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Gawker Gaffe Reveals a Brand At War With Itself

The battle for the soul of Gawker is underway. Presuming the publication has one, that is.

On one side is the management team that decided to pull down an article outing a Conde Nast executive less than 24 hours after it was published and roundly criticized. On the other is a group of reporters and editors who objected to being overruled by bean counters who seem to have a better grasp of journalistic ethics than they do.

The man in the middle is CEO Nick Denton, who voted to take down the article but spoke out of both sides of his mouth in a memo that swore to continue Gawker’s maverick ways even as he gave lip service to becoming a more “evolved” company.

That kind of schizophrenia might be expected from someone who bred Gawker to be an attack dog only to watch it bite him back. But defining the future of the publication will require Denton to impose a clearer sense of standards or risk the consequences of letting his staff continue to operate as if there aren’t any.

That’s the kind of environment that produces an article essentially aiding a porn actor attempting to blackmail an individual who isn’t a public figure nor has any other remote claim to newsworthiness. Not helping matters is un-publishing that article, a meaningless gesture on the Internet given the ease with which this content already spread virally and can still be retrieved outside of Gawker.com.

What exactly Gawker editors were thinking still isn’t entirely clear. In lieu of an explanation of their position, they released a statement objecting to the business side of the publication yanking the article. But principled stands generally benefit from an articulation of actual principles.

Perhaps the closest thing to an actual rationale came in the form of a tweet issued by Gawker editor Max Read: “given the chance gawker will always report on married c-suite executives of major media companies f**king around on their wives.”

https://twitter.com/max_read/status/621855300509925376?lang=en

Eloquent as that is pithy, it’s not exactly convincing unless Read is trying to put Gawker in the dubious position of being some kind of morality watchdog. Other editors, like John Cook, tweeted their own dissension without justification.

Maybe it was Natasha Vargas-Cooper, a senior reporter at Gawker sister site Jezebel who said it best when she tweeted this explanation: “I’m EXTREMELY suspicious of those who do not want press to have an antagonistic relationship to people in power.”

https://twitter.com/natashavc/status/621858937084620800

Taken together with Read’s classification of “c-suite executives,” a pattern starts to emerge that may have to suffice in the absence of a defense of Gawker’s decision to publish. These comments suggest there’s little rationale here beyond some kind of free-floating hostility toward anyone a few tax brackets higher than the ones they occupy.

Good journalism has always been energized by a “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” sensibility but this takes that notion to a ridiculous extreme.

Upper-class resentment doesn’t explain Gawker’s story entirely. It’s a toxic stew filled with other ingredients including an obsession with denigrating its rivals (Conde Nast owns longtime Gawker antagonist Reddit) and a preoccupation with outing people in the closet.  Then there’s Denton’s own glib litmus test for what constitutes a story being newsworthy–“it is true and it is interesting”–and you understand how a publication leaves the door wide open to this kind of ineptitude.

In Gawker’s legal standoff with Hulk Hogan, there’s at least some semblance of an argument to be made for publishing excerpts of the wrestler’s sex tape. But in the instance of the Conde Nast executive Gawker maligned, the article is so completely devoid of any journalistic justification that it should be mandatory reading for every aspiring reporter, a cautionary tale of what not to do.

Now if Denton could just absorb that lesson as well, perhaps he can begin to figure out the path forward for Gawker.

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