Michael Wolff Reveals Gawker Boss Nick Denton's Private Thoughts on Oversight and Morals

Nick Denton - H 2015
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Nick Denton - H 2015

Weeks before the gossip outlet took down a reprehensible article amid outcry, Denton seemed to suggest to Wolff via an email apologizing for a personal attack that there is a lack of responsibility for the consequences of the site's content in the new age of after-the-fact mea culpas.

It's not just that Gawker is by its nature malevolent, casting about to wound people just because it can — something screwy and addled and self-destructive and plain old bizarre is going on there too.

Yesterday it posted a bilious, homophobic piece about the secret sex life of a media business CFO that no level of public interest or right-to-know could possibly justify. Today, Gawker boss Nick Denton, acknowledging that the damage could not be undone, took it down.

Obviously, in the publishing business this is supposed to work the other way. The boss is supposed to not let something be published that he can't stand by. It's a rather new Internet conceit that you can unpublish.

The initial story that might reasonably have been written is one about Denton's personal disconnection, his cruelty or social pathology. But now the story is about his absence. Where was he? Who is minding the store? Are the nuts running the nuthouse?

Earlier this year, Denton and I curiously were paired at an Upper East Side girls school — a Gossip Girl-like school — to talk about ... gossip. It was a calm and deliberate discussion about the nuances of what gets published and how and why. Denton, like most publishers, was on the side of openness. Like most writers, I was too, and would have been much more absolutely on this side but for the fact that Gawker had previously written about my personal life, causing me great grief. (Making this odder, and seemingly more sociopathic, after Gawker wrote about us, Denton sought out my girlfriend, befriending her, and inviting her as his date to various events.)

Denton told the high school girls he was not wholly an absolutist, singling out the example of the writer (and Denton friend) Andrew Sullivan, who was outed on the internet — before Gawker existed — when his vivid online sex ad was uncovered. Denton said this was unfair, reprehensible and extremely painful to his friend.

We adjourned together afterward for breakfast with our host and Denton confided that he and his husband — Denton married Derrence Washington last year in a ceremony notable for its high level of privacy protections — were going through the process of having a child with a surrogate. Not long afterward, he invited my girlfriend and me to a book party at his house. At the party, we told him, in the spirit of his own confidence, that we were going to have a baby. He seemed genuinely pleased for us. And then — to bury the hatchet, he said — he introduced us to a coterie of Gawker staffers. They seemed tongue tied — indifferent, if not hostile — but we chatted politely enough, certainly without animosity.

The next day our new pregnancy was revealed with particular malice and bile. "Michael Wolff's Awful Girlfriend is Pregnant," Gawker said about my noncombatant partner. Curiously, a few days later, with someone at Gawker seeming to notice the implicit sexism here, this was changed to "Awful Michael Wolff's Awful Girlfriend is Pregnant." This is survivable, but gratuitous and mean spirited — and also inexplicable.

Then, last month, Gawker appeared headed to trial in a $100 million lawsuit brought by Hulk Hogan over a sex tape Gawker had posted. Denton, making this a critical case of free speech, gave several interviews saying that if the jury trial went against Gawker it might bankrupt the company even before it could appeal. I wrote a piece saying maybe this wasn't so bad — that as much as you might absolutely defend free speech, in fact there has always been high barriers to publishing the kind of rancorous calumny that Gawker had made its raison d'être — at least until the no-responsibility Internet came along.

Denton immediately emailed me and, in our exchange, apologized for the Gawker coverage about my girlfriend and forthcoming baby: "That description of Victoria was mean and pointless." Then he added: "I do wish there was a better way to address insults without storing up resentment ... I would love to institutionalize and automate some right of response. Even the most insolent of Gawker bloggers is better and more reasonable in an exchange."

Again, there is this odd after-the-fact, hands-off, extremely passive sort of contrition. And then the weird, "I would love to institutionalize and automate some right of response." Huh?

His point seemed to be that there was in fact no oversight, and no responsibility, prompting questions about whether Denton is able to exercise oversight, or has in effect relinquished most responsibility. Last fall, he acknowledged something like this, saying he was pulling back and assigning greater oversight powers to a management committee.

A few months ago, the Gawker staff announced it had elected to form a union — quite an unusual, and perhaps hostile or passive-aggressive collective act.

I can hardly imagine who might hire someone from Gawker, or who would not recoil at the cruelty, obscenity and logorrhea of a Gawker writer's clips. Gawker staffers needed a union to protect the only job they might ever have in journalism. They were perhaps protecting too their right to cruelty and obscenity and to be unedited, now expressed in the brutal exposure of the private, unexceptional, if salacious details of a quite unpublic man's life far from the public interest.

Nick Denton, a man who is quite open about the travails of his own private life, seems not to have known about this story and to be quite appalled by it. But to little effect.