Gawker.com pays source for raunchy exposé
Gawker.com paid in the “low four figures” for a scoop on Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, Thursday, and got a maelstrom of backlash (not to mention page views and free advertising) for its efforts.
In the article, an anonymous writer describes a "one-night stand" he had with O’Donnell three years ago.
The tone is that of a frat boy simultaneously bragging about the older woman he bagged and mocking her (insights included her lack of waxing, a “big turnoff”).
Gawker editor Remy Stern defends the payout for what he says is a great story. He also says Gawker checked the accuracy of the writer’s claims.
In conversation with the Poynter Institute’s Michael Calderone, Stern argues this is not some petty smear campaign. Stern says O’Donnell’s private actions run directly counter to the values the politician publically espouses and “had nothing to do with her being a woman.”
Twitter critics and online news organizations seem to disagree.
“Today we are all Christine O’Donnell” tweeted Salon.com’s Justin Elliott, Thursday.
After all, how credible is a paid news source?
Any journalism professor teaching a first-year ethics class will tell you paying sources diminishes your reputation. You’re quickly in the company of such beacons of journalistic integrity as The National Inquirer and any number of celebrity rags (The industry seems divided on this one, allowing the Inquirer to compete for the Pulitzer Prize, earlier this year).
Jack Shafer of Slate Magazine argues his objections to paying for information are “mostly practical.”
If reporters start paying sources, a lot more people will offer them information, and a lot of that information will be inaccurate. That means journalists will spend more time combing through who is telling the truth and who is trying to make a quick buck. Shafer argues the cost of sorting through the junk would exceed the cost of the information you bought.
Of course there is always the exception to the rule, but is Gawker’s story on O’Donnell an exception?
Probably not. Gawker has paid for stories in the past. Remember Brett Favre’s voice mail messages to a reporter and the alleged photos of his penis?
Despite this, many consider the website to be on the up and up: a site delivering sardonic reports on the day’s news and witty jabs at celebrity ridiculousness.
Shafer says he has never paid a source for information. But what constitutes payment? Buying a source a coffee? Lunch? Driving him or her home after the interview? Shafer, and scores of other journalists, freely admit doing these things.
Then again, many respectable institutions pay for information, including the police and lawyers.
For O’Donnell’s part, her communications director has posted a reply to the Gawker story on Facebook:
“This story is just another example of the sexism and slander that female candidates are forced to deal with. From Secretary Clinton to Governor Palin…Christine’s political opponents have been willing to engage in appalling and baseless attacks – all with the aim of distracting the press from covering the real issues.”
The statement cites support from The National Organization for Women, which says the piece “operates as public sexual harassment”, and belittles the fact the source remains anonymous.
Of course, this reporter would argue there is a time and place for anonymous sources (though perhaps not here), but that’s another blog post…