Websites like Gawker are often accused of publishing tawdry and sensationalistic material as clickbait. But, while it’s undeniable that on the internet a site lives and dies by how many eyeballs it can attract, tabloid journalism has more complicated roots than the simple pursuit of viral content. Consider the article that Gawker published yesterday and—after it was roundly and quickly condemned—removed today about a media executive who, the website alleged, tried to purchase the services of a male escort for a Chicago rendezvous earlier this month. The article was a massive invasion of privacy in no small part because the executive is married to a woman, giving the article the extra edge of an outing.
On Twitter, the muckraking journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote, “I'm a fan of Gawker & several of its journalists, but that article is reprehensible beyond belief: it's deranged to publish that.”
On moral grounds, it’s hard to argue with Greenwald. Outing is a morally dubious activity, unless the person being forced out of the closet is a public figure who supports homophobic polices (in which case, the factor of hypocrisy makes the story newsworthy). The Gawker story had no such journalistic value.
Where Greenwald goes wrong is to use the word “deranged.” This implies this article was published in a burst of inexplicable insanity. In fact, the article is in keeping with Gawker’s editorial policy and reflects the sensibility of the site. There’s every reason to think that Gawker published the story because it reflects who they are as a site, and not just as clickbait.
In a 2013 column, the late New York Times media critic David Carr took note of Gawker’s habit of outing gays. He rightly described it as based in old-fashioned morality. Carr asked Gawker founder Nick Denton, who is openly gay, why he doesn’t let other people choose to come out of the closet at their own pace, as Denton himself did. “You could argue that my own history and my experience of untold truths has made me impatient, but what I care about is lies and exposing them,” Denton said.
The word “truth” is key to understanding Denton’s response. He thinks the truthfulness of fact overrides other journalistic considerations about salience. “I have a simple editorial litmus test, which is: is it true, and is it interesting?” Denton told Capital New York in an interview last month. Interesting, however, is in the eye of the beholder. And it was notable that Denton tried to define interesting in terms of hypocrisy: “The interest is in proportion to the gap between the story that a brand or a celebrity brand is telling and the reality. The more the gap, the more interesting it is.”
Since other people’s sex lives are always interesting and Gawker’s journalistic purview includes media culture, under Denton’s rule it is justified in reporting on the sex life of anyone who works in publishing in any capacity. And it's worth noting that these have not just been Gawker's rules of journalistic engagement, but that have much of the media. The New York Times among many, many media outlets, both old and new, covered the resignation of another media executive after his sexts with an escort were published by Business Insider. As Gawker editor-in-chief Max Read tweeted: “given the chance gawker will always report on married c-suite executives of major media companies fucking around on their wives.”
Read’s words were not just a display of bravado but an accurate reflection of how Gawker operates. The “is it true” standard in fact is adhered to in ways that make Gawker look bad. The removed story included details that made it clear that the escort tried to blackmail his client.
There’s another way in which the escort story reflects Gawker: the website has a populist sensibility and feels that attacks on the rich and powerful are always justified. The executive's stature at Conde Nast thus made him a fair target. Gawker illustrates the problem of trying to wage class warfare through tabloid means. Scurrilous gossip might be entertaining but it is a crude way to exact revenge on the 1 percent.
Gawker’s disgraced piece was far from “deranged.” It was in fact an almost perfect manifestation of the site’s core values. In his explanation for removing the piece, Denton writes, “Gawker is no longer the insolent blog that began in 2003…. This action will not turn back the clock.… 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.”
The question for Gawker will be whether the new standards outlined by Denton are compatible with the ethos that has governed the site from the beginning. If stories are supposed to reveal something "meaningful," will Gawker still be Gawker?