Gossip and News, Strange Bedfellows

(Jason Merritt/FilmMagic)

On a recent episode of the Longform podcast, the hosts heaped praised on Jodi Kantor and her reporting for the bombshell Harvey Weinstein exposé. The episode was released the same day the New York Times published a story reported by Kantor, Melena Ryzik, and Cara Buckley in which five women accuse comedian Louis C.K. of sexual harassment and assault, a story that had existed in a similar whisper network among female performers for years.

The praise for Kantor, and for the investigations by the Times in general, reminded some listeners of Longform’s 2016 interview with Leah Finnegan, in which she spoke about her experience as an editor at Gawker. Host Aaron Lammer questioned Finnegan about a post published by Defamer in May of 2015, about Louis C.K.’s predatory behavior.

“Part of the reason I went to Gawker was that spirit of wanting to fuck shit up, being into gossip, wanting to talk about things people didn’t necessarily want to talk about,” Finnegan tells Lammer. She cites their stories about Bill Cosby, Louis C.K., and Fred Armisen — “recurring rumors about … men who do gross things” — as examples.

There are rumors that maybe have truth to them, but the Times would not report on them, because they can’t really nail it down. But Gawker will report on them. I think that that spirit is really important, saying what no one else will say, just so it’s out there.

Lammer responds with an oddly irrelevant bit of whataboutism. “Couldn’t you also say that Donald Trump is also saying what no one else will say?” He criticizes the Gawker post as “weird and thin, even for an allegation,” describing it as “some guy said his friend was in a backstage … with Louis C.K. and he whipped out his dick and asked her to do something with it.”

“It was like a guy telling you a story at a bar,” Lammer says. This struck me as ironic in light of a conversation I had recently with a female journalist about how frustratingly easy it is for our male colleagues to meet sources in bars and get stories that way.  The exchange continues:

Lammer: Why are you driven to pursue a story like that?

Finnegan: Especially in instances of sexual assault, people don’t believe victims. This is coming up again right now with Woody Allen. Everyone is like, Woody Allen is amazing, oh, he didn’t do anything. Oh, did he? I don’t know. How many times do we have to ask this question? His daughter wrote an essay in the New York Times saying that he did this. He’s a creep.

Lammer: One of those stories is ‘a guy in a bar told me’ and the other one is dozens of people, including my own daughter, and they’re on the record, I can tell you who these people are. That, to me, is the primary difference. Where do you draw the line?

The Gawker post in question, written by Jordan Sargent, did not mention any meetings in a bar. It included screenshots of emails between the source and C.K. in which C.K. requested a phone call with the source. Despite the email address seeming very obviously to be C.K.’s, Sargent attempted to verify it was real with C.K.’s publicist, who “would neither confirm nor deny.”

It also technically wasn’t Gawker‘s first piece about C.K., though a previous blind-item had referred to him as “a critically cherished sitcom auteur,” in the style of old-school gossip reporting. That post, from 2012, recounted without names an incident involving C.K. and two women at an Aspen comedy festival — an identical anecdote to the one that led the Times story.

The Times story is undeniably a different animal than the Gawker posts, not least because the Times reporters had the women’s cooperation and permission to use their full names. They had four women on the record, each backed up by at least one on-the-record outcry witness — someone to whom the victimized women recounted their experience — or documented correspondence with C.K., as well as a fifth unnamed victim corroborated by an unnamed outcry witness. For one of the women who agreed to go on the record, the on-the-record outcry witnesses were well-known celebrities Courteney Cox and David Arquette.

This difference prompted some people to dismiss the previous Gawker coverage. A tweet from Daily Beast editor Harry Siegel that caught a lot of heat asserted, “There’s a vast difference between reporting on rumors and reporting out rumors.”

There is certainly a difference, but to call it “vast” seems to unfairly malign the work of Gawker reporters, implying they were content to simply throw some quippy gossip online and call it a day. Sargent’s post showed more effort than that, as did a recent Jezebel post by Anna Merlan and Madeleine Davies, which shed light on their behind-the-scenes efforts to confirm the C.K. stories. Vice published a post that comedian Megan Koester had written on her personal website about traveling to a comedy festival in 2015 to try to report out the Louis C.K. rumors for Gawker, describing how she was aggressively shut out by the festival organizers and abandoned by her colleagues in the comedy world. After the post was published in October, Koester received endless abuse for weeks, she wrote later — until the Times story came out in early November.

The sentiment in Siegel’s tweet ignores the privilege a reporter with the backing of the New York Times carries that others might not, and how the Times’ reputation and resources make sources more likely to want to talk. (As Lammer himself notes in his interview with Kantor, “There’s only one or two journalistic institutions of that scale in America.”)

At Jezebel, Merlan and Davies wrote that they got nearly two dozen tips while trying to pursue the C.K. story. When she got a new position within the post-Gawker Gizmodo Media Group as an investigative reporter, Merlan traced back over previous tips former Gawker reporters had received, including one that led to the 2012 blind item.

The Gawker reporter had been forwarded an email that one of the women sent to a friend. In it, she wrote that neither of them would ever comment on the incident. “We don’t want to say anything because people won’t hire us,” the email read. “There was backlash back then and there will be now. He makes a lot of people a lot of money.”

It’s easy to think of Gawker as reckless — this was part of the image they cultivated. But that email contained all the names they needed, and they didn’t publish any of them, bolstering a point Merlan and Davies wrote in their post: “Jezebel is not cavalier about either accusers or the accused.” (Merlan, for the record, is currently being sued — by Charles Harder, the same Peter Thiel-funded lawyer who took down Gawker and attempted to bully the Times out of doing their initial Weinstein story — over a meticulously reported story about an abusive cult leader.)

Siegel’s tweet also ignored the idea that reporting on rumors can be a fruitful journalistic strategy itself, as Finnegan told Lammer in her Longform interview:

With the Louis C.K. thing, we’re trying to encourage people to speak out and this is what publishing that does. That’s what happened with Bill Cosby: Tom Scocca wrote a post; Hannibal Buress spoke out about it; and then more victims started coming forward. New York Magazine wrote their story and now Bill Cosby’s over.

The mention of New York Magazine points to an interesting phenomenon happening in media right now: Mainstream media appears to be picking up where Gawker left off. It might have been easy to dismiss Gawker — many Twitter users defending C.K. years ago pooh-poohed their reporting as “rumor-mongering” — but it’s less easy to dismiss New York Magazine, let alone the New York Times. For years, C.K. used the word “rumors” to try to dodge these stories and any attempts to report them out. Kantor took on the Weinstein story because it was an “open secret,” a less dismissive way to refer to rumors. These recent stories exposing powerful, abusive men suggest there’s value in taking rumors seriously.

Old media is understandably reluctant to embrace rumor. It’s scary to think about dismantling standards, and the protections they are meant to afford, especially after the Gawker lawsuit. I’m struck by how these stories resemble court cases, with the inclusion of elements like outcry witnesses. This is common in criminal cases involving sexual assault since the only eyewitnesses are typically the victim and the accused. Journalists are asking these people who are barely peripherally involved to go on the record, which is not an easy thing to do.

A very smart friend of mine recently wondered whether journalism, the way we practice it now, is really suited to these stories. For every story that comes out about abuse, he said, you can bet there are ten that won’t. The abuser isn’t famous enough, the abuse wasn’t vile enough, you don’t have enough people willing to go on the record for you, you don’t have evidence. The accused don’t have to show they didn’t do it; they get to just say they didn’t.

This is where people often interject, “Well, of course! Innocent until proven guilty!” But journalism isn’t a court. The court of public opinion isn’t actually a judicial system. “But their lives are ruined!” When? Show me someone whose life was ruined because their misdeeds were exposed. Serial plagiarist Jonah Lehrer got another book deal and a long profile in the New York Times in 2016. Hardly a prison sentence. Fred Armisen, whom Finnegan mentioned in her Longform interview, is doing just fine, career-wise, with plenty of credulous media attention. Bill Cosby went through several trials, and ended up getting off scot-free.

I listened to Kantor’s Longform interview after re-listening to Finnegan’s, and was struck by the similarities. Remember Finnegan’s quote about wanting to join Gawker “to talk about the things people didn’t necessarily want to talk about”? Here’s Kantor:

This is why we get up in the morning; this is why we go to work. Part of the idea of investigative journalism is to take things that are really hard to talk about and make them easier to talk about.

Kantor might object to the comparison, but I think there’s a similar spirit there, a common motivation behind a lot of the work Gawker did, but was lost in the snark and irreverence that accompanied it.

Nick Denton wrote a blog post recently titled “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news,” in which he makes a similar point to Finnegan.

Those first accounts of sexual harassment — even if anonymous or thinly sourced — give confidence to victims that they are not alone. Gossip, though it draws those motivated by envy and resentment, is also a tool of the powerless. It’s a mechanism for coordination.

They say that news is the first draft of history; well, as we used to say at Gawker, gossip is the first draft of news. The official channels have long failed those with allegations of harassment; the unofficial channels, largely internet word-of-mouth, have finally prodded news organizations and employers into action.

(I’m compelled to note that Denton’s Gawker motto is similar to the famous quote from Liz Smith, who recently passed away at 94: “Gossip is news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.”)

When Kantor tells Lammer how some of her sources were convinced the Times would kill her Weinstein story, Lammer responds:

People were wrong to think someone at the New York Times was going to tap you on the shoulder and say you’ve got a new assignment. But they were right to think there were some people who that had worked for and they were also right to think that there were gossip columnists, various other people in the media who had helped to keep this story under wraps.

It’s true, as we’ve seen, that men like Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein had a stranglehold on some gossip columnists, whose hunger may be easily sated when someone is willing to drop something in their lap as an “exclusive.”

But it wasn’t always gossip columnists who were in the pocket of powerful, abusive men. Rebecca Traister recently wrote for The Cut about an incident in 2000 when she, then a reporter for The New York Observer, tried to ask Weinstein a question at a party. The movie mogul responded by calling her a cunt and saying “that he was glad he was the ‘fucking sheriff of this fucking lawless piece-of-shit town.'” Traister’s then-boyfriend and colleague, Andrew Goldman, intervened, trying to calm Weinstein down and asking him to apologize. Weinstein’s response was to push Goldman down a set of steps and drag him in a headlock into the street.

The incident was witnessed by many. How did The New York Times describe it? Under the sneering headline “There’s Observing, and Then There’s Not,” writer James Barron aligned himself with Weinstein, writing that the mogul “had words” with Goldman because Traister had the audacity to question Weinstein “about an article that had nothing to do with [the party’s honoree] or the party.” On Twitter recently, Goldman recalled how he asked Barron why he didn’t ask Traister for her side of the story, and even wrote Barron’s editor and got no response.

That this article remains today on the Times’ website without a correction or explanation, particularly in light of the fact that as Goldman noted on Twitter, Barron is still employed there, is disappointing. Times reporter Jim Rutenberg’s recent column on “Harvey Weinstein’s Media Enablers” mentions the incident, but not the paper’s coverage of it.

Former Page Six reporter Paula Froelich tweeted that the Times story only ran because she refused to kill her own Page Six story about the incident. According to Froelich, Miramax told her the Times, the New York Daily News, and Fox had all agreed not to report on the incident, and a Fox reporter even called to try to stop her. Her story almost didn’t run either, until she threatened to quit if the New York Post killed it. When she saw how her editors had rewritten it, she cried.

Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker story “Harvey Weinstein’s Army of Spies” exposed how Weinstein employed private investigators, including former Israeli spies, to prey on actresses and journalists, sometimes even tricking them into think they were women’s rights activists. Kantor told Lammer the story felt like “Mt. Everest, because so many great journalists had tried before us.” No wonder her sources were skeptical. The deck is already so wildly stacked against women, and women who report rape and sexual abuse. If journalism at its best is meant to shed light on things people don’t want to talk about, why do we hamstring our reporting by dismissing outlets like Gawker when they reject rules that favor the powerful and choose to believe victims?

That thought struck me over and over again, especially when Kantor said to Lammer:

How did this guy rack up allegations for 40 years? It’s staggering. There is a kind of moral horror to it. The struggle to understand that is not over.

So many people thought of Gawker as amoral or even immoral. And yet, they were there, attacking these moral horrors wherever they surfaced, before mainstream media even picked up the gauntlet.

I’m not discounting the tough, meticulous investigative work that Kantor, Megan Twohey and many other reporters have done. But I was struck, listening to Kantor’s Longform interview, when she said that her colleagues’ piece on Bill O’Reilly was “a wake-up call,” and inspired her and Twohey to seek out a settlement paper trail like the one in the O’Reilly story. She told Lammer:

It’s very hard for any one woman to come forward on her own. Even now, we’re kind of in a Me Too moment, it’s still really hard for individuals to come forward alone. But if we go back and we say, where’s the settlement trail, where are the legal and financial records, how can we trace — how can we determine if there was a pattern?

That’s fantastic reporting, and a good tip for any reporter. But it also helps to highlight a gap created by current journalistic standards. What about the victims who are too scared to make a legal complaint, and never get settlements? Kantor herself praises the “women coming forward in the #MeToo campaign, naming specific accusers on social media.”

“Those women are flying the plane alone,” she says. “There is nobody else at the cockpit.”

I’m not advocating journalistic anarchy, and the specter of Peter Thiel is very real. But perhaps there is a circumspect way to give more credence to less powerful people. Sargent’s Gawker post about C.K. is actually a good example: He’s clear about where his information came from and his attempts to confirm it. Maybe, if we really want journalism to be a force for good, we have to band together, do less backbiting among ourselves and be more supportive of a multiplicity of approaches to reporting.

Different readers will respond to different styles of reporting and writing. Some people are more likely to read a jocular, guy in a bar story. Others will dismiss it as not “real journalism.” The only answer I can come up with is that our society will benefit from a wealth of options when it comes to journalism, and in an ideal world, all of those options will be operating with the best of intentions, with an eye toward justice and truth instead of a pursuit for clicks and small ad buys. In an ideal world, we will all try to be braver, more like those women Kantor praised, and join them in the cockpit.