One of the reasons why Gawker is so successful it that it is impossible not to love, respect and hate it in equal measure. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, the fact that you feel strongly about it makes Gawker what it is – the preeminent gossip merchant on the internet, and a place where transparency trumps all.
Today, Gawker did something unprecedented and took down a truly vile post it did on the CFO of Conde Nast (you can google it because we are not linking to it). Here was Nick Denton’s unusually contrite statement on why they took it down:
Yesterday evening, Gawker.com published a story about the CFO of Conde Nast texting an escort. It was an editorial call, a close call around which there were more internal disagreements than usual. And it is a decision I regret.
The story involves extortion, illegality and reckless behavior, sufficient justification at least in tabloid news terms. The account was true and well-reported. It concerns a senior business executive at one of the most powerful media companies on the planet.
In the early days of the internet, that would have been enough. “We put truths on the internet.” That has been the longstanding position of Gawker journalists, some of the most uncompromising and uncompromised on the internet. I cannot blame our editors and writers for pursuing that original mission.
But the media environment has changed, our readers have changed, and I have changed. Not only is criticism of yesterday’s piece from readers intense, but much of what they’ve said has resonated. Some of our own writers, proud to work at one of the only independent media companies, are equally appalled.
I believe this public mood reflects a growing recognition that we all have secrets, and they are not all equally worthy of exposure. I can’t defend yesterday’s story as I can our coverage of Bill O’Reilly, Hillary Clinton or Hulk Hogan.
We are proud of running stories that others shy away from, often to preserve relationships or access. But the line has moved. And Gawker has an influence and audience that demands greater editorial restraint.
Gawker is no longer the insolent blog that began in 2003. It does important and interesting journalism about politicians, celebrities and other major public figures. This story about the former Treasury Secretary’s brother does not rise to the level that our flagship site should be publishing.
The point of this story was not in my view sufficient to offset the embarrassment to the subject and his family. Accordingly, I have had the post taken down. It is the first time we have removed a significant news story for any reason other than factual error or legal settlement.
Every story is a judgment call. As we go forward, we will hew to our mission of reporting and publishing important stories that our competitors are too timid, or self-consciously upright, to pursue. There will always be stories that critics attack as inappropriate or unjustified; and we will no doubt again offend the sensibilities of some industries or interest groups.
This action will not turn back the clock. David Geithner’s embarrassment will not be eased. But this decision will establish a clear standard for future stories. It is not enough for them simply to be true. They have to reveal something meaningful. They have to be true and interesting. These texts were interesting, but not enough, in my view.
In light of Gawker’s past rhetoric about our fearlessness and independence, this can be seen as a capitulation. And perhaps, to some extent, it is. But it is motivated by a sincere effort build a strong independent media company, and to evolve with the audience we serve.
Today the managing partnership of Gawker Media voted, 6-1, to remove the post. Executive editor Tommy Craggs, who helped edit the post, was the sole dissenter.
The vote to remove the post, which was written by staff writer Jordan Sargent and edited by several other Gawker staffers, comes after widespread criticism from our own readers and other outlets. Along the Craggs, every other member of Gawker Media’s editorial leadership, including Gawker’s editor-in-chief Max Read and the executive editors of Gawker Media’s Politburo, strenuously protested removing the post.
Besides Denton, the partners who voted to remove the post were Heather Dietrick, who serves as President and chief legal counsel; Andrew Gorenstein, who serves as the president of advertising and partnerships; chief operating officer Scott Kidder; chief strategy officer Erin Pettigrew; and chief technology officer Tom Plunkett; and chief executive officer Nick Denton, who founded Gawker Media in 2002. Along with Tommy Craggs, they belong to Gawker Media’s managing partnership, which Denton established in 2014 and whose members decide on all major company matters.
“The point of this story was not in my view sufficient to offset the embarrassment to the subject and his family,” Denton wrote in a lengthy statement issued on Friday afternoon. “Accordingly, I have had the post taken down. It is the first time we have removed a significant news story for any reason other than factual error or legal settlement.”
It is difficult not to respect Gawker for laying bare its editorial process to its readers, but equally this should never have happened in the first place. Gawker has traditionally thrived off a mixture of bitchiness and talent, but it is a formula fast running out of steam. The relentless dick posts, disgusting sex tape leaks and hounding of supposedly gay public figures delivers the clicks, but it relegates Gawker to TMZ status. While it does great reporting on occasion, Gawker’s jumped up gaggle of sneering New Yorkers desperately trying to out snark each other is becoming more than a little tiresome. Take for example, their coverage of the two convicted murderers escaping from a Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Day-in and day-out, Gawker ran headlines like this:
And on, and on, and on. Once would have been funny, but the relentless genital references smacked of desperation and a lack of confidence. If you are literally resorting to dick jokes to drive editorial, there are some very serious vision problems at Gawker HQ.
This is something Denton clearly recognizes and is attempting to change, and the Conde Nast backdown is a sign that he might implement some ethical standards at Gawker. These changes won’t come a moment too soon as the company could be in serious legal and financial trouble for other repulsive ‘stories’ it has broken at the expense of people’s lives.
The truth is, Gawker is basically a nasty little rag trading on human misery. There are moments of light, particularly when it comes to its reporting on poverty and economic inequality, but its overall impact hasn’t exactly benefited humanity. Perhaps this episode will change that and Gawker can live up to its potential as a unique source of news with razor sharp writing and biting insight. It’s just a shame so many people have had their lives ruined because Big City gossip columnists can’t find real issues to write about.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.