As has happened since time immemorial, the selfishness and sinful indulgence of adults is visited on children — and these days, Gawker.com is right in the middle of it. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the site.
What is Gawker?
Founded in 2003 by British-born Nick Denton — who recently tied the legal knot with his same-sex partner — Gawker.com, now part of a conglomeration of sites under the umbrella of Gawker Media, focuses on celebrity and media, heavy on all things New York and infused with a nasty, gossipy spirit.
Every now and then, there’s an interesting, well-written article (the same can be said of Gawker.com‘s other sites, including the sports site Deadspin), but they don’t outweigh Gawker‘s main mission, which is promoting sleaze and shame under the cover of “news.”
According to Web-analytics company SimilarWeb, the site attracts over 23 million visits per month … and there’s a 100 percent chance that a fair number of those eyeballs belong to Catholics.
From the Frying Pan Into the Fire …
Gawker’s currently embroiled in a high-stakes, $100-million lawsuit with pro wrestler and personality Hulk Hogan, after it cited the First Amendment to justify ignoring a cease-and-desist letter from Hogan aimed at forcing Gawker to take down a sex tape of Hogan it posted (and now the FBI has been dragged into the case).
If Gawker loses, it could gut the company financially, so the question of its long-term survival might become moot.
But before that case has even concluded, Gawker has jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Last Thursday, July 16, the site posted a story about the CFO of its media rival, Condé Nast. The man himself is not a public figure, but his brother holds a prominent government position.
According to the story, which cited alleged text messages, the married father of three attempted to hire a gay male porn star/escort, who then tried to blackmail his would-be client.
So, if this tale is true, there’s plenty of guilt to go around. But be it truth or lie, the CFO’s children will have to bear the brunt of stories about their father’s alleged extramarital escapades being splashed all over the headlines.
Sin by Any Other Name …
The story touched off a tsunami of criticism, much of it centered on Gawker having “outed” someone who may have been keeping aspects of his sexuality private.
A Gawker reporter said on Twitter that the site would always write about top-level executives cheating on their wives. But as we live in a media world that normally winks at all manner of sex outside of marriage, I wonder if the story would have looked quite so tasty if a similar executive tried to hire a woman (which, from our perspective, would be just as wrong).
My most cynical self thinks that a slice of the media that likes to put forward the idea that everyone is secretly gay enjoyed the notion of a man cheating on his wife with another man way more than just plain old opposite-sex shenanigans.
On the other hand, homosexuality is currently enough to qualify one as a member of a protected class, with criticism of the lifestyle quickly condemned. So defenders of the CFO have risen up, claiming he was being “gay-shamed,” which evidently is far worse than allegations of adultery and procuring a prostitute (but perfectly permissible if the individual being “shamed” doesn’t support LGBT rights).
For his part, the CFO sent this message to Gawker:
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.
But whatever the motivations of Gawker and its critics, the complaints rose to such a level that Denton, after conferring with his managing partners, took it upon himself to have the post pulled down.
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.
Variety was unimpressed.
Good journalism has always been energized by a “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” sensibility but this takes that notion to a ridiculous extreme.
Upper-class resentment doesn’t explain Gawker’s story entirely. It’s a toxic stew filled with other ingredients including an obsession with denigrating its rivals (Conde Nast owns longtime Gawker antagonist Reddit) and a preoccupation with outing people in the closet. Then there’s Denton’s own glib litmus test for what constitutes a story being newsworthy–“it is true and it is interesting”–and you understand how a publication leaves the door wide open to this kind of ineptitude.
In Gawker’s legal standoff with Hulk Hogan, there’s at least some semblance of an argument to be made for publishing excerpts of the wrestler’s sex tape. But in the instance of the Conde Nast executive Gawker maligned, the article is so completely devoid of any journalistic justification that it should be mandatory reading for every aspiring reporter, a cautionary tale of what not to do.
The New York Observer had a similar sentiment, expressed with less delicacy:
I was not surprised. No one should have been. Because who may have seemed like a shocking new low was really just the inevitable trajectory of one of the most toxic cultures in all of media. It was the natural extension of a media empire with an editorial mission that owes far more allegiance to bullying and bitterness than it does to accuracy or ethics. This most recent scandal—which seems to have suddenly woken up the general public—is not an anomaly. It’s exactly what you get when you mix bad leadership, bad incentives, and selfish, self-loathing people.
The Snake Eats Its Own Tail …
The post’s disappearance led Gawker’s editorial staff — which has voted to unionize — to complain bitterly about this infringement on its freedom to cover this sort of breaking “news.” Following this was the Monday, July 20, resignation of Tommy Craggs, the executive editor of Gawker Media, and Max Read, the editor-in-chief of Gawker.com.
And so, the whole sordid tale rolls on.
What does this have to do with us? Why do we care about the inner workings of Gawker? Because a God that notes the fall of a sparrow and numbers the hairs on your head will not fail to keep an account of what media you consume (as a reporter, I’m as occasionally guilty of falling for clickbait as anyone).
One can’t achieve redemption without being willing to look straight at sin.
When you click on a headline from Gawker or its ilk, or tune into a TV show of this sort, you should understand just the sort of muck you’re rolling in, because some of it will stick.
The “Dark Joy of Gossip” …
As we live in a media-saturated world, one of the most convicting things Pope Francis has said came in the month he was elected. Celebrating Mass in late March, 2013, he talked about how we turn people into commodities — something Planned Parenthood is very adept at — when we engage in gossip.
From Catholic News Service:
The pope said that for Judas, who negotiated a price for handing Jesus over to the authorities, “Jesus is like merchandise: He’s sold.”
“In the market of history, in the market of our own lives, when we choose 30 pieces of silver and cast Jesus aside, the Lord has been sold,” Pope Francis said.
But people also do the same to each other, including “when we gossip about each other,” he said.
“I don’t know why, but there is a dark joy in gossiping,” he said. Sometimes we begin by saying nice things about another, but then we slip into gossip, making the object of our chatter merchandise to be bartered.
“Let us ask forgiveness because when we do this to a friend, we do it to Jesus, because Jesus is in this friend,” he said.
For all Denton’s mea culpas and after-the-fact moralizing, I fully expect Gawker to do stories like the one in the the deleted post again. The temptation to dive into the pit is hard to resist.
Image: Courtesy Gawker