Friday, August 19, 2016

How My Summer at a New York Tabloid Changed Me, or Why I Won't Miss Gawker Much

It's unfortunate that it's come to this for Gawker -- was a 101-second video edit of Hulk Hogan having sex really worth going to the mat for? -- but not all that surprising. When I started my blog in 2005, I would sometimes get asked if I ever wished I could do it as my full-time occupation. The answer was an empathetic no -- I was two years into my dream job at The New York Times, and the idea of blogging from home without the camaraderie of a newsroom didn't appeal to me in the least. But when I got laid off in 2010, the idea of working for blog like Gawker definitely appealed to me. While I never got hired there -- God knows I tried! -- the equally snarky New York Post took a shine to me after reading some blog posts I submitted. ("You sound fun! Would you like to start Monday?" was the reply I got.) After years of copy-editing, writing and getting bylines in the nation's fifth-largest newspaper was exhilarating if not a little bit scary. But that summer started out with a bang, and before I knew it I was having the time of my life -- even being sought out by colleagues who wanted to compliment me on my witty turns of phrase or a funny lede I'd written

Writing about Naomi Campbell's blood-diamond trial and getting PAID for it? Sign me up! 

By the end of the summer, my totally fun boss was telling me she wanted to make an honest (wo)man of me. I had just turned 43, so was eager to be on staff again somewhere and told her I'd love to join the team. But then one night the news broke that the 17-year-old daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Thailand had died. She had apparently been out drinking at a nightclub in the Meatpacking District, and wound up at an after-hours party in a luxury high-rise building where she'd stepped out on the window ledge to take a selfie and plunged to her death. It was a tabloid's wet dream, and I happened to be the person assigned to write the piece while two others helped me pore through her social-media posts to get a better idea of who she was. 

As I looked through her Facebook pictures, I saw a pretty young girl with a lovely family and everything to live for. I thought of my own little sister and how I would call her when I got home from work. But deadline was approaching, so I submitted my first draft, perhaps written through the lens of a big brother. The editor on duty immediately came over to my desk and shouted, "What the hell is this?" I kind of froze, which angered him more, and before long the woman who had hired me (who was above him) came over to me. She tried to smooth things over and gave me an idea of what they were "looking for," My stomach turned to knots, but I knew I had to give it another shot. When she walked away, the angry editor started to urge me to include any vaguely racists comments she'd made on her social-media accounts ("This neighborhood is so ghetto" she posted from D.C.) and to rip her to shreds for being a girl of such privilege who squandered it all by being so spoiled and self-destructive. As I tried to craft the story, all I could think about were her distraught parents and her brother, who were undoubtedly in the midst of enduring the most painful thing anyone could imagine. 

The Herald Towers building where Nicole John died.

Although I knew the larger-than-life way she had died was newsworthy -- she fell out of a window and plummeted to her death in the middle of New York City -- I also knew she was a private citizen who did not deserve to be raked over the coals because of a bad decision she had made. One that had cost her her f**king life, no less. After another 15 or 20 punishing minutes, I finally turned in my revamped copy. I had never seen the show, but the woman who hired me had suggested a "Gossip Girl" angle so I just ran with it, still omitting many of the unsavory details my editor had insisted be included. 

The Village Voice didn't like what it saw, either.

I quietly slid out of the newsroom that night, and a much meaner version of my story ran on the front page the next morning with my name on it. And I never worked another day at the New York Post. The promised job still hadn't come to be, and I think it became obvious to everyone concerned that I just didn't have the stomach for it anyway. (Nasty blogger Kenneth, who was once banned from commenting on Gawker for being "too mean"!) All of this is a long way of saying my opinion of tabloid journalism changed dramatically that summer. And then watching what Gawker put (private citizens) Justine Sacco and David Geithner and writer Mary Elizabeth Williams through -- not to mention the countless number of other everyday people whose names I didn't remember who Gawker viciously took apart who had no way of fighting back (we recently learned how Gawker's then-editor mocked a young woman who begged the site to delete a video of her drunken sexual encounter inside a bar bathroom stall that the editor later acknowledged was "possibly rape") -- reiterated what I had somehow forgotten: that there are some boundaries in journalism that we must observe on our own no matter what rights are afforded us by the First Amendment. Everyone should be very concerned Peter Thiel is in a position to decide what constitutes journalism. But that doesn't mean another rich white man should be allowed to decide what's news (i.e., another man having sex in the privacy of his own home) and what's not with impunity. My feeling has long been that Nick Denton is like the bully who showed up at the playground only to find his prey brought along a bigger kid. And whether it's entirely fair or not, Gawker -- which The Washington Post reminds us had many talented writers -- came to symbolize that the anti-privacy/anti-decency pendulum had swung too far in the other direction. This is the reason I had long ago stopped regularly reading Gawker and why even its supportive new owners want nothing to do with it. Well, that and because it became boring, repetitive and seemed to think its Kristin Cavallari "coverage" was cute.


Worth a read HERE.


UPDATE: Tom Scocca's Gawker Was Murdered by Gaslight explains why I may be wrong about all this.

1 comment:

Shy Boy said...

Yes to all of this. The end of an era - thankfully.