Five years ago, Gawker published a “blind item” — a staple of the gossip site — that described the secondhand accounts of unnamed sources who said they had heard about an unnamed comedian masturbating in front of two other unnamed comedians at an Aspen, Colo., hotel in 2002. The article was so bereft of names that it didn't even have a byline.
“Have any blind items to share?” asked a note to readers, at the bottom of the page. “Let us know. Gawker will pay for any tips that check out.”
A story so thinly sourced would never pass editorial muster in most newsrooms, and paying for information is a huge no-no by traditional journalistic standards. But this was the kind of story Gawker was known for, before it went bankrupt and closed last year because of a lawsuit funded by billionaire Peter Thiel. And this particular story happens to be true, confirmed by the exhibitionist himself, after it reappeared in the New York Times on Thursday — with names.
The comedian is Louis C.K., and the two unwilling witnesses are Julia Wolov and Dana Min Goodman, a comedy duo best known as the creators of MTV's “Faking It.” Wolov and Goodman decided to go on the record after one of them (it's not clear who, of course) told Gawker in 2012 that they “don't want to be a part of this story.” Two additional women went on the record with similar claims against C.K., and another shared her experience on the condition of anonymity.
As rumors about alleged misconduct by powerful men burst into the open, often accompanied by the names of newly emboldened accusers, it is worth considering the legacy of Gawker, which practiced newsgathering in a way that made J-school professors squeamish but also held a candle to some of the famous figures now under the klieg light of the mainstream press.
In a 2015 follow-up to its original “blind item,” Gawker named C.K. in a story about an man (granted anonymity) who claimed to have confronted the comedian about sexually harassing two of the man's female friends. The author of the second Gawker piece about C.K., Jordan Sargent, now an editor at Spin, told me that deciding which rumors to publish was “not an exact science” at Gawker, which “was part of what made it risky and nerve-racking.”
“I had to believe that there was a real social value to kind of nudging this stuff out into the light, even if it didn't get to the point where a lot of people would have published it,” Sargent said.
Last month, Gawker founder Nick Denton made a similar argument when he wrote the following on his personal website:
The recent torrent of public allegations against celebrities such as Harvey Weinstein, Terry Richardson and James Toback is unprecedented. But the stories have been circulating on the industry grapevine, and on blogs and social media, and among women especially, for years. The headlines are shocking — unless you read Gawker before it was shut down, in which case this may feel like a throwback.
Denton went on to credit outlets such as the Times and the New Yorker for nailing down stories that Gawker could only grasp at, and he acknowledged that “gossip can be gratuitous, without any purpose beyond entertainment.”
“But those first accounts of sexual harassment — even if anonymous or thinly sourced — give confidence to victims that they are not alone,” he added. “Gossip, though it draws those motivated by envy and resentment, is also a tool of the powerless. It's a mechanism for coordination.”
Harry Siegel, a Daily Beast senior editor and New York Daily News columnist, isn't ready to give Gawker a pass for its methods simply because some of its gossip has been validated. He tweeted after the Times published its C.K. report on Thursday that “there's a vast difference between reporting on rumors and reporting out rumors.”
I asked Siegel to expand on that thought. He said that Gawker did some “great reporting” but that its rumor circulation looks good, in hindsight, only “if you take your 'blind items' that scored and you're like, 'See, see,' without considering the ones that didn't score or the issues with running [the site] that way.”
Gawker's propensity for risk-taking sometimes led to big mistakes, such as when it tried to piece together a Los Angeles Times article and a Daily Mail article to guess the mother of Arnold Schwarzenegger's love child — and guessed wrong. The woman later filed a $40 million lawsuit against Gawker and other gossip publications.
I asked Thiel whether seeing solid reporting corroborate Gawker's C.K. rumors has caused him to feel any regret at having killed the site. The Silicon Valley entrepreneur admitted last year, after his activity was reported by Forbes, that he had secretly funded Hulk Hogan's invasion-of-privacy suit against Gawker, which resulted in a crippling $140 million award for the wrestler.
Thiel did not respond.
The suit stemmed from Gawker's publication of a Hogan sex tape, which is pretty hard to defend on journalistic merits. A lawyer familiar with the case once told me, in jest, that the value in the tape was to show that celebrity sex is not as exciting as people might imagine.
Gawker certainly published its share of hearsay and prurience. It also published stories about the likes of C.K., Weinstein and Kevin Spacey that some would argue put the site ahead of the media field.