accusations would play into the escort’s extortion attempt. Advertisers threatened to desert Gawker in droves, taking with them millions of dollars.
Gawker’s stated mission to “hire people… who have a similar detestation of bullshit — and a desire to do work that endures” ran up against a tide of public disgust and advertiser revolt. The work did not endure, as Gawker’s board voted to remove Sargent’s story on David Geithner. Denton took the Geithner post down on July 17, the first time a journalist’s post had been removed from the site. Gawker’s editor-in-chief, the gloriously named Max Read, and executive editor Tommy Craggs, one of the board’s dissenting voters, both resigned in protest.
Echoing Voltaire, who advocated fights to the death on behalf of unpopular speech, even Gawker employees who disagreed with the decision to publish the Geithner story decried the story’s removal. In particular, writers and editors argued that the tawdry escapade’s true problem was a breach of the firewall between the company’s corporate and editorial sides.
Underscoring the rapid changes in journalism platforms and the resulting ability for easy, lightning-quick publication, many Gawker Media employees took to Twitter to show their displeasure with the actions of their leadership.
Under the glare of public scrutiny, hours before the Geithner post was removed and Read resigned, he defended Sargent’s article as a natural product of Gawker’s mission.
“given the chance gawker will always report on married c-suite executives of major media companies fucking around on their wives,” Read tweeted, his lack of grammatical correctness underscoring his disdain for the state of public discourse barraging his beloved website. Read has since deleted all of his tweets published before Aug. 13., offering a sardonic riposte as explanation.
Vargas-Cooper’s assertion of free-speech absolutism is one example how Gawker has pushed the boundaries of traditional journalism. Indeed, Gawker’s tagline proudly states that “today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news.” The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics features a section on “minimizing harm,” where members of the press are urged to “recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.”
Gawker writers argued that their freedom to write about the truth trumped Geithner’s expectation to privacy, regardless of any “overriding public need.” Here we are reminded of Stewart Brand’s famous declaration that “information wants to be free,” but it is important to take Brand’s statement into context.
“On the one hand,” Brand said at the first Hackers Conference in 1984, “information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”
This tension informs the Gawker debate because, as bumper stickers across the country read, “Freedom Isn’t Free.” Even more free-wheeling online platforms such as Reddit have to abide by certain standards of common decency, such as the removal of child pornography. With Gawker’s assertion of pure editorial freedom, its reporters and editors are basically saying “If we can, we should.”
Vargas-Cooper attempted to assign this freedom as a journalistic obligation, tying Gawker to the old standard: Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.
Here Vargas-Cooper claims that Geithner’s power as a financial officer for a large media company makes him a de facto public figure. Exposing his closeted extra-marital affair is thus a feature, not a bug, of Gawker’s brand of modern journalism. Never mind any collateral damage to Geithner’s family or future. The truth is sacrosanct, and everyone’s business.
By this reasoning, the only problem for Gawker, in this instance, is that so much of their public refused to buy their product, the information that they helped a manipulative escort to free.
As a result of this maelstrom of public condemnation, though, Gawker Media is undergoing a self-examination. In Denton’s explanation for taking down the Geithner story, he wrote about Gawker’s evolution as a parallel to changes occurring in society as a whole.
“The media environment has changed, our readers have changed, and I have changed,” Denton wrote, notably implying that his staff and its standards had not similarly changed with the times.
“I believe this public mood reflects a growing recognition that we all have secrets, and they are not all equally worthy of exposure,” Denton wrote. “Gawker is no longer the insolent blog that began in 2003.”
Whether this evolution is only a swing in the public/private pendulum, or a permanent milepost on the journey of modern journalism remains to be seen. What is clear, though, is that this turmoil is breeding a quick culture shock for Gawker. Denton pledged that Gawker would immediately become “20 percent nicer,” and he offered a buyout to those who didn’t want to work under the new standards.
William Arkin, one of several writers to take the buyout, said that due to an erasure of editorial independence, Gawker had become a “miserable place.” And in a grammatically typical tweet, features editor Leah Finnegan echoed how rapidly the company’s identity was changing.