Gawker Pulls Condé Nast CFO-Escort Story: "It Is a Decision I Regret"

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Gawker.com Managing Editor Nick Denton

"It was an editorial call, a close call around which there were more internal disagreements than usual. And it is a decision I regret."

Gawker has pulled its controversial story about Condé Nast CFO David Geithner allegedly soliciting a gay escort.

Gawker managing editor Nick Denton released the following statement: "Yesterday evening, Gawker.com published a story about the CFO of Conde Nast texting an escort. It was an editorial call, a close call around which there were more internal disagreements than usual. And it is a decision I regret ... The point of this story was not in my view sufficient to offset the embarrassment to the subject and his family.

"It is the first time we have removed a significant news story for any reason other than factual error or legal settlement,” Denton wrote (full statement below).

Shortly after the story posted, Gawker editor-in-chief Max Read defended it, writing on Twitter, "Given the chance Gawker will always report on married c-suite executives of major media companies f---ing around on their wives."

Read also reportedly told a journalist via email, "A high-level executive at a powerful media organization f—ed around on his wife and attempted to trade favors to kill the story. If you don’t see how that’s a news story, I don’t know what to tell you."

The story, written by Gawker's Jordan Sargent, detailed a rendezvous allegedly planned between a male escort and Geithner and was widely criticized as excessively invasive journalism.

Michael Barbaro of the New York Times called it "repugnant, shameful."

Gawker executive editor John Cook disagreed with the retraction, calling it a "mistake."

"Jordan’s post was solidly in line with what Gawker has asked its writers and editors to do for years," Cook wrote in support of Sargent.

"I and a lot of my colleagues argued as strenuously against it as we could, and we lost," he added.

Gawker writer J.K. Trotter released additional information about the decision to pull the story, saying the vote among Gawker's managing partnership to retract the story was *4-2, with Geithner story editor Tommy Craggs and Heather Dietrick, president and chief legal counsel of Gawker Media, being the two dissenters.

"Along the Craggs [sic]," Trotter wrote, "every other member of Gawker Media’s editorial leadership, including Gawker’s editor-in-chief Max Read and the executive editors of Gawker Media’s Politburo, strenuously protested removing the post."

"Besides Denton," Trotter continued, "the partners who voted to remove the post were Andrew Gorenstein, who serves as the president of advertising and partnerships; Heather Dietrick, who serves as President and chief legal counsel; chief operating officer Scott Kidder; chief strategy officer Erin Pettigrew; and chief technology officer Tom Plunkett."

The Geithner story comes at an inopportune moment for Gawker. This week, it was scheduled to square off against Hulk Hogan, who is suing for $100 million for allegedly invading his privacy by publishing an excerpt from a sex tape. The trial was postponed after an appeals court intervened. 

Winning some sympathy from First Amendment advocates for its Hogan fight, Gawker's brand of adventuresome reporting has long been controversial. The site was sued after misidentifying Arnold Schwarzenegger's mistress and linking to Quentin Tarantino's Hateful Eight script. On other occasions, like when its sports site revealed that football player Manti Te'o's dead girlfriend was a hoax or when it uncovered flirtatious emails from a New York congressman, Gawker's decisions to push the boundaries of personal privacy appeared to pay off.
 
Late Friday, Gawker Media's editorial staff issued a statement strongly opposed to the decision to pull the post, saying, "We are united in objecting to editorial decisions being made by a majority of non-editorial managers. Disagreements about editorial judgment are matters to be resolved by editorial employees. We condemn the takedown in the strongest possible terms."

Denton's full statement is below:

Yesterday evening, Gawker.com published a story about the CFO of Conde Nast texting an escort. It was an editorial call, a close call around which there were more internal disagreements than usual. And it is a decision I regret.

The story involves extortion, illegality and reckless behavior, sufficient justification at least in tabloid news terms. The account was true and well-reported. It concerns a senior business executive at one of the most powerful media companies on the planet.

In the early days of the internet, that would have been enough. “We put truths on the internet.” That has been the longstanding position of Gawker journalists, some of the most uncompromising and uncompromised on the internet. I cannot blame our editors and writers for pursuing that original mission.

But the media environment has changed, our readers have changed, and I have changed. Not only is criticism of yesterday’s piece from readers intense, but much of what they’ve said has resonated. Some of our own writers, proud to work at one of the only independent media companies, are equally appalled.

I believe this public mood reflects a growing recognition that we all have secrets, and they are not all equally worthy of exposure. I can’t defend yesterday’s story as I can our coverage of Bill O’Reilly, Hillary Clinton or Hulk Hogan.

We are proud of running stories that others shy away from, often to preserve relationships or access. But the line has moved. And Gawker has an influence and audience that demands greater editorial restraint.

Gawker is no longer the insolent blog that began in 2003. It does important and interesting journalism about politicians, celebrities and other major public figures. This story about the former Treasury Secretary’s brother does not rise to the level that our flagship site should be publishing.

The point of this story was not in my view sufficient to offset the embarrassment to the subject and his family. Accordingly, I have had the post taken down. It is the first time we have removed a significant news story for any reason other than factual error or legal settlement.

Every story is a judgment call. As we go forward, we will hew to our mission of reporting and publishing important stories that our competitors are too timid, or self-consciously upright, to pursue. There will always be stories that critics attack as inappropriate or unjustified; and we will no doubt again offend the sensibilities of some industries or interest groups.

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. These texts were interesting, but not enough, in my view.

In light of Gawker’s past rhetoric about our fearlessness and independence, this can be seen as a capitulation. And perhaps, to some extent, it is. But it is motivated by a sincere effort build a strong independent media company, and to evolve with the audience we serve.

July 17, 7:23 p.m. — *Updated with the correct number of votes, clarified by Denton via Twitter Friday night

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