Gawker’s latest story to outrage the world has some narrative appeal.
David Geithner, the chief financial officer of Condé Nast, had made arrangements with a gay porn star/escort to rendezvous on a trip to Chicago, Gawker alleges, The session was to last up to three hours at a cost of $2,500, reports Gawker’s Jordan Sargent. The two traded a number of text messages that are highlighted in the story. “I’m going to be in Chicago for one night — Saturday, July 11. Looking for 2-3 hours from 10:00pm to midnight/1 am. Will pay 2,500 cash (50% upfront).” According to the story, Geithner sent that “50%” in a FedEx package.
The wrinkle in the piece comes when the escort apparently realizes that Geithner is a person of means and connections — the brother of former Treasury secretary Tim Geithner. So he sends David Geithner some documents relating to an alleged housing discrimination problem he’s facing in Texas. As Gawker describes the situation, the escort, who is identified only by pseudonym, claims he was bounced from his Texas apartment building because management discovered he was a gay porn star.
Ah, what a story — Condé Nast CFO (who’s married to a woman, Gawker notes) uses his connections to help some random escort! Actually, no, it didn’t work out that way. Geithner bagged the rendezvous after things got “hairy,” to use Gawker’s characterization. Not that much of a story, in other words.
Even so, this is Gawker. Shadowy encounters plus possibly criminal activity plus a high-ranking official in the classic New York industry of publishing equal a pretty automatic editorial decision at the gossip site. Publish!
The rest of the world, meanwhile, screams in condemnation:
I’m a fan of Gawker & several of its journalists, but that article is reprehensible beyond belief: it’s deranged to publish that.
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) July 17, 2015
Gawker Helps Gay Escort Blackmail Timothy Geithner’s Brother, Ted Cruz Is the Hero of the Story http://t.co/2jkvKN3Hv5
— reason (@reason) July 17, 2015
I began reading #Gawker in 2003 when it felt like a small club of NYC media geeks. Today I unfollowed & removed RSS feed. Sad devolution.
— Jeremy Hooper (@goodasyou) July 17, 2015
What Gawker is doing here is an act of territorial boundary-peeing. It’s telling elite New York that you’re all fair game, especially if you hold a bulging portfolio at a place like Condé Nast. As the company describes itself: “Attracting 115 million consumers across its industry-leading print, digital and video brands, the company’s portfolio includes some of the most iconic titles in media: Vogue, Vanity Fair, Glamour, Brides, Self, GQ, The New Yorker, Condé Nast Traveler, Details, Allure, Architectural Digest, Bon Appétit, Epicurious, Wired, W, Golf Digest, Golf World, Teen Vogue, Ars Technica and Style.com.”
What’s the public profile of a CFO of such a company? “David Geithner” pops up a few dozen times in an all-news Nexis search over the past decade — with many of the mentions relating to his 2014 move from Time Inc. to Condé Nast. In a world where every organizational burp of a BuzzFeed or a New York Times or a Gawker is chronicled and then laundered through aggregation sites, that’s a tiny media footprint. To boot: The coverage of David Geithner, to the extent it exists, surfaces no comments from him on the sanctity of his family life or his straight-arrow nature — meaning that there’s no apparent hypocrisy to out in this case. Another blow to the story’s newsworthiness.
Gawker Media boss Nick Denton has a standard for publication: “I have a simple editorial litmus test, which is: is it true, and is it interesting?” Denton told Captial New York’s Peter Sterne. That standard is at the center of Gawker’s much-discussed legal battle against Hulk Hogan, who is suing the site for having published a sex tape of the wrestler in 2012. Why was the tape newsworthy? “The interest in is in proportion to the gap between the story that a brand or a celebrity brand is telling and the reality. The more the gap, the more interesting it is. Here, there was a gap between [Hogan’s] rather boastful sexual persona that was on display in these radio interviews and elsewhere and the real story, which made it interesting.”
There’s no apparent “gap” in the David Geithner story. As to the story’s “interesting” bona fides, well, that’s a judgment call: You have an escort seeking political assistance from the high-ranking brother of a former Treasury secretary in the midst of logistical discussions about a paid hotel rendezvous, and that’s it. Gawker declined to comment for the record.
In publishing the story, Gawker is essentially saying that David Geithner — unknown to this media-covering blog prior to its story — is a figure of sufficient stature to merit a close look at his private life. He’ll doubtless disagree, and the law may well provide comfort for him. A plaintiff seeking damages for what’s known as “publication of private facts” needs to fulfill a four-part test:
• “The disclosure of facts must be public.” That’s an easy one, given that Gawker’s piece is out there.
• “The fact or facts disclosed must be private, and not generally known.” Our Nexis search confirmed as much.
• “Offensive to a Reasonable Person: Publication of the private facts in question must be offensive to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities.” Twitter could well assist in making this case.
• “The facts disclosed must not be newsworthy.” Always a subjective consideration, yet the Erik Wemple Blog feels no more enlightened about Condé Nast than it did previously. It does know that somewhere out there is an escort who tries to leverage his work for political assistance. Wow.
“Bottom line — with its quasi-journalistic reportage, Gawker is pushing the envelope of newsworthiness and one day, whether it is Hulk Hogan or David Geithner or someone else, that defense won’t hold up and a plaintiff will prevail against it,” notes University of Florida Professor Clay Calvert, an oft-quoted source on this blog.
Having watched Gawker skirt lines of decency and legal peril over the years, the Erik Wemple Blog has a theory that the site publishes stories such as this just to stay in shape. Its people know that when they step close, near or on top of ethical lines, they are in good territory for their brand. That queasiness about the publishability of a story is a good feeling. That causing a firestorm in media-crit blogs is part of the mission statement. That writing about some guy’s arrangements with an escort sends a message to their sources — Yes, send us the sleazy stuff, please.