When a story is a vicious non-story

BY VIKRAM JOHRI| IN Media Practice | 18/07/2015
Celebrity website Gawker has apologized for its prurient story about top Conde Nast executive David Geithner.
VIKRAM JOHRI reflects on the significance of the apology
When a story is a vicious non-story

Within hours of publishing a story this week, Gawker redacted it, its founder Nick Denton saying that publishing it “is a decision I regret.”

Founded in 2003, Gawker is an American website that has made a name for itself by publishing celebrity gossip. As an early online operation, Gawker has been one of the most successful media websites, drawing close to 23 million unique visitors every month. Even so, it has never been known for exercising due editorial control, and has landed in the soup in the past for publishing intimate stories of stars without their consent. But more on that later.
 
On Thursday Gawker published a story that its reporter filed with the help of a gay escort in Chicago. The story centred on David Geithner, the CFO of Conde Nast and brother of former US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. 
 
Geithner, who was visiting Chicago for work, had booked the escort for a night in the Four Seasons Hotel. Even though Geithner had not revealed his true identity, the escort used his number to figure out who he was, and then sought help from him to resolve a legal dispute he had been facing. Geithner, spooked about the revelation of his identity, cancelled the deal which is when the escort went to Gawker with the story.
 
Now Geithner is a married man (married to a woman) with two children. That he was cheating on his wife is certainly bad. But it is also nobody’s business but hers. If he wanted to have a discreet encounter with a gay escort, there is no reason he should be denied that luxury. I am not defending what he did, since it is indefensible. Not merely the cheating on his wife, which is bad enough, but his living a closeted life, which makes it sad more than anything else.
 
But that, as I said, is his business and his wife’s. For Gawker to construct a story from the remains of a jilted deal makes for abysmal journalism, if it can be called journalism at all. It is not merely the matter of the story itself. It is also the presentation. 
 
A picture of David Geithner sat on the top of the page and pictures of his phone messages were included. I am in no way suggesting that the rich and powerful be protected, as some in Gawker tried to reason as a way of defending the story, but there was no story here. Besides, there were two parties to the case. If you are going to reveal the identity of one, why not do it for the other too? 
 
We still don’t know the name of the escort or anything else about him, which must have been a condition that he placed before selling the story to Gawker. It boggles the mind that Gawker not only bought into this but went ahead and published it.
 
On his part, Geithner has rubbished the story and stated that he has had no interaction with the escort. Which does not seem true, but even saying so makes one feel like a voyeur because there is no valid reason one should know about this case. 
 
I read the story before it was taken down and it must be said that, given the circumstances, Geithner comes across as a rather nice fellow, offering to take care of all expenses and paying half the escort fee in advance. Even after he was outed (identity-wise) by the escort, he kept a decent front till the very end. He told him that he would not be able to make it because of a delayed flight but that the escort need not worry for his hotel room in Chicago was paid for.
 
If you went to Twitter to read up on this story, you would see the most stringent criticism being heaped on the escort, including questions about his mental stability. Maybe the guy is new to escorting, because as far as I can tell, discretion is the cardinal rule of this game. If he is going ballistic over a client, he is unlikely to get any more deals. Besides, work is work. Why mix the two and expect your client to help you with a personal legal issue?
 
But the crux of the argument pertains to Gawker. About taking down the story, Gawker founder Denton said: "This action will not turn back the clock. David Geithner’s embarrassment will not be eased. But this decision will establish a clear standard for future stories. It is not enough for them simply to be true. They have to reveal something meaningful. They have to be true and interesting."
 
Noble words, but ironically redolent of Gawker’s other past misdeeds. In fact, there were reports that its top team, before this latest scandal hit them, was celebrating this week. This was after a Florida court postponed the hearing in a case to October. The case was filed by WWE wrestler Hulk Hogan - real name Terry Bollea - after Gawker published a 2012 sex video featuring him. The case was to be heard initially on July 6 and would have required Gawker to pay Bollea $100 million if he won, a prospect that would have bankrupted Gawker. No wonder they heaved a sigh of relief when the hearing was postponed. 
 
This is why the whole business of expressing regret is such a farce. It is more likely that the team knew fully well the possible repercussions of publishing the Geithner story but decided to go ahead with it regardless. 
Gawker must look back longingly to a time when the Internet was about only a few websites that were little more than innocuous purveyors of cat videos. Times have changed dramatically and Gawker has opted to sacrifice editorial integrity at the altar of clicks. The real story is that it has been getting away with it. Perhaps the website does after all deserve to fold come Bollea’s hearing in October.
 
There are lessons for the Indian media in this. The online space here has expanded rapidly over the last few months with a number of international publications such as Huffington Post andQuartz starting Indian editions. Besides, local websites such as DailyO, Catch News and The Wire have also entered the race. 
Part of the charm of the online medium is that it allows media companies to closely track readership using new-age analytics. While that is welcome, it should not lead online properties to run stories on the sole criterion of clickability. Gossip draws eyeballs, sure, but it should not tip into voyeurism. The Gawker case should serve as a lesson for all of us. 
 
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