Last week the gossip site Gawker published a story apparently outing a heterosexually married New York media executive of high social class, connections and reputation. The material came from a gay male escort who had tried and failed to persuade the executive in question to help him resolve a housing dispute.
Because of the subject’s relatively low public profile, and the impression that he had “done the right thing” in not pulling strings, the piece was widely denounced as the gratuitous “doxxing” of a private individual. Gawker’s noisy enemies, from the Men’s Rights Activists of Gamergate to the soi-disant “free speech” libertarians of Reddit, had a field day.
Quickly, Gawker management issued a mea culpa. CEO Nick Denton wrote a post explaining his decision to take the piece down against the express wishes of the site’s editors and writers, culminating in the resignations, announced Monday, of Gawker’s editor-in-chief, Max Read, and its executive editor, Tommy Craggs.
I am sorry to think that the executive’s sexual practices may have come as a surprise to his family. But I can’t help but approve that Gawker was – as it has consistently been and, I hope, will remain – unwilling to aid the rich and powerful in concealing their secrets.
With journalism increasingly controlled by corporate entities that want to avoid offending advertisers and their readers’ sensibilities, we need Gawker most desperately. Maybe the escort story was worth publishing, and maybe not, but it’s a positive thing for our society that Gawker cuts it close. Recent history shows that shameless gossip is good.
On July 6, the Associated Press persuaded a judge to unseal court records in which Bill Cosby admitted to drugging multiple women and having sex with them. The grotesque callousness with which Cosby describes these “relationships” has forever shattered the actor’s genial, gentle, tough-but-fair father-figure image.
Who set Cosby’s downfall in motion? Gawker did.
In a short essay published Feb. 4, 2014, Gawker’s Tom Scocca meditated on the public’s reluctance to accept upsetting information about beloved celebrities. He compared the situation of Woody Allen – whose adoptive daughter had just published an open letter claiming he’d abused her – to that of Cosby, who’d been accused of sex crimes eight years earlier with no consequence to his reputation.
“Basically nobody wanted to live in a world where Bill Cosby was a sexual predator,” Scocca wrote. “Conceptually, (forgetting) was the sensible way to deal with it.”
For this observation, Gawker received a heap of criticism. The Wrap asked why the “old sexual abuse allegations” were being “dredged up”; objections appeared on Twitter as well, claiming, for example, that it was #gross to “give cover” to Allen by reminding readers of Cosby’s accusers.
But not everyone was so dismissive. Comedian Hannibal Buress tweeted a link to Scocca’s story. Then Buress began speaking out against Cosby in his stand-up set. “That … is upsetting. If you didn’t know about it, trust me. You leave here and google ‘Bill Cosby rape.’ It’s not funny. That … has more results than ‘Hannibal Buress.’”
A bit later, the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates cited Scocca’s piece in an essay reflecting on his own failure to thoroughly investigate the accusations in a Cosby profile he’d written in 2008.
“I don’t have many writing regrets,” Coates said. “But this is one of them … I take it as a personal admonition to always go there, to never flinch, to never look away.”
Without Scocca’s piece, the “looking away” might have stretched on forever.
Nor is Cosby the only celebrity moralist that Gawker has exposed as a fraud. In May, the site published court transcripts in the vicious divorce of Fox broadcaster Bill O'Reilly, including the testimony of O'Reilly’s teenage daughter, who said she had witnessed her father “choking her mom” as he “dragged her down some stairs” by the neck.
In 2010, Gawker faced public outrage (very like last week’s) over its publication of the account of a man who claimed that Republican Senate hopeful Christine O'Donnell had spent a drunken night with him. Despite objections from O'Donnell’s Democratic opponent and the National Organization for Women, Gawker’s editorial staff posted a gleeful justification of its decision to publish.
“Christine O'Donnell is seeking federal office based in part on her self-generated, and carefully tended, image as a sexually chaste woman. She lies about who she is; she tells that lie in service of an attempt to impose her private sexual values on her fellow citizens; and she’s running for Senate. We thought information documenting that lie – that O'Donnell does not live a chaste life as she defines the word, and in fact hops into bed, naked and drunk, with men that she’s just met – was of interest to our readers.”
The cost of this public service – exposing the lies of the powerful, no matter how unpleasant – is the occasional overstep. Gawker’s editors may err occasionally on the side of excessive zeal, but at least, unlike most in the media, they can be counted on never to fawn or flatter.
Maria Bustillos is a Los Angeles journalist and critic. She has written for Gawker Media on a freelance basis. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.