November 18, 2013
Wendy Gordon (photo credit: Erik Wemple Blog)
Wendy Gordon (photo credit: Erik Wemple Blog)

Wendy Gordon still feels a need to set the record straight. “I’m not a lush, I don’t have sexually transmitted diseases, I’m not a cougar,” she says, noting that she also doesn’t plaster her images all over the Internet.

Any close watcher of Beltway media affairs knows why Gordon wants to make such odd proclamations. She was the personality behind “Wendy Wednesdays,” a formerly weekly feature on the FishbowlDC media site. The posts commonly grabbed a picture of Gordon off the web and surrounded it with disparaging commentary that wouldn’t get past most tabloid editors. They attacked her alleged sexual habits, her alleged drinking habits and her fashion choices, all with an overlay of misanthropy.

Early this year, Gordon brought a civil complaint for defamation and false light invasion of privacy against FishbowlDC, a property of New York-based Mediabistro.com, along with then-FishbowlDC editor Betsy Rothstein and contributor Peter Ogburn, author of the most objectionable “Wendy Wednesday” features identified in the complaint. The parties recently reached a settlement in the case, about which they decline comment. Unsettled, then, is a central question: Why did FishbowlDC decide to pick on Wendy Gordon in the first place? Why did it spend about a year trashing her?

“I didn’t kick a puppy, I didn’t spill red wine on a white dress — I didn’t do anything. I live my life,” said Gordon in her first interview about the case.

Prior to becoming one of FishbowlDC’s targets, Gordon read the site regularly, in large part because it intersected with her professional world. Gordon, 53, runs her own firm, Flash PR, which does all manner of promotional work for restaurants and nonprofits. Her crowd and FishbowlDC’s crowd shared various adjacencies, though not so many that Gordon had ever interacted with FishbowlDC’s writers. “I’d never met her,” says Gordon of Rothstein.

Gordon had a clear-eyed take on what FishbowlDC was all about. “They snipe at people — that’s what they do,” she says. And over her several years of reading FishbowlDC, the site was attacking other people. When she became a snipee, Gordon says that her “recollection was just being surprised.” After the inauguration of “Wendy Wednesdays,” a woman wrote on Facebook, “Can I call you wendy kardashian now? Your haters are making you famous! And look at it this way….you have an ENTIRE day.devoted to you! If they want to seriously give you that much free promotion….by all means let them!”

Gordon wrote back, “Happy for the day and the promo — just helping them fact check.” That was a sarcastic comment, says Gordon.

In the months that followed, the “Wendy Wednesday” series took a turn toward nastiness. “They got increasingly mean — they got beyond mean, they got disgusting,” says Gordon, presumably referring to the items that peddled jokes about STDs and drunkenness. A May 2, 2012, edition carried this riff:

Today, Wendy is back at a place she seems to really enjoy: the Wax Museum…We aren’t sure exactly WHAT is going on in this picture, but it involves Wendy straddling the neck of Tiger Woods. Considering Tiger is made of wax, we are hoping that his neck doesn’t melt from the radioactive heat emitted from Wendy. Best of luck, Tiger! So, grab your balls and shaft, get a good, tight grip and say say FORE to Hole-in-Wendy.

Gordon’s complaint offered a classic rebuttal: “Contrary to defendants’ false and defamatory assertion, Ms. Gordon does not emit some type of unusual heat between her legs that would cause a wax figure to melt.”

Midsummer appeared to bring out the worst in FishbowlDC. Ogburn authored this trio:

* On Aug. 15, 2012, the site showed a photo of Gordon next to a wax figure of D.C. Council member Marion S. Barry Jr. The write-up claimed that Gordon was “wishing” that she was doing something sexual with the D.C. mayor-turned-councilmember.

* On Aug. 22, 2012, it posted a photo of Gordon with the allegation that she was “DTF,” an acronym that will have to remain an acronym under Washington Post decency standards. Loosely translated, it means “ready for sex.” The post continued, “So give yourself an extra shot of AXE body spray, maybe think about double bagging it and say hello to Cougar Wendy.” “Double-bagging” means wearing two condoms, perhaps to fend off disease.

* On Aug. 29, 2012, it wrote, “We actually have a burning and enduring love for Wendy that grows stronger with every week. Kind of like chlamydia.”

So which FishbowlDC item triggered the lawsuit? Gordon says she can’t “pinpoint” the post, or the moment that she decided to sue. What she can say is that the civil action came later than she would have liked: It took her a while to pool the resources to retain David S. Wachen of Shulman Rogers. In October 2012, Wachen wrote to FishbowlDC’s parent company to request a retraction, a written apology, legal fees, removal of all “Wendy Wednesday” items and a stop to further installments. FishbowlDC did eventually remove existing “Wendy Wednesday” features but didn’t take the other steps.

There are lots of things about the case that Gordon can’t talk about. She can’t say what damage her business may have suffered. She can’t say whether she recovered any money from FishbowlDC. She can’t say whether the recent departure of FishbowlDC editor Rothstein was a condition of settlement. She can’t say whether the site has apologized to her.

What she can say, however, is that trying to live with the harassment of a popular website takes a toll — a toll that returned again and again like clockwork, in this case. “Oh my god, here it comes,” she says of the installments. Kimberly Robinson, a friend of Gordon’s, attests to the cycle: “It came to the point where she actually dreaded Wednesdays,” says Robinson.

Gloria Gordon, Wendy Gordon’s mother, died on a “Wendy Wednesday” — June 13, 2012. “I’d never seen her cry till there was a post that came out the day that her mother passed away,” says Robinson. “The first thing I wanted to do was rip the phone out of her hand because I knew that she was aware of what was going on on Fishbowl.”

Even when Gordon tried to ignore the postings, “everyone was kind enough to send them to me. It was almost like a train crash — you had to look,” says. To suppress future “Wendy Wednesdays,” she “cut down a lot” on her appearances at parties and events, which provided the raw material for her tormentors. In her wanderings, she encountered folks who knew her only as a target for the site’s abuse. “It was not pleasant,” recalls Gordon of such encounters. “I can’t remember what I did — I expressed discomfort” with the situation.

None of that matched another torment: The possibility that her two children, now 23 and 24, might have latched on to the series. “To my knowledge, they never found out about it,” she says.

Though Gordon expresses annoyance over the racier allegations of the FishbowlDC series, she’s confounded by its organizing principle. FishbowlDC accused her of showboating. “No matter what you say about Wendy Wednesday, one thing is clear. D.C. publicist Wendy Gordon is in love with herself. She spends more time posting tacky pictures of herself online than we thought was humanly possible,” reads part of one post. This alleged infraction — that of seeking attention — appeared to compel and self-justify the FishbowlDC postings. You can almost hear the authors saying, Hey, she asked for it.

Gordon insists she did nothing. In many instances, the photos that drove “Wendy Wednesdays” resided on private Facebook pages and were taken at private events; Gordon says that even before the series hit the web, she instituted Facebook’s most restrictive privacy settings for her page. Her lawsuit argues that the pictures deployed in the series “were downloaded by Defendants, without authorization, from the Facebook pages of Ms. Gordon and/or one or more of her friends, and thereafter used without permission or consent.” Robinson says that FishbowlDC grabbed without authorization several photos that Robinson herself had taken at her own residence.

In its response to the complaint, FishbowlDC denied the Facebook violations. A Facebook representative says that the company “advises people to think before they post, and select an appropriate audience for sharing content. Photos, posts and other content can be copied, pasted and distributed — both on and off of Facebook.”

Whatever the intellectual property rights behind the photos, FishbowlDC ripped Gordon for the fashion choices displayed within them. To which she says, “You’re allowed to show up in a cocktail dress to a cocktail party.”

There are three reasons why Robinson didn’t appeal to FishbowlDC to leave her friend alone: 1) “Knowing what I did about how they treated other people who had spoken out on behalf of Wendy and their response, I thought it was best not to.” 2) “I didn’t want to exacerbate the situation.” And 3) “I myself didn’t want to become a target. They had taken some of those photos from my personal Facebook page, so I thought they’d have as much access to me as they did to Wendy,” says Robinson. That’s a grim set of considerations, one that feeds into Gordon’s very own take on the power dynamic of “Wendy Wednesdays”: “I see it as a sophomoric form of cyberbullying masquerading as journalism,” she says.

As for Rothstein, she’s now writing for the Daily Caller. Though she cannot speak about the settlement with Gordon, she tells the Erik Wemple Blog that her departure from FishbowlDC was “my choice.” Of her tenure at the gossip site, Rothstein says, “I wanted to write things that were truthful and entertaining.” So into which basket did the “Wendy Wednesday” posts fall? “Goofing off,” responded Rothstein. That’s actually a topical category on the site.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.