I don’t need to say much about why Gawker’s recent post outing a married, male publishing executive was disgusting. It’s already been said: The man wasn’t a public figure, Gawker allowed itself to be complicit in a blackmail scheme, and exposing the private conflict of a man just because he works at a publishing company you don’t like, or is the brother of a financier you don’t like—or just for buzz, or clicks—is indefensible.
But you know all that already.
No, what really gets me is the pusillanimous statement by Gawker owner Nick Denton explaining why he and the the majority of the board that runs Gawker decided to take the post down.
Because Denton refuses to take responsibility for a post that has just destroyed a man’s life. Instead, he argues, the fault lies in the shifting standards of the Internet.
Here’s how he makes this disgraceful argument.
He begins by saying, well, look, this story we posted wasn’t really so bad.
First, he calls it “an editorial close call,” which it shouldn’t have been.
Then he adds,
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.
This is disingenuous. The story did involve extortion, yes. But Denton should have acknowledged that, by publishing the story, Gawker was complicit in that extortion. The story did “involve” illegality, but no illegality actually occurred except perhaps for the extortion that Gawker facilitated; the executive in question did not actually meet the escort. And while it is true that reckless behavior is a story for tabloids, Denton omits a key fact; that reckless behavior has to be conducted by public people to make it “newsworthy” and legally defensible. The man in question was not a public individual, despite him being (gasp) a “senior business executive”—Gawker code words for “easy target”—at “one of the most powerful media companies” on the planet. These are the buzzwords of desperate rationalization.
Denton continues: “In the early days of the Internet, that would have been enough.”
I’m not so sure that’s true—I don’t remember Matt Drudge, for example, ever outing a private person—but in any case it’s an asinine argument. It’s a bit like saying, “Well, we shot a man in the back for no reason because in the Wild West you could get away with that.” The fact that you can get away with something is no excuse for bad behavior.
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.
There is a factual inaccuracy here and a fallacy. The factual inaccuracy is to posit that there was a time when publishing a vicious story about the personal life of a private man would have been socially or journalistically sanctioned, but that standards are now changing.
(This is not to say that such stories were never published; it is to say that no serious journalist would ever have tried to justify them.)
The fallacy is that Gawker’s only mistake was not to recognize these allegedly shifting sands of public taste. No. Gawker’s mistake was to publish a hateful piece of journalism because a) it thinks this man is powerful, and it doesn’t like powerful people, and b) to make money.
This is not about some larger cultural change, some macro-trend that Gawker—which prides itself on setting trends, not following them—was, oops, late to detect. This is about human decency and the responsible use of power. And it’s about taking responsibility for a mistake, rather than fobbing it off on changing tastes.
Denton’s refusal to take responsibility continues as he obfuscates about the damage that Gawker’s post has done.
The point of this story was not in my view sufficient to offset the embarrassment to the subject and his family, he says. And a few sentences later: This action will not turn back the clock. XXXXXXX’s embarrassment will not be eased.
[The “XXXX”s are mine. It’s a symbolic gesture, obviously, because everybody knows the man’s name. But I can’t stomach writing it just because Gawker did.)
Let’s think about that word, “embarrassment,” what it means and what it doesn’t mean, because it’s important; it’s what Denton suggests, twice, is the consequence of this post. If you fart in an elevator, you’re “embarrassed.” If you mispronounce a common word, you’re “embarrassed.” If you realize at the end of a day that you’ve been walking around with your fly open, you’re “embarrassed.”
So, no—this media executive isn’t “embarrassed.” I don’t know him, so the following are simply possibilities, but he could be “shamed.” He could be “humiliated.” He could be “ruined” or “destroyed.”
He is married; his marriage may now be over.
He has children. What will their lives be like when they show up at school on Monday? What would Denton or Gawker editor Max Read, who published the story and still defends it, say to them?
To say that he is “embarrassed” is an insult to decency, and an act of cowardice. Nick Denton published something that may have destroyed a man’s life; this is the kind of violation that people commit suicide over. To say that it caused him “embarrassment” is an act of cowardice.
Why is it so hard to take responsibility? To say, “We were wrong—really wrong—and we apologize.”
In the end, Denton can not resist a bit of self-congratulation.
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.
Too timid? Too self-consciously upright?
Fuck you, Nick Denton. The reason other journalists don’t publish such stories is not because we’re timid or “self-consciously upright.” We don’t publish them because they hurt people for no valid reason.
Denton’s last words:
…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.
This is incoherent and intellectually un-serious thought. Many people would have said that the story in question was “interesting,” and it appears to be true. So Denton has just created a standard that justifies the post he’s just removed from his site.
There is a bit of good news here. The backlash against this post, and against Gawker, has been really encouraging. The vast majority of commenters on its site are as appalled as I am about the post.
Rolling Stone has suffered tangible harm from its publication of a deliberately false story about a deliberately false accusation of rape. There may be a price to pay for Gawker too.