Gawker deletes post outing rival executive after reader backlash

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The logo of Gawker Media's trademark news website. (Photo: Handout)

The logo of Gawker Media’s trademark news website. (Photo: Handout)

Gawker Media has removed a story on its trademark news website amid criticism from readers that the organization was complicit in an extortion plot against an executive at a rival publication.

Nick Denton, Gawker Media’s owner, wrote on the website’s social network Kinja that the story written on Thursday by Gawker reporter Jordan Sargent did not contain interesting-enough source material and therefore should not have been published on the site.

“I have had the post taken down,” Denton wrote, adding that it was the first time the site had voluntarily withdrawn a news story after publication for a reason other than legal settlement or factual inaccuracies.

The now-deleted story centered around an unidentified male escort who claimed to have been made an offer of cash-for-sex by David Geithner, the current chief operating officer of the media giant Conde Nast and the brother of former U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

According to Gawker’s Jordan Sargent, Geithner arranged to pay the sex worker $2,500 for an encounter in Chicago during a business trip. According to text messages cited by Gawker, Geithner canceled the meeting after the escort discovered the true identity of his client and solicited a legal favor using the executive’s political connections.

Geithner denied the accusation, according to Gawker. The article was published Thursday evening under the headline “Condé Nast’s CFO Tried To Pay $2,500 for a Night With a Gay Porn Star.”

In a tweet published after the article surfaced, Gawker’s editor-in-chief Max Read wrote that “given the chance, Gawker will always report on married C-suite executives of major media companies fucking around on their wives.”

But Denton did not express the same sentiment in his post on Friday, writing that the choice to publish the article was “a decision I regret.”

We put truths on the Internet. That has been the long-standing position of Gawker journalists, some of the most-uncompromising and uncompromised on the Internet,” Denton wrote. “I cannot blame our editors and writers for pursuing that original mission.”

Denton said the post, which garnered nearly half a million page views or “clicks” by Friday afternoon, was being removed because the source material — the text messages — did not rise to the level of interest needed for a story on Gawker.

“This decision will establish a clear standard for future stories,” Denton said. “It is not enough for them to simply be true. They have to reveal something meaningful. They have to be true and interesting. These texts were interesting, but not enough, in my view.”

The actual process for removing the article was a bit more involved than Denton led on. According to a story published by Gawker’s J. K. Trotter, the piece was retracted after Gawker Media’s managing partners voted 4-2 to delete it. Tommy Craggs, an executive editor who assisted Sargent on the story, and Gawker’s chief legal counsel Heather Dietrick voted to keep the post.

Before the story was pulled, hundreds of readers left comments on Kinja and on the site’s Facebook page blasting Gawker’s decision to publish it.

“This is not journalism,” wrote Gabrielle Vance on Facebook. “This is a horrible, vile public shaming. Gawker’s complicity in this escort’s smearing of someone he found out was famous/important is completely uncalled for.”

Other comments expressed similar sentiments against Gawker and Sargent for the post, with one Facebook user writing, “this may be the first article in Internet history where the comments are more humane than the actual story.”

The controversy comes at a time when Gawker is embroiled in an ongoing legal issue involving the site’s decision to publish a celebrity sex tape featuring wrestling superstar Terry Bollea, better known by his stage name “Hulk Hogan.” Bollea has sued Gawker alleging his right to privacy was violated when the site published the tape as part of a news article.

“It’s not in the public interest to see Hulk Hogan’s wiener per se,” Denton said in an interview with Fortune published Thursday. “But it is in the public interest to understand news stories. Like it or not, news and public life involves sex and drugs and other matters people might find indecent. The only thing we find indecent is media that ignores stories people care about.”

For Denton, the Condé Nast story is likely one he wish he had ignored.

“I believe this public mood reflects a growing recognition that we all have secrets, and they are not all equally worthy of exposure,” Denton wrote on Friday. “I can’t defend yesterday’s story as I can our coverage of Bill O’Reilly, Hillary Clinton or Hulk Hogan.”

Editor’s note: Since this post was originally published, Gawker has corrected their story on the event to indicate that four people, not five, voted in favor of removing the article. Two people, not one person, voted against it. This post has been updated with the corrected numbers.