On July 16th, 2015 Gawker published an article entitled “Condé Nast’s CFO Tried To Pay $2,500 for a Night With a Gay Porn Star” that outed the CFO of competing media organization Condé Nast as allegedly gay. What is more concerning is that they appeared to have worked with, and aided, a blackmailer in obtaining the story. This is an example of an extraordinarily unethical move by Gawker Media and — touched on when reporting Max Reads and Tommy Craggs resignations — resulted in one of the most high-profile and unified backlash against a publication in recent memory.
At every turn the article was a train wreck; with each individual element alone being cause enough for anyone with a bit of sense or a set of standards to pull the article, or at least handle it differently. In fact, I think it breaks a majority of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and has even been denounced by the president of the SPJ (EiC Note: Though they could have done well to call out the historical instances of Gawker being a bane of standards as well. The SPJ call-out feels like an opportunistic PR move to this SPJ member). It’s also served as glaring embarrassment to all those saying ethical concerns raised over Gawker Media and other outlets were unjustified or overblown.
Another Day at the Office
Nothing changed in the Gakwer newsroom the day the offending post was published. This isn’t some abhorrent event and freak lapse of judgement. This is business as usual. To quote Executive Editor for Investigations at Gawker Media, John Cook:
He’s one hundred percent right to be confused and angry about why this was taken down, this has always been the real meat of Gawker’s regular output. From the perspective of long-time critics, this isn’t very surprising and it seems that view is held internally as well. This is in-line with Gawker’s editorial practices, this is the media standards it supports and has upheld for years. We have people coming out and admitting it and yet people are still clinging to this idea that there is not a systemic ethical problem with the entirety of Gawker Media.
This is the site that is responsible for:
- Repeatedly calling James Franco a “Gay Rapist.”
- Publishing numerous rounds of private celebrity nudes.
- Advocating paedophilia as an “orientation.”
- Titles like “Send Us Your Jane Pratt Nudes.”
- Belittling Male victims of domestic violence.
I don’t know how much more clear-cut of a picture you can get, I’m running out of adjectives to describe the complete lack of basic humanity at Gawker Media. It is absurd this is one of the few incidents their readership and fellow journalists are calling out. Richard Lawson, the writer of the aforementioned James Franco article, admitted the push of the yearlong outing camping came from the bosses at Gawker Media.
Whist we’re at it, let’s have a brief look at where Gawker’s polices have landed them today:
- They are currently in a high-profile lawsuit by former wrestling star Hulk Hogan for obtaining, then refusing to take down, a sex-tape recorded and released without his knowledge or permission.
- They are currently embroiled in a bitter unionization dispute with their own staff that also has its own tale to tell in this latest chapter.
- They are also being sued by their unpaid interns, in which Gawker claims they have the right to essentially enact a level of slave labor.
- They lost many advertisers and a seven figure sum due to Sam Biddle’s statement that “nerds should be constantly shamed and degraded into submission” and to “Bring Back Bullying” with editor Max Reid standing firmly behind his comments.
Breaching the Editorial Firewall
There is another twist to this tale. This is a multi-layered failure, where even attempts to correct mistakes lead into further mistakes. Hours after the piece was taken down by Nick Denton and Gawker Media management, Gawker’s Editorial staff issued this statement:
I’m not a PR agent, but wouldn’t it be prudent to at least pretend that the Editorial staff was not backing the article? The editorial firewall is meant to stop negative inference from the business and advertising arms of a website effecting the editorial and publishing section. Generally it is assumed that independent editorial leads to better standards and that pressure from financial interests could lead to unethical conflicts and pandering to moneyed interests. I’ve rarely heard of a situation where editorial being overruled was so universally seen as a good decision. But instead of looking inward at the obvious rot that had set in within Gawker’s newsroom, there was a flurry of rash actions and bruised egos. It seems the one thing can cause a Gawker journalist to suddenly develop an interest in ethical integrity is when you suggest they might be fallible.
As events have unfolded it has become clear just how strongly the editorial staff felt this was a standard of journalism worth defending. As we reported on, Gawker has lost two of its senior editors, departing not because they felt the universally reviled article had caused too much damage but because someone had dared to overrule them.
Other parts of the media have taken the opportunity to pile-in, smelling blood in the water. The Hollywood Reporter even went as far as to comment on the future employability of Gawker’s staff with the sleazy and shameless content of their by-lines:
“I can hardly imagine who might hire someone from Gawker, or who would not recoil at the cruelty, obscenity and logorrhea of a Gawker writer’s clips. Gawker staffers needed a union to protect the only job they might ever have in journalism. (emphasis added) They were perhaps protecting too their right to cruelty and obscenity and to be unedited, now expressed in the brutal exposure of the private, unexceptional, if salacious details of a quite unpublic man’s life far from the public interest.” – http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/michael-wolff-reveals-gawker-boss-809597
This statement predates the Read’s and Cragg’s resignations, but I can’t help but think who in their right mind would take on a pair of editors who had fallen on their swords defending Gawker’s practices. With content that have reportedly caused two very large advertisers, Discover and BFGoodrich, to suspend or cancel campaigns on the with Gawker Media. We may only be seeing the tip of the financial iceberg here. There was also a sting in the tail for Sam “Seven Figures” Biddle, as it emerged one of the Gawker partners and their head of advertising had flatly asked Read why Biddle hadn’t been fired yet for his ill-advised comments.
The New York Observer went even further, with a statement that can only be described as the editorial equivalent of an unlubricated fisting:
“Hypocrisy is too weak a word when it comes to Gawker. It is instead an indisputable pattern of malice and mendacity almost without parallel in the history of media. It is essentially a twelve-year spree of destruction, pain and waste. The sole purpose of the entire repugnant edifice has been to make a single owner fabulously rich and a revolving door of mediocre writers feel important and powerful.” – http://observer.com/2015/07/is-gawker-destroying-itself-from-the-inside-lets-hope-so/
Jesus, leave some for the rest of us.
Whilst these kind words are encouraging, it can’t help but feel a little opportunistic. It is now seen as “safe” to go after Gawker; previously silent journalists are falling over themselves to kick Gawker now it is safely down. Perhaps if some of this spine had been located earlier we could have prevented some of the anguish their unethical — and sometimes downright inhuman — conduct has caused? Not that I’m developing some sympathy for the tabloid rag suddenly. Quite to the contrary, my words of advice to the media would be “pile in faster and kick harder” but don’t forget to learn some lessons in the process. Gawker has been very influential and their dramatic downward spiral needs to be a wake-up call for all their imitators and cheerleaders.
Fact is, Gawker is not unique. The “standards” they push are actually pretty typical. It’s part of a wider landscape of press that have used politics and division as a shield for their unethical behaviour — publications I mockingly refer to as “The Gawkeratzi.” We live in a world were Salon can justify violent looting as a valid form of political expression whilst shops are still burning but also put out articles blanket labeling people who are gamers as “Terrorists” when they want to hold the Gawkeratzi to account. The Verge can deliberately whip-up a mob to attack a man who just landed the first probe on a comet for the pattern on his shirt and agenda sites like The Mary Sue and fellow Gawker sewer-pipe Jezebel attack whoever they please on an almost weekly basis. For any of the modern rage-bait media to take the moral high-ground over Gawker is laughable, especially after they were complicit in attempting to protect Gawker and their practices previously.
We’ve seen the bar progressively lowered and standards slowly eroded so far that an action causing advertisers to say “enough is enough” has to be beyond extreme. Gawker is being sued from all angles, boycotted by large sections of the internet and has made major gaff after major gaff. Yet many advertisers, bafflingly, still remain. Editors and CEOs seemed OK with standards being brought down as long as the clicks kept rolling in, but how long can this degradation and free-fall really continue? I can’t see big brands with large legal departments and a carefully crafted image wanting to be seen next to a blog post written by an unpaid intern gleefully sharing acts of blackmail and libel. Online media is in a dire state, yet there have been very few successful or lasting attempts to make it reform from either consumers or advertisers; as long as it still pays then these sites will keep doing what they do. If you want any level of change then you have to make sure being highly unethical is also highly unprofitable.
The Blueprint Already Exists
Something else quite extraordinary also happened: Mainstream media outlets like USA Today began to report on the GamerGate and their boycott list for what it was: an attempt to hold an unaccountable media corporation to account via contacting advertisers, a tactic that many of those who were now angry at Gawker media had begun suggesting. (Editor’s Note: I feel it important to mention that contacting advertisers of outlets that people have disputes with has long been a valid tactic of consumer advocacy groups over the years.)
“The online discussion drew in some critics of Gawker and its affiliates from a past issue — its involvement in a long-running online controversy over the treatment of women in gaming, and video-game journalism, that’s loosely referred to as #gamergate. The Twitter account that advocated targeting Gawker’s advertisers linked to a website, “wiki.gamergate.me,” whose supporters advocate targeting the advertisers of Gawker and other blogs.” – http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2015/07/17/gawkers-apparent-outing-cfo-meets-internet-backlash/30280505/
Its pretty amazing for USA Today to mention GamerGate as a consumer boycott campaign with a particular focus on Gawker Media, with the implied burn that Gawker and those on the GamerGate’s boycott list are simply “blogs.” Operation Baby Seal turned out to be a useful ready-made resource for all those now calling for change at Gawker Media, even when some of those people had called these same boycott efforts “attempts to silence writers” mere months ago. As for GamerGate itself, the statement by one of their senior writers, Adam Weinstein, should give you some indication of just how incredibly furious Gawker is about the consumer boycott that reportedly cost them upwards of seven figures and caused numerous advertiser suspensions and pull-outs.
This statement itself is almost humorous in its anger and deflection; here is a publication that has just put out something even its staunchest defenders call “repugnant,” yet their writers and staff are doing the equivalent of throwing themselves on the floor and having a very public tear-stained tantrum. The Gawker flair for being an unapologetically repulsive human beings is as present as ever, even in their moments of supposed contrition. A man who is paid to write for a living wrote that inane screed, as his site was in the midst of being systematically disavowed by the entire population of the internet. Even as an amateur writer, I am ashamed it exists. After the battering the organization has received, the assertion that “Gawker is not that bad” (Emphasis added by Editor) seems to be the best defense he could muster.
You can’t have any effect on a media empire by impotent fist-shaking alone, in this latest spasm I don’t think there has even been an attempt to grasp that Gawker is a Network. That’s one of the only ways the GamerGate campaign was able to gain any traction at all: they realized that simply going after one arm of an organization is fruitless when it can keep making money using the same editorial practices elsewhere. Gawker isn’t just Gawker. It’s Jezebel, Gizmodo, Deadspin, io9 and Lifehacker; all of these sites feed into the same pot of money that enables the standard of journalism we see in them today. If you truly want to hit Gawker in the wallet then consider these tactics that have already proven effective:
Remove Clicks: In the past, sites like Gawker benefited greatly from “rage clicks.” People sharing and clicking on articles that were openly designed to cause controversy and disapproval. Gawker is almost proud of the fact that as long as the clicks keep coming in it does no matter if people are clicking on the content because they like it or because they hate it. Those angry at Gawker in the past have been inadvertently fueling their success by funneling traffic to the site.
Archiving using archive.is is a way of sharing a snapshot of a page hosted elsewhere. This allows people to share, analyse and draw attention to articles they find unacceptable without giving are more clicks to a site. Archiving has been one of the cornerstones of the GamerGate revolt, with browser extensions like “GG Blocker” used to automatically display archived versions of certain sites on the boycott list.
This practice removes an incentive for websites to deliberately print inflammatory articles and is also a good way to tracking any alterations or deletions. With Archive.is the internet is forever, and any incriminating evidence can be retained and put in front of sponsors.
Contact Advertisers and Ad Networks: This isn’t just as simple as expressing displeasure in a general sense to companies you see appearing in sidebar ads, you need to show the advertiser that this content is appearing next to their brand. Modern websites have to use multiple ways of advertising to survive, so some companies will not be advertising directly with the site in question and may not be aware their ads are being displayed on the offending pages. In this way, contacting advertisers is extremely worthwhile since many may not be aware of the content until they are informed.
Since advertisements are sold via networks, it is also worth looking up the terms and conditions that networks make sites sign up to. We know Gawker has broken Google Adsense policies on multiple occasions but has thus far not had punitive action taken. Getting ad-tech to pull out of a website is a big deal as it removes a huge chunk of revenue and multiple potential advertisers at once.
Advertisers have become more and more desensitized to content they would previously find objectionable, ensure you make it clear why this content damages their brand. For example, GamerGate got advertisers who wanted to appeal to gamers to pull out by telling them the content was anti-gamer and actively put them off.
Maintain Public Pressure: It’s easy for advertisers to ignore a single flurry of attention, but a sustained period of repeated complaints will make the issue harder to ignore. Advertisers don’t like the negative attention public pull-outs cause and so many may simply quietly not renew their contracts. The key is to be determined and dig-in for the long-haul. Make appeals on places associated with the advertisers brand like their Facebook or YouTube pages. It might seem tacky but by virtue of being a sheer nuisance you can get complaints addressed.
The boycott practices of GamerGate have already begun to seep into the mainstream body of people disgusted with Gawker’s actions. Watching people share Gawker’s links using Archive.is and beginning to contact advertisers was an encouraging sight to behold. Whether they realize they realize it or not, these people are building on the successful tactics of Operation Disrespectful Nod and Operation Baby Seal, tactics some people previously attacked. Activities previously smeared by a desperate media, led mostly by Gawker Media, are not rising to the surface as best practice. GamerGate seems to have had an extraordinary effect on building a template for boycotts of new media.
The Ugly, Gawking Masses
Gawker’s biggest mistake in this instance was not going after someone its audience felt was a “valid target.” They cooked up their usual recipe of sleaze and public shaming, but this time it involved outing an allegedly gay man. For their progressive allies this was a step too far. Their audience is angry mostly for the violation of political correctness, not the basic failure to adhere to any kind of ethical conduct in their quite common attack articles. The outting of a gay man is just the icing on the cake. Their readers have been fully complicit in Gawker’s past actions; their audience are the ones who have cheered on increasingly deplorable conduct as long as Gawker was able to paint their targets as cartoonish “anti-progressive” villains.
“Us vs Them” is the core of how Gawker gets away with gratuitous hit-pieces on public figures and those they pluck out of obscurity to publically shame. If this had simply been a baseless accusation that a competitor had tried to hire a prostitute, then it would have gone by unnoticed. It would still be wholly unethical, but the readership wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. It seems the miscalculation was a political one, their usual thin veneer and pandering to the biases of the readership were not present in this article and so their readership was jolted into seeing the full horror of what Gawker actually puts out.
As Nick Denton stated in his e‑mail, he thinks Jordan Sargent “Did nothing wrong” only that “Times have changed.” The policy of “No bad tactics, only bad targets” espoused by the washed-up internet critics of this world seems to be a good summation of how the media, and the “activists” they lead around by the nose, operate. Gawker is as vicious, spiteful and salacious as ever but it keeps its fans happy by slightly adjusting its targets as the doctrine of political correctness shifts. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that David Geithner is a human being who has been subjected to an extreme level of media slander and shaming, which is probably a very strong case for legal action, despite not previously being a public figure of any note and despite these claims being far from proven. If some of the elements of the story had been different, he would be just be another in the long line of people whose life had been adversely effected for no real gain by Gawker.
Despite the unfolding train-wreck of departing staff, it feels like the depressing truth is that many of those who objected to Gawker’s article on David Geithner are already losing steam and failing to convert their outrage into anything lasting or productive. Simply recognising online journalism is rotten is just the first step. The memory of this short spasm of outrage is already fading, they are angry at Gawker today but will be angry alongside Gawker again tomorrow — latching onto whatever Jezebel or Kotaku tells them should be the target of their two-minutes of hate. I believe these people care, I really do. I just think they lack the organization and the will to do anything about it beyond being mildly enraged for a day or two.
Gawker won’t go away unless you make it go away. “This thing sucks” is just a statement, if you want change anything then you have to build into a force that cannot be ignored. You may also have to make peace with the fact that going after the media means the media will use all their dirty tricks to make you look evil and discredited. Some are sitting back and expecting Gawker to crumble in the face of this cluster-fuck, but you can’t count on that. Now is the perfect time to apply as much pressure as possible. This is a rare opportunity to crystallize universal disapproval into real, tangible improvements to online journalism. I suggest we take it.
(EDIT: July 22 2105 (21:14 EST): J.K. Trotter corrected to Jordan Sargent.)
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