Max Read’s Moralizing Justification for Gawker’s Vile Article

A good rule of decency is to stay out of the private, personal, and sexual lives of consenting adults, absent some very compelling reason to involve yourself.

(updated below)

Last night, Gawker published one of the sleaziest and most repugnant articles seen in quite some time from an outlet of its size and stature. The story had no purpose other than to reveal that the male, married-to-a-woman Chief Financial Officer of a magazine company – basically an executive accountant – hired a male escort. When the escort discovered the real-life identity of his prospective client – he’s the brother of a former top Obama official – he began blackmailing the CFO by threatening to expose him unless he used his political connections to help the escort in a housing discrimination case he had against a former landlord. Gawker completed the final step of the blackmail plot by publishing the text messages between the two and investigating and confirming the identity of the client, all while protecting the identity of the blackmailing escort. I don’t want to reward them or contribute in any way to this disgrace by linking to it: Google it if you must.

Gawker’s story, written by Jordan Sargent, instantly and almost universally provoked unbridled scorn, and rightfully so. The article’s 1,000+ comments from Gawker’s own readers overwhelmingly expressed disgust, and as The New Republic’s Jeet Heer observed, the “debacle” is “uniting people from all across the political & cultural spectrum . . .  in shared revulsion.” One Gawker writer, Adam Weinstein, publicly distanced himself from the sleaze.

The reasons for regarding the story as deeply repugnant are self-evident. The CFO they outed is not a public figure. Even if he were, the revelation has zero public interest: it’s not as though he’s preached against gay rights or any form of sexual behavior. It’s just humiliating someone and trying to destroy his life for fun, for its own sake. By publishing the article, Gawker aided the escort’s blackmail plot, arguably even becoming a partner in it. Even worse, the story (probably unwittingly) reeks of all-too-familiar homophobic shaming: it’s supposed to be humiliating at least in part because he’s a man hiring a “gay porn star,” as Gawker editor-in-chief Max Read put it as he promoted the “scoop.” The escort’s identity has been confirmed by others and he seems to have a history of serious mental distress, which Gawker is clearly exploiting. Beyond all that, Gawker has an ongoing war with Reddit, owned by the magazine company for which the CFO works, which suggests this is part of some petty, vindictive drive for vengeance, with the CFO as collateral damage.

My friend and former colleague Natasha Vargas-Cooper, now at Gawker’s Jezebel, justified the story by arguing that “stories don’t need an upside. Not everyone has to feel good about the truth. If it’s true, you publish.” But if “truth” is the only journalistic metric, that would mean nobody has any personal privacy of any kind, and that journalists should publish everything they learn about everyone, no matter how scurrilous or personal, without regard to whether it has any public interest or without regard to the privacy rights of the subject. She also invoked the ethos of adversarial journalism by arguing that journalists should “have an antagonistic relationship to people in power.” But even if you want to regard an accountant for a magazine company as “powerful” (I personally think every Gawker writer who can publish things of this sort has more power than this glorified corporate bean-counter), not every revelation about a person’s private life is justified simply because they’re influential. There has to be some public interest to the disclosure, otherwise it’s just sleazy tabloid gossip for prurient enjoyment, not adversarial journalism.

I’m not writing in order to pile on to the mob of outrage that has assembled against Gawker, even though I fully agree with its premises. Nobody needs me to repeat what is already clearly recognized about what they did here. Beyond that, I’ve long thought that Gawker – in addition to some click-baity garbage and malicious gossip – does a lot of really good, innovative journalism, and I’m a fan of several of its writers. No media outlet should be judged by its worst moment. I’m certain Gawker will do great journalism in the future and I’ll cite and praise it when they do.

I’m writing because the justification for this story offered by Gawker editor-in-chief Max Read is utterly laughable, and it’s grounded in a premise that is very common when people want to wallow in others’ private lives, yet incredibly toxic. To me, it’s Read’s justification that is worth discussing:

Let’s leave to the side the obvious farce of Read’s sanctimonious posturing as the morality police: oh, yes, Gawker is simply on the prowl to locate and punish adulterers who are vandalizing the sanctity of their marital vows. It’s just about solemn retribution for sinners. At least have the decency to admit that you did this because you’re hungry for clicks, or because you get voyeuristic pleasure by scrounging around in other people’s sex lives, or because vicariously living through other people’s private sexual experiences lets you alleviate your own personal boredom and frustration, or because you have some twisted notion that your jihad against Reddit is advanced by sexually humiliating its publisher’s accountant. Ditch the moralizing pretexts: nobody is going to buy that.

What’s significant to me is the unstated premise of Read’s claim: that the wife of this CFO is a victim. Read is posing as her chivalrous defender: he only published this article to avenge the wrong done to her. There’s even the strangely sexist formulation to his vow: Gawker, he declares, will always “report on married [] executives of major media companies fucking around on their wives.” What about when the cheating executives are women and the spouse is a man? He doesn’t say. His self-proclaimed mission is to protect this little lady from the harm that has been inflicted on her. This is far and away the most common justification cited for sniffing around in the private, sexual lives of people: we’re just upset for the victim-spouse.

But even if one wants to pretend that the sentiment is genuine, the logical flaw is glaring and obvious. Max Read has absolutely no idea what this CFO’s wife knows about what her husband does, nor does he have any idea what agreement or arrangement they have governing their marriage. Nor should he know, because it’s none of his business.

Long-term marriage between two complex adults is a very complicated dynamic to navigate. People invent all sorts of ways to manage that. It’s of course possible that the CFO’s wife thought she was in a rigid, life-long monogamous relationship with a purely heterosexual male and is shocked and betrayed to learn otherwise, but it’s also very possible that she was well-aware that he isn’t any of those things, and the spousal agreement between them permits this flexibility on one or both of their parts. It’s possible the wife is a victim of his private behavior, but it’s also very possible there are no victims and he did absolutely nothing wrong.

In order to know any of that, one has to delve into the most intimate and private aspects of their marriage, mucking around in the deepest crevices of their personal lives. That’s something no decent human being should have a desire to do when they haven’t been invited to do it. But that’s exactly what Read is doing here, although to justify it, he’s feigning knowledge that he in fact completely lacks: the private, intimate understanding between the CFO whose life he tried to destroy and the wife whom he has deluded himself into believing he’s protecting.

A good rule of decency is to stay out of the private, personal, and sexual lives of consenting adults, absent some very compelling reason to involve yourself (such as damaging hypocrisy on the part of a political figure). The temptations to intrude into and sit in judgment of those aspects of other people’s lives are powerful, but they’re almost always lowly, self-degrading and scummy. If you have any doubts about that, reading that vile Gawker post will permanently dispel them.

UPDATE: According to Gawker, “the managing partnership of Gawker Media voted, 5-1, to remove” the article. Gawker Media founder and publisher Nick Denton wrote a long post explaining why he supports that decision.

Photo: 1926 movie The Scarlet Letter

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