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The Limits of Gawkerism

Can the website’s ideology survive its worst crisis yet?

Gawker/Adam Peck

Gawker, the website, is in crisis. But Gawkerism, the ideology that animates the site, is even more threatened. Although often dismissed as a nest of snarky and vicious gossip-mongers, Gawker is devoted to higher principles: to test the limits of what the First Amendment will allow in stories that confront the rich and powerful. Or, as founder Nick Denton put it in a memo to his staff on Monday: “the desire of the outsider to be feared if you’re not to be respected, nip the ankles till they notice you; contempt for newspaper pieties; and a fanatical belief in the truth no matter the cost.” That fanatical commitment to reporting “the truth no matter the cost” is responsible for Gawker’s best and worst moments.

While one might question the journalistic value of releasing the Hulk Hogan sex tape, for which the company is being sued, there’s no question that Gawker has done fearless, grounded reporting, as when Denton made public a Tom Cruise Scientology indoctrination video or when Tom Scocca reminded the world that Bill Cosby had multiple sexual abuse accusations leveled against him. Both the Cruise and Cosby stories were released at a time when the rest of the mainstream media shied away from these stories or treated them in a gingerly fashion. The ideology of “the truth no matter the cost” also served the site well when it did abrasive and confrontation reporting on Gamergate and Reddit trolls.

Yet the turmoil at Gawker over the last few days has revealed the limits of Gawkerism. On Thursday, the site published a much-reviled post that outed a Condé Nast executive for allegedly trying to arrange an assignation with a gay porn star. The following day, after widespread criticism on Twitter and in the media, the managing partners of Gawker voted 4-2 to remove the story. This move was opposed by the staff, which saw it as breach of editorial independence. On Monday, Gawker Media executive editor Tommy Craggs and editor-in-chief Max Read resigned.

It was in the language of Gawkerism that Craggs repeatedly defended the much maligned article, stating in a goodbye memo that he "I stand by the post." Craggs loyalty to the original post makes sense since it was certainly in keeping with the tradition of Gawkerism. The Condé Nast executive is seen as a legitimate subject for attack because of his wealth and class privilege. What the adherents to Gawkerism rarely consider is whether tabloid gossip is really the best tool for fighting a class war.

The roots of Gawker’s current troubles can be traced back to the earliest days of the site. Gawker’s sensibility was formed under founding editor Elizabeth Spiers, whom Denton hired in 2003. Spiers gave the site its original viewpoint of small-town innocent in the big city, making it into an online bildungsroman, a blog that traced the journey from provincial simplicity to metropolitan sophistication. Spiers was fascinated by what she called the “darker Manhattan-centric themes” such as “class warfare as a recreational sport; pathological status obsession; and the complete, total, and wholly unapologetic embrace of decadence.”

As Gawker became worldlier, under subsequent editors Choire Sicha and Jessica Coen, that initial wide-eyed wonder at Big Apple ways took shape as an ethos and an ideology. Writing in n+1 in 2008, Carla Blumenkranz described it as “an attitude of populist resentment toward celebrities and insiders.” Gawker didn't have to look far for targets of its populist grudges, being based in a city notorious for its class inequality in an era when American capitalism itself was replicating the extravagant economic divide of the Gilded Age.

As a scrappy start-up, Gawker saw itself as a David in battle with the Goliaths of the larger media culture, with Condé Nast having a special place in the hierarchy of foes. The young writers and editors at Gawker regarded Condé Nast with a mixture of resentment and envy: It was the White Whale to be harpooned but also the luxury liner they hoped to find jobs in.

The ethos of populist resentment justified itself with an ideological commitment to anti-privacy. Thriving in the age of social media, when everyone’s Facebook page or selfie could be fodder for mean-spirited commentary, Gawker articulated the idea that privacy deserves no respect. Gawker, Blumenkranz wrote, treated “every subject, known or unknown, in public or private situations, with the fascinated ill will that tabloid magazines have for their subjects.” As a result, Gawker started “to defame all-but-anonymous people who, within the context of the New York media apparatus, might have seemed like the equivalent of ingénue actresses and other easy-target celebrities.” As Denton told Capital New York last month, “I have a simple editorial litmus test, which is: is it true, and is it interesting?” This loyalty to the idea that a story is justified if it's true, and that ordinary people (especially if they are wealthy and work for Condé Nast) are fair game, is the essence of Gawkerism. This ideology, not the mindless pursuit of clicks, led to the now-removed story.

If we see Gawkerism as an ideology, then all the angst surrounding not just the post of the article and its removal make sense. Gabriel Sherman reported Monday in New York, that editorial staffers stand by the story. “This is gossip and a bizarre story to boot. We fucked up the packaging,” a staffer told Sherman. “The facts of the story are newsworthy, bottom to top.” This stubborn defense of the article points to a deeper problem with Gawkerism. The ideology is so strong among the staff that it has created a kind of group-think, so they are incapable of seeing why so many people outside their newsroom were shocked by the post. Gawkerism has led to the creation of a sectarian cultishness where loyalty to the brand’s mission overrides considerations of decency and common sense. To the staff, the removal of the article violated their most fundamental principles. The Revolution betrayed, its leaders have decamped—and Gawkerism may have gone with them.

Correction: The original version of this article mistakenly attributed a sentence from Nick Denton to Tommy Craggs. This misattributed quote has been removed from the post.