Gawker on Thursday evening helped a disgruntled sex worker extort the chief financial officer at Condé Nast and brother of former Treasury secretary Tim Geithner, jettisoning any semblance of journalistic integrity and likely ruining a man’s life in the process.
According to a story written by the site’s Jordan Sargent, the executive, who is married to a woman and has three children, allegedly arranged a night with a male escort on a recent trip to Chicago. When the escort found out who the CFO was, he asked for help with an ongoing housing dispute. The CFO allegedly got spooked and cancelled their meeting, though he paid in full nonetheless.
In retaliation, the escort went to Gawker, which published the story, despite knowing that doing so would play into the extortion attempt. The site also published screenshots of the pair’s alleged text message exchanges, including several photos.
The executive denied the allegations in a statement to Gawker, saying "I don’t know who this individual is. This is a shakedown. I have never had a text exchange with this individual. He clearly has an ulterior motive that has nothing to do with me."
There’s a case for outing public figures when they actively campaign against LGBT rights. When journalist Michael Rogers outed gay Republicans in the early 2000s, it served the public good: The hypocritical politicians were often shamed out of office, replaced by representatives who were far less hostile to gays, lesbians and transgender people. The incidents also helped raise awareness about LGBT rights.
But Gawker outing Condé Nast's CFO serves no purpose other than to gay-shame someone who isn’t even a public figure -- he’s a private person with a powerful brother. The piece evinces a subtle homophobia, since part of what the reader is expected to do is recoil in horror at the thought of a married man hiring a gay escort. Beyond cruelly wrecking an innocent man’s life, the only thing Gawker and Sargent achieved was a temporary traffic boost. It’s a flagrant abuse of the incredible power those of us in the media have.
The story went live as Gawker Media chief Nick Denton was throwing a cocktail party in his Soho loft, in honor of the site’s $100 million sex tape lawsuit against wrestler Hulk Hogan being postponed until October. Denton, along with a few Gawker editors and business-side staffers, would have been in Florida this week, arguing that the First Amendment protects Gawker’s publication of the Hogan sex tape. But with the trial on hold, everyone was still in New York, and the staff was celebrating.
Top Gawker editors and a number of other journalists, including some from The Huffington Post, were on hand at the party. One attendee, Capital New York’s Peter Sterne, noted in his site’s morning newsletter that Gawker editors were "glued to their phones" and seemed “genuinely surprised” by the overwhelmingly negative reaction to the story.
That doesn’t mean they were sorry. The site’s editor-in-chief, Max Read, defended the move on Twitter Thursday night:
So did Natasha Vargas-Cooper, a writer for Jezebel, another Gawker Media site. Vargas-Cooper argued that stories “don’t need an upside” and that “if it’s true, you publish”:
Despite these defenses, the standards for what information journalists should amplify are in fact much higher than “if it’s true, publish” -- or at least they should be. Information is power, and we have a duty to our readers and to the public to use it responsibly. We don’t publish rape victims’ names or the names of children charged with crimes. Responsible journalists ask themselves whether the information they are passing on serves the public good.
Or at the very least, they should stop to think about the harm they might cause. The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics urges just that. In its section on “minimizing harm,” the organization reminds those of us in the press to “recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.”
“Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance,” the code of ethics reads. Gawker’s publication of the story -- and Read’s blustery defense -- is journalistic arrogance of the highest order.
Even other Gawker Media writers recognize the dicey ethics of outing private people. When a trans golfer killed herself last year just before the sports site Grantland published an article that outed her, it sparked a public outcry. As Jezebel's Tracy Moore wrote at the time, "Issue two is the reporting on the trans status of the subject. This is much clearer: Don't out someone who doesn't want to be out. The end. Everyone has a right to privacy when it comes to their gender identity or sexual orientation.”
Denton, Read and Sargent didn’t respond to requests for comment from The Huffington Post.
On social media, commentators have reacted with near-universal condemnation:
Some have even called for a boycott on the site’s advertisers:
Look, any good digital journalist understands the importance of traffic. But you don’t have to be Walter Cronkite or Bob Woodward to conclude it's wrong to help a disgruntled escort blackmail someone. You just have to be a decent human being.
Michael Calderone contributed reporting.