Gawker & the Left's Selective Outrage

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Last week, the Internet outrage machine ate itself.

Gawker, the website that has played a leading role in the toxic online culture of public shaming, was buried under a shaming avalanche after it ran an unusually vile story about a media company executive allegedly seeking a tryst with a gay male escort and porn actor. The story, since removed, caused (justified) outrage for many reasons. The target, Conde Nast chief financial officer David Geithner (brother of former U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner), has never sought the spotlight; his sex life is not of any conceivable public interest, and he has a wife and three young children. To make it worse, Gawker’s source had tried to blackmail Geithner in retaliation for the latter’s refusal to make improper use of his political connections. Finally, the story had overtones of retaliation by Gawker Media, which has an ongoing war with the Reddit social media network, a Conde Nast property.

Between all this and the whiff of homophobia in the story’s obvious glee at outing a supposedly closeted gay man (Geithner has denied the escort’s claims), Gawker inevitably incurred the wrath of the progressives who had been the core of its respectable following—people like journalist Glenn Greenwald, whose tweet condemning the story noted that he was “a fan of Gawker,” or one of Gawker’s own more prominent ex-staffers, Adam Weinstein. But the fact that Gawker was seen as acceptable in polite liberal society until now says a lot about the climate on the cultural left.

It’s not as if Gawker wasn’t odious before. It’s a publication that posts leaked videos of celebrities’ sexual activities (it settled one lawsuit over such a video in 2010 and is currently facing another from pro wrestler Hulk Hogan). It’s a publication that conducted a drawn-out innuendo campaign—based on rumors, conjectures, and what the site itself described as “questionable” emails— suggesting that actor James Franco was not only gay but a gay rapist who had violently assaulted an ex-boyfriend. (Now that it’s open season on Gawker, this campaign has been chronicled in all its vileness, and the author of some of those articles has admitted, in a later-deleted tweet, that the stories were “baseless.”) So why do people like Weinstein think those were the good days when Gawker was a “special” place to work?

The obvious answer is: for the left, Gawker was “our son of a bitch.”

The Gawker formula is a mix of gutter journalism and hard-left politics: a hybrid of a hipper, sleazier version of The National Enquirer for the pseudo-sophisticated and a hipper, snarkier version of Pravda for the modern progressive set. It went after actual or suspected misogynists, perpetrators of “white privilege,” and other “oppressors” with the same zeal, vitriol, and personal invective that the Soviet press of the 1930s went after class enemies, “wreckers,” and ideological deviationists. In Gawker’s world, the “class enemy” is represented by people like former Business Insider Chief Technology Officer Pax Dickinson, who was not only fired from his job but was rendered unemployable after Gawker affiliate Valleywag published an exposé of his provocative tweets—which included controversial opinions but also jokes taken out of context.

Here’s a timeline of just a few gems of Gawker-style cultural politics.

July 2015: When Reddit’s interim CEO Ellen Pao resigned after a users’ “revolt” in response to some of her moves, the Gawker headline read, “Misogynist Tantrum Officially Drives Ellen Pao from Reddit.” (That’s a rather creative use of the word “officially,” since the official explanation was that Pao resigned by mutual decision with the board.) Buried within the article was the passing admission that the “tantrum” was precipitated by the firing of a popular Reddit coordinator, Victoria Taylor, a woman.

June 2015: When Sir Tim Hunt, the British scientist and Nobel laureate, was forced to resign from an honorary professorship at University College London last month due to reports that he had made sexist remarks at a science journalism conference (reports that are now largely discredited), Gawker weighed in with an expletive-laden post headlined, “Unemployed Misogynist Nobel Laureate Still Rich in Nose Hair”—complete with a close-up of nose hairs from a photo of Hunt.

April 2015: During the Baltimore riots, Jordan Sargent—the same Gawker reporter who authored the infamous Geithner piece—blasted The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill for tweeting a personal story about being robbed while running a free food pantry in Baltimore. “Men who have been told they are important will talk about themselves exactly when their stories are needed the least,” sneered Sargent. Ironically, the tweets he quoted made it clear that Scahill was actually advocating sympathy for the robber, who later told him that his father had been killed by the police over a minor shoplifting incident. A commenter also pointed out that Sargent had omitted Scahill’s final tweet, which said, “White people cannot understand what it is like to be Black in America. It's not possible.” Sargent ignored numerous comments urging him to admit his error.

June 2014: George Mason University professor David Bernstein, a blogger at The Volokh Conspiracy, was the target of a Gawker headline that read, “Law Professor: Only Prostitutes would directly say ‘Yes’ to Sex.” Bernstein’s actual offense? A blogpost critiquing campus rules that would classify any sexual contact without explicit consent as sexual assault. After pointing out the uncontroversial fact that the vast majority of sexual contact is initiated with only implicit consent, Bernstein added that there is one exception: prostitutes and clients typically negotiate an agreement in advance.

March 2014: Gawker ran a piece by Weinstein (appropriately, under the heading “Rants”) titled, “Arrest Climate-Change Deniers.” No, Weinstein was not being metaphorical; he meant, quite literally, that people he considers responsible for spreading misinformation on climate change should be hauled into court to answer for their thoughtcrime. “Those denialists should face jail. They should face fines. They should face lawsuits from the classes of people whose lives and livelihoods are most threatened by denialist tactics,” wrote Weinstein, invoking the scientific consensus as irrefutable evidence. “Those malcontents must be punished and stopped.” Weinstein admitted that those crazy deniers would “claim this is persecution, this is a violation of free speech” (the nerve!), but noted that “First Amendment rights have never been absolute.”

January 2013: Gawker published a list of all registered gun owners in New York (with a link to a searchable database of their addresses) under the headline, “Here is a List of All the A****les Who Own Guns in New York City”—along with a link to a searchable database of the owners’ addresses. (The headline was later modified with sarcastic alterations.)

Nor is Gawker above dressing up the sleaze it peddles in the mantle of social justice. Last January, the same Jordan Sargent reported that actor and comedian Fred Armisen has been described by anonymous commenters on various websites as “a lothario who seeks out women who might be influenced by his celebrity, only to use and discard them.” (Amusingly, Sargent has also been known to object to “slut-shaming” of women.) In the comments, academic and writer Freddie DeBoer criticized the oddly “conservative” streak in Gawker’s progressivism, pointing out that Armisen was being pilloried over allegations of legal, consensual behavior. Sargent quickly responded that it would be “conservative” not to cover “skeezy men” unless they were batterers or rapists—while fellow Gawker writer J.K. Trotter weighed in to defend the idea that “womanizing and sexual assault rely on, and reinscribe, the same systems of male domination.”

Now that Gawker has finally crossed the wrong line, Weinstein’s farewell to his ex-employer offers another revealing glimpse into the mentality of the Gawkerite. Apparently, what bothers Weinstein most about the site’s “lapse in editorial judgment” is not the harm to Geithner and his family, but the boost for Gawker’s “psychotic” and “abusive” critics on the right: “Christina Hoff Sommers, Milo Yianawhatever, ‘gamergaters,’ and the bevy of cold, craven, retrograde pre-fab apartment-dwelling souls who are waging an inane jihad against Gawker Media, feminism, and cultural justice.” (It’s telling that, in his plea for “cultural justice,” he mocks the foreign name of Breitbart columnist Milo Yiannopoulous and people who live in cheap housing.)

While Weinstein’s lament is comically overwrought, Gawker’s well-deserved disgrace may indeed herald—or hasten—the decline of the militant “social justice” movement marked by identity politics, intolerance, and personal demonization of opponents. If that happens, it will be the silver lining to this sordid affair. 

Cathy Young writes a semi-regular column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63. She can be reached by email at CathyYoung63@gmail.com.

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