The top editors of Gawker resigned earlier this week after management removed a story about how a senior executive at magazine publisher Condé Nast had attempted to arrange a tryst with a gay prostitute. The story when immediately published elicited almost universal outrage on social media over the outing of someone who was essentially a private citizen. Well over 99% of Gawker’s readers likely had never heard of this person before the story was published.
Nick Denton, the website’s founder, stated that he was ashamed to be associated with a story on the private life of a closeted gay man, which was why they took the previously unprecedented step of overruling the editorial department and removing the story. The editors resigned, not so much in defense of the story, though they stood by it while acknowledging it had some faults, but on the principle of the business side of the operation breaching the firewall that was supposed to separate it from the editorial side.
The editors, in my interpretation, viewed that outing of the previously anonymous executive as a specific detail, while editorial independence was the big picture. I feel they are wrong. The outing of a closeted gay man is the big picture.
Gawker and its affiliated websites in many ways embody the modern Internet and social media culture. While I have no statistics to back this up, I would be that Gawker affiliated website articles are retweeted more than any other media article on earth. I am a fan of Gawker and Twitter, but there is a dark side to both, one that was perfectly illustrated with the since-removed post outing the Condé Nast executive. The current online culture has a tendency to dehumanize people. Attacking people online has begun to resemble attacking enemies with a drone strike. You don’t look them in the eye and you don’t have to stand next to the ugly aftermath of the attack.
It says something about the modern media, and perhaps about modern society as a whole, that after having time to reflect and absorb the criticism over their story, the issue that resonated most powerfully with the editors was editorial independence, not the destruction that they had done to someone’s personal and professional life. People say things online all the time that they would never be willing or able to say to someone’s face. The editors stand by their story, but I somehow suspect that they wouldn’t ever stand up on a chair and say “Hey everybody. Listen up. You see John here next to me who is married with three kids and has a great job? I wanted you all to know he’s having sex with gay prostitutes.”
This isn’t just an issue with celebrities and media outlets. The kind of viciousness exhibited by Gawker occurs thousands of times a day among ordinary people on social media. How many teenagers have had their lives turned upside down by social media gossip and bullying? Had the editors realized that the most important issue in this whole story was not one of editorial independence but rather how seemingly good, intelligent people can casually destroy someone’s life, this might have become a catalyst for positive change, however modest. I fear this case may actually motivate people to publish more of these type of destructive articles.
As a side note, there is a seemingly obvious question that to my knowledge has not been addressed. Why did Gawker single out this person? There are thousands of married men across the country who are secretly sleeping with men, many of which are more high profile than the Condé Nast executive. One would think that a media organization that has access to as much gossip as Gawker would have been able to be able to out dozens of high profile, secretly gay men, but they chose this guy. Why? It is worth pointing out that a senior executive at a publishing company would be completely unknown to the general public, but he would likely be very well known among writers.
When Deadspin, a Gawker affiliated website, targeted ESPN writer Jason Whitlock in a series of stories, it was made clear that the Deadspin writer had interacted with Mr. Whitlock and had discussed potentially working with him. Given the circumstances, it would be useful if Gawker were to disclose what, if any, its writers, management, or editorial staff may have had with the Condé Nast executive in the past.