The Gawker Ombudsman: Solidarity Vs. "Screw You And Your Friend Dana Vachon"

Two separate incidents on Gawker recently seemed to reveal a sense of conflict behind the scenes at the blog amongst its editors.

The first occasion occurred last Wednesday. In a post concerning a New York Observer profile of Dana Vachon, author of the forthcoming novel Mergers & Acquisitions, editor Alex Balk began his post on a hostile note.

Balk referred to

[t]hose of us who are not actually threatened by the size of Dana Vachon's advance, who feel that he's the best pure writer to have emerged from the blogosphere, and who know him personally and find his affable Westchester goofiness adorable

Balk's post was quickly followed by a dissenting piece from editor Emily Gould, who chose to speak for "those of us who are actually threatened by the size of Dana Vachon's $650,000 advance," and who found the concept of rich white men writing novels offensive on principle.

The aggravation in both posts was palpable. Balk's charged language at the outset of his argument seemed deliberately written to provoke Emily, while her response was both a vicious critique of Vachon that not so subtly dismissed Balk at the same time.

I asked both Balk and Emily about the topic. Emily responded, "I have nothing more to say on the topic of Balk patting his friend Dana Vachon on the back and welcoming him into the old boys' club. I think a long time ago I said (about something else) 'Not to come off as a bitter insecure poor person but ... oh, too late' and that applies here as well." Balk refused to comment on the matter entirely, noting only that the book was available for pre-order at Amazon for 32% off.

Was this a simple disagreement between colleagues on the controversial topic of large book advances or were other forces at play? No one at Gawker would directly address the issue, but someone familiar with the incident reports that it actually resulted in a physical altercation. "Emily shoved Balk and pushed him, and Balk said, 'Don't you touch me! Don't you touch me!'" says the source. "Balk grabbed her wrists to try to stop her, and [Emily] just started flailing. Balk is afraid now. He's a really nice man, too. He keeps a candy bowl of Adderall on his desk!"

The second incident was a subtle jab from the weekend staff directed at the weekday editors this Saturday. In a post about animals in the New York Times, weekend correspondent Jon Liu correctly noted that pretty much everything the Saturday and Sunday team write about is drawn from the Sunday Times, and that a recent incursion on that territory from the full-time staff was unwelcome. Liu ominously suggested that the Monday through Friday team need to "stay in your lane."

I talked to Doree Shafrir, the weekday editor responsible for the offending post. She seemed sympathetic, but ultimately unconvinced. "Those guys can go fuck themselves hard with something on fire. Seriously, nobody tells me to stay in my fucking lane. I will take the Chinatown bus up to whatever fancy-pants Ivy they're scribbling their little Modern Love jokes from and hack them up with rusty staples from the Magazine. Hey, weekend team, SUCK MY WWEEEEENNNNIEEEEEEEEE! SUCK IT!"

What is going on at Gawker?

"What you're seeing is the natural tension that you'll find in any workplace," says Managing Editor Choire Sicha. "As the writers navigate the new byline system and learn to deal with the fact that they don't have those easy go-to Sunday Times jokes for Monday anymore there's going to be a little irritation. Everyone's just trying to find their footing. Also, Balk is kind of a dick. I'm amazed it's taken him this long to piss Emily off that much."

Later, he added: "Truth be told, I won't be satisfied until Emily goes all fucking Lily Tomlin on him. Oh excuse me—now I have to go throw all of Emily's shit off her desk and knock some lamps around."

Your ombudsman finds this explanation convincing, but slightly troubling. While a diversity of opinion is good for any organization, seeing certain disagreements played out on the page can ultimately become tiresome and meaningless. Readers care more about the specific stories the editors are covering than they do about who wants to take a sharpened metal fork and shove it in someone else's temporal lobe (Balk and Emily, btw). In the future, the Gawker editors would do better to keep their clashes to themselves, or at least save them for those tedious IM transcripts that they post far too frequently. But that's a topic for another column.

Byron "Dan" Worthington III is Gawker's ombudsman and a noted crank with a lot of free time on his hands. He will write a sporadic column responding to the reader complaints that the editors usually send right to the trash file. This is his first column, which is to say, actually his third. He can be reached at tips@gawker.com. Please use the word "Ombudsman" in the subject line or the e-mail will probably be deleted by anxious editors before he can read it.

Previously: Accountability Vs. Sticking A Name On Every Goddamn Post