Media Criticism

Gawker Editors Resign, Nick Denton Says He Stepped in to Pull 'Pure Poison' Gay Escort Extortion Story

Says it wasn't helping with Hulk Hogan's lawsuit



Last week, the media gossip site Gawker ran a post about a straight married executive at Conde Nast's alleged attempted tryst with a gay porn star/escort. The anonymous escort who was Gawker's source found out the executive was related to a former Obama cabinet member and wanted to get help with a discrimination complaint he filed with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development about a landlord in Texas. One tidbit from the story was that Sen. Ted Cruz has previously tried to help the man, a disabled veteran, with his discrimination complaint.

The story earned a lot of blowback—considered by many media observers not to be a newsworthy story but rather a brutal outing and bullying based on a source trying to commit blackmail. The story was pulled the next day by Gawker Media's partnership group, which includes Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker Media, Heather Deitrick, an attorney for the company, and four other ad sales and other executives. The vote came down 4-2, with Deitrick and Gawker's executive editor, Tommy Craggs, voting against it. Gawker's editorial staff recently voted to unionize, and after the story was pulled released a statement condemning the business side of the operation breaching the editorial "firewall." Today, Craggs and Max Read, Gawker's editor-in-chief, resigned over the decision to pull the story.

In a statement to the editorial staff, Denton explained that the decision to pull the story was his:

The Managing Partnership as a whole is responsible for the Company's management and direction, but they do not and should not make editorial decisions. Let me be clear. This was a decision I made as Founder and Publisher—and guardian of the company mission—and  the majority supported me in that decision.

He said he made the decision for the future of the company:

I was thinking in the broadest terms about the future of the company. The choice was a cruel one: a management override that would likely cause a beloved editorial leader to resign on principle; or a story that was pure poison to our reputation just as we go into the Hogan trial.

Gawker Media is facing a lawsuit from professional wrestler and media personality Hulk Hogan for writing about and publishing an excerpt of a sex tape showing Hogan with the then-wife of a radio host on whose show Hogan often appeared and talked about his sex life. Gawker argues the story was newsworthy and served the public interest—Hogan talked about his sex life often and on the Howard Stern Show even denied ever having sex with the women the tape showed he did have sex with.

Newsworthiness and public interest are the two elements with which the exercise of free speech can be exempted from the "publication of private facts" tort that exists in most states, under which you can be sued from publishing "private facts," slightly different from the "is it true and is it interesting" standard Denton has articulated before. In the statement to the editorial staff he described his company's mission as promoting "truth and understanding through the pursuit of the real story."

The Hogan trial was supposed to start two weeks ago, but Gawker won a fight with the FBI over a FOIA request for Hogan sex tapes in the FBI's possession because of an extortion investigation.