While I am under no obligation to let anyone preview my work, and technically I can write about pretty much anything I want to (and have in this space for over a decade), from experience I know when I am about to stick my head in a noose. That apparently isn’t true at Gawker, where they brag: “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news.”
By now you probably know the particulars of the story Gawker posted about a married media exec who tried to hire a gay porn star for a liaison. But when he refused to use his brother’s considerable Washington leverage to help the porn star in a legal dispute and canceled the “date,” the porn star gave the entire email, text and photo-exchange transaction to Gawker, which ran it with glee. By the hundreds, readers objected to this “outing” of the media exec and apparently advertisers agreed and started pulling out. Only then did Gawker kill the story (which resulted in some editors leaving in protest).
One of the very worst parts of the evolution of the Internet is that people can, and do, post whatever in the hell they want to — from trash like this Gawker story to ISIS beheadings, from child porn to racist and xenophobic screeds. It is all there, with little to no consequences for “authors” who don’t even know there is a line to go over.
While you can argue that this strengthens some societies by preventing total censorship (nice try, China!) I think it confuses some editors into thinking that standards and judgment should not stand in the way of the race-to-the-bottom need to gather and maintain traffic (so that it can be monetized through advertising). I think the notion that “if we don’t run it, someone else will” erodes the civility of any number of Gawker-like publications.
Civility has become a relative term now that trashy “news” sites measure their success in page views and social media shares. In fact, some compensate their writers in relation to such metrics, pandering to the lowest common denominator because that’s where the big traffic is. Their defense is that high traffic and shares are clear indications that they are giving audiences what they want. But at least Gawker found out that with that traffic comes some outrage and the potential to lose some ad dollars.
It has been argued that the media exec “put himself in play” by trying to engage a porn star in the first place, but by what standard does that constitute a publishable story? Because his brother is a nationally known figure? I am reminded of when Jimmy Carter’s brother persistently embarrassed him, but the news media gave us all a break and ignored most of that story.
I suppose the lesson here is that in the Internet age, you don’t know where the line is any more — until you step over it. But that should not be your standard. Because if it is, all this will only get worse.