In case you missed it, Gawker has spent the last week in full damage-control mode after reporting that Condé Nast’s chief financial officer had solicited a male escort who was now levying blackmail on him. The story came under harsh criticism from across the spectrum after it went live on Thursday, with most of the critics saying that it served no public interest to out a private person. Even worse, running this story amounted to aiding and abetting this prostitute’s attempt to extort and blackmail the CFO. Gawker founder Nick Denton deleted the story after only 24 hours, saying that such a story may have been acceptable when the site was launched in 2003, but isn’t now.
Late yesterday, a Gawker staffer told Mother Jones that despite the explosive nature of the story, Gawker only took one working day to report, research, fact-check and vet it before publishing it. That timing is highly troubling, to say the least. Ken Paulson of the First Amendment Center says that stories that could even potentially wreck someone’s reputation “are typically vetted over a longer period.” Such a review, he said, can turn up “issues that could give you pause about publishing.”
First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams agrees, saying that if a media outlet doesn’t spend enough time checking out the story, “that could be used with great effect against them” in a libel suit–especially if the plaintiff is a private person. He also added something else–if there is blackmail or extortion involved, it would be “a blinking yellow light, if not a blinking red one” to be particularly careful in reporting it.
I’d go further than that. If it had been me, the moment I learned that the story relied almost entirely on the word of an extortionist, the story would have been dead right then. And that would have been true even if we were dealing with a homophobic politician or celebrity who was actually in the closet. Any public interest would have been substantially outweighed by the fact that running the story based solely on this escort’s information would amount to aiding and abetting extortion. If you’re going to out someone, wouldn’t you think you’d want to base your story on more than the word of someone who basically came in off the street?
The escort, for those who don’t know, said he was due to meet the executive in Chicago one night. Reportedly, when he found out that his client was the CFO of a major media company, he asked for his help in a housing dispute. The CFO supposedly backed out at the last minute, but still paid the escort for the services that would have been rendered. In a fit of pique, the escort went to Gawker, who ran the story despite being fully aware that it was aiding and abetting an extortionist.
Gawker’s editorial staff was up in arms over deleting this story. For instance, editor-in-chief Max Read tweeted that Gawker wouldn’t hesitate to report on “married c-suite executives” engaging in affairs. Um, Max? Even if it means relying on an extortionist as your only source? I’d have asked him myself, but that tweet has been deleted. Those defending this story either don’t know or don’t understand that running a story solely based on information from an extortionist and blackmailer puts you in astronomical legal danger. I say this as someone who has done his share of muckraking.
What is more troubling, though, is that Denton suggested that such a story may have been acceptable in Gawker’s early days. I don’t know what that says about Gawker’s culture, but it isn’t good. I couldn’t help but think back to Charles C. Johnson, the right-wing pseudojournalist whose stock in trade was gross invasion of privacy–a tactic that ultimately got him permanently banned from Twitter. If there is any difference between Johnson’s tactics and what Gawker did here, I don’t see it. Gawker may lean left, but by aiding and abetting the extortion of a person who is only a marginal public figure at best, it has revealed that its mentality is really no different from the worst elements of the wingnut blogosphere.