Media critic

Brian Williams, accountability champion. (Snark-free caption.) (Peter Kramer/AP)

If you supposed that Gawker had snared an on-the-record interview with NBC newsman Brian Williams, you’d have been wrong. What Gawker snared was an e-mail that Williams had written to Nick Denton, boss of the Gawker empire.

Nor is the Williams-to-Denton connection a rusty conduit: The Gawker post says that the two “email with each other like a couple of gossiping secretaries.” This is the e-mail in question:

I hope you’re well. Happy New Year. A big congratulations to the new freelance weekend guy, Taylor Bernam. He’s done some good posts right out of the box. I do wish the main page featured more TV coverage (Brooklyn hippster [sic] Lana Del Rey had one of the worst outings in SNL history last night — booked on the strength of her TWO SONG web EP, the least-experienced musical guest in the show’s history, for starters). In my humble opinion as a loyal customer (you know I love you but the Blog View button will be the eventual cause of my death) and while I know you’re in the midst of an editor change, weekends have been allowed to go awfully fallow — and it was a fallow holiday period for those of us who check your [stuff] 10 times a day by iphone. I know you’ve been watching NBC Nightly News religiously each evening and I’ll no doubt be getting a withering, detailed critique from you straight away.


Racy post there, Gawker, in large part because of two factors: 1) The “SNL” slam showcases Williams ragging on his own network; 2) Williams uses a swear, which I deleted and replaced with a bracketed euphemism in deference to WaPo copy standards.

Perhaps those two considerations explain why the NBC PR people intervened, writing this note to the site:

Can you please have the post of Brian Williams’ email to Nick Denton taken down immediately? That was sent in confidence as friends and absolutely never intended to be public. A speedy removal would go a long way in maintaining the trust and respect we have for your site.

The four truths about this episode:

TRUTH NO. 1: Gawker committed sleaze. The text of the e-mail makes plain that Williams was just gossiping with Denton, as he apparently does with some regularity. If Gawker hasn’t published those previous e-mails, why’d it publish this one?

There’s an explanation for that, and it comes from Denton himself. Denton explains that he passed along the e-mail to Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio “to stress that influential readers expected us to publish at weekends.”

So it was an internal managerial e-mail, not an external editorial one. But Daulerio is making his mark at Gawker via extreme transparency. Just last week, Gawker published a bunch of e-mail excerpts that included this footnote:

Note: Please know that all emails we receive are publishable. Before you consider including a description of your “bruised pelvis” in your cover letter, make sure you are prepared for the tar and feathering that will follow.

That’s Gawker out-Gawking itself. Did it consider the impact on tips from the public, general trust with readers, etc.?

Whatever its impact, the policy sneaked onto the site unbeknownst to Denton. “I wasn’t aware that AJ had changed the rules on confidential communication,” said Denton via gchat. “And I’m still not entirely clear which interactions are covered by that warning. If our lawyer corresponds with AJ, is that confidential? If our sales team pass on some interaction with an advertiser, is that publishable?”

My guess? Yes.

So how did Denton respond to the outing of an e-mail from an industry friend? Did he scream at Daulerio? “I yelled at him, sure.”

At the same time, Nick Denton, being Nick Denton, says, “I obviously have enormous sympathy for a journalist who puts the story over relationships.” He explained to Williams that “AJ had surprised me. That he’d been trying to prove his editorial independence, display his general badass-ness and hold me to the principle of radical transparency.”

Another name for “radical transparency,” here, is “routine privacy-invasion.”

TRUTH NO. 2: Promote Williams.

If this is as edgy as Brian Williams gets in his candid e-mails with a gossip chief, then NBC should give him its Employee-of-the-Year Award 2012, right now, before January belches out one more depressing day. Sure, the guy dumped on a program beamed out by his employer, but it wasn’t exactly a non-consensus viewpoint. What Williams was doing, at its core, was pleading for more exacting coverage of NBC and NBC News, a noble pursuit. The guy wants accountability, from wherever he can get it.

The use of mild profanity, furthermore, boosts Williams in my esteem.

Williams had a conversation on Monday afternoon with Lorne Michaels, creator and executive producer of “SNL.” The talk was “friendly and understanding,” according to a source familiar with it.

Williams also received an explanation/apology from Denton. How’d the anchor react? “I think I’ve exposed — inadvertently — enough communication from Brian Williams,” says Denton.

TRUTH NO. 3: Think before you e-mail.

Does that admonition apply to Williams? Yeah, sure — the guy will doubtless put his missives through another gantlet of mental anguish in light of this posting.

But it’s NBC’s PR outfit that really needs to take a look at its e-mailing habits. Why send out that takedown request? If Gawker is going to publish a personal e-mail from an NBC luminary, what’s going to stop it from publishing a flack’s plea? And what would a takedown accomplish, other than to promote the story?

The NBC spokeswoman in question counters that it’s her responsibility to do anything possible to protect a company executive whose trust has been violated.

TRUTH NO. 4: Pulitzer committee should honor electronic mail.

Year after year, the Pulitzer Prizes honor works of journalism and its practitioners. It’s time to make an exception and honor a technology. Electronic mail deserves the highest honor in all of journalism, the Pulitzer’s Public Service Award, for its long and consistent record of exposing wrongdoing, telling us stuff we’d never know in language we’d never see and entertaining us on three-day weekends.