Does Gawker's Gaffe Herald The End Of Clickbait?

Photo: Courtesy of Gawker.
Since its inception, Gawker has remained the uncontested king of sorry-not-sorry reporting on the internet. Gawker was "not sorry" before it was cool. It's had enormous success in mining ethical gray areas, with things like Gawker Stalker and breaking sex-tape news. But, last night, it went to a whole new level.

Writer Jordan Sargent posted a piece titled, "Condé Nast's CFO Tried To Pay $2,500 for a Night With a Gay Porn Star," detailing an almost-affair between David Geithner and an anonymous young man the publication calls "Ryan." The entire piece is not so much written as it is pasted together with a series of text exchanges and photos provided by the young man, apparently a gay porn star, who came to Gawker with the story in an obvious attempt to expose and evidently extort Geithner.

The story itself is not so shocking: Supposedly straight, married guy seeks out gay sex. What much of the internet is angered by is Gawker's willingness to post this story and even defend it. There are a lot of things to take issue with here: First, the tale leans on the whole "gay porn star" element as if to make this something more than just another humdrum sex scandal. Plus, the story gives an enormous platform to someone who (if all these texts are real) is clearly trying to manipulate another person using public humiliation. Finally, David Geithner may be a wealthy, powerful guy, but he's still a private citizen. At least when politicians get exposed like this (particularly those who use "family values" and sexual conservatism as a platform), it serves the purpose of shedding light on hypocrisy in front of the voting public. It's a shitty tactic, but it indirectly does some good. A story like this, on the other hand, helps no one.

Of course, it is true that if you decide to have an affair, you run the risk of getting caught — especially when you're a high-profile figure. We can't know the internal structure of David Geithner's marriage; he and his wife may have had an open relationship, or perhaps this affair was devastating news for his wife. Either way, she certainly didn't deserve this kind of public exposure. Nor, it seems, has Gawker considered the consequences of publicly outing someone. "Given the chance gawker will always report on married c-suite executives of major media companies fucking around on their wives," tweeted Gawker editor-in-chief Max Read. It's hard to tell if Read's tone is one of moral superiority or resignation to the role of muckraker.

Gawker ran its own risk in publishing a story like this, and while the publication is getting dragged through the mud this afternoon, it's probably also getting a healthy spike in traffic. In that sense, the risk paid off, and with Gawker's track record of bouncing back, it probably won't hesitate to post another story like this, should the opportunity arise. Because, we keep clicking on it.

It's the age-old internet dilemma and the motivating theory behind "clickbait." The term is commonly applied to headlines, but it applies to reader-grabbing content in general. It doesn't matter if the story leaves you angry and disappointed; it just matters that you clicked. It's a simple pattern we're all aware of: The more you click on a type of story, the more stories like that will be produced, the more popular the site will get, and the more authority it will have. We all moan about clickbait all day long, but we've yet to disrupt the cycle. People rolling their eyes at Gawker and its tactics has only made the media giant a guiltier guilty pleasure.

If I may break the fourth wall: As a writer in online media, it's a little scary to write a post like this. On the one hand, I don't want Gawker to get mad at me or Refinery29. On the other, both Refinery29 and I are guilty of clickbait! What — you thought we hadn't seen all those comments about how you're sick of the Kardashians? Believe me, we're sick of them, too. But, sometimes, it's those little Kim K posts that enable me (and my fellow staffers) to write about slightly-less-clicky things we really care about — and which deserve a platform. I wish we didn't have to make the trade-off, but I think it's a fair one.

But, what Gawker did yesterday exemplified a new clickbait low — one that didn't just compromise the publication's reputation, but other people's lives. If there is any upside, it's that this made us ask: Have we gone too far? Because, it's not just them. Gawker is ultimately responsible, but haven't we all, in a sense, clicked this story into being?

As media consumers, we're increasingly aware of the tactics being used to feed us content. The question now is: Have we had enough yet?

Note: Gawker founder Nick Denton has removed the post in question and issued a statement expressing his regrets.
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