I am going to use this column to do something I will never be able to do again—convey my first impressions of intensive Gawker-reading. Until I was asked to consider taking on this job, I had been only a casual reader, mainly clicking on the Stalker map to track the whereabouts of Kelly Ripa (Kelly: I know you love me! Why do you insist on playing these games?). Since that day, I have read more Gawker than is typical of any but the fruitlessly employed and Kurt Eichenwald's lawyer.
Before this binge, for instance, I almost never turned on the computer during daytime except in times of major horniness. As it happened, on the day I first received a call about this job, it was about 4 p.m. when I put down the phone, fired up the laptop and headed over to Gawker. I was not yet equipped with an RSS reader, so for the next several hours I dipped in and out while I went about other business. My strongest reaction that first afternoon was, "Who are these people and why are they shouting at me?"
It was mid-March. The first shouting I read came on a post about Anna Nicole Smith. The post was so emphatic that a reader said, "Well, I guess there's no need to do the paternity test. Let's just declare Stern the father." This is analysis, I thought, and remembered a favorite saying of the day that had once been posted on the newsstand where I buy fetish magazines: "It doesn't have to be hard and veiny to still be a dick."
Next up was a post from Doree Shafrir. Shafrir wasn't exactly yelling at me, but the porn stand quote came to mind again. My reading was interrupted by a phone call (the fucking escort canceled again), and when I returned to the living room, two more heads were hollering. It was Balk and Emily Gould mixing it up about Dana Vachon. Back and forth they argued, with increasing vehemence and loathing. It was incredibly pointless, and only amused the sales team at Riverhead, who were no doubt thrilled for the publicity.
I was close to concluding that my sensibility was too far removed from that of Gawker for me to represent its audience, but I hung in there, as I had been asked to do, and kept reading. I learned more than a thing or two from analysts and editors like Choire Sicha, whose New Yorker piece was, until yesterday's madness about Portfolio, the longest thing ever to be posted to Gawker. I got several good laughs a day, most days, from the photo captions. When I wanted my gossip straight up, I could go, most days, to the Gossip Roundup.
Still, that first impression has remained. In the past two months, I have read a lot of yelling, from some but not all of the editors—that Joshua David Stein is unfailingly demure when away from the bowling lanes—from some but not all of the commenters, and always from Balk. The yelling editors sound manic. The yelling commenters sound angry. None of the yellers sounds to me as if he is reacting authentically to something he cares about. Asked to confirm this impression, Balk admitted that it was indeed the case. "Two months on this job and you learn not to care about anything, particularly self-respect."
Maybe the vast majority of Gawker's readers enjoy this ramped-up, in-your-face, I'm-the-show approach to New York media and gossip. Maybe it is not my business as an ombudsman to object to the hollering just because it doesn't suit me. I hope your responses to this column will let me know how far off or close to the mark I am about this, and I will take note, especially about hollered highlights, because after all, it does no serious harm. Neither does hollering about "what dead Playboy centerfold you'd stick it to."
There is harm, though, when the loud, cocksure approach is applied to certain off-the-blog issues. Take Danniellynn's disputed paternity. In mid-March, when they were burying the pill-popping model, a tip suggested that Smith's daughter's father was actually Smith's son. Lab tests would be conducted within a few days' time, but suspending judgment till the evidence is in does not suit the formats of Gawker blogs, which require judgment to be passed on 54 or more topics a day. The bloggers need material, so Danniellynn's incestuous origin was rushed straight to judgment within hours of the first sketchy e-mail.
The child was not only presumed to be the product of the most sickening potential coupling in 2007, she was immediately declared to be so. The editors hedged their bet by calling the rumor "ridiculous" but quickly added that the source seemed credible. I suspect most readers quickly forgot the "ridiculous."
When lab tests named Larry Birkhead the father last week, I did not hear any apologies. It is, in my opinion, Anna Nicole Smith's misfortune to have become a running Gawker story line (also that whole dying thing), which too often means a designated caricature who—like Atoosa Rubenstein or Dave Zinczenko or the socialite of the day—is considered open game for character assassination. I am as skeptical as anyone about what Zinczenko has to say about his oral sex skills but I still cringe every time I see his name next to the words "subpar oral sex provider." Mostly because of the image it puts in my head.
It's not fair or realistic to ask on-Internet opinionators to be as informed or measured in their off-the-cuff responses to breaking news, often indistinguishable from breaking rumor, as a magazine writer can be on his longer leash. But I think it is fair to ask a greater degree of humility and suspended judgment than is often seen on Gawker. And I think it is fair to ask Managing Editor Choire Sicha to encourage less ill-informed vehemence. "Good idea," responded Sicha via e-mail. "Also, go fuck yourself! Fuck yourself hard! Have a great day!"
I could go on, but I think I've made my point. Besides, my subjective impression is that the over-the-top shouted certainty of opinion has toned down a bit since I began my binge-reading in mid-March. Maybe the lead-up to a celebrity paternity test is the peak of the yelling season. Or maybe I have just gotten used to it. I hope not.
One reassuring sign: After the Duke lacrosse rape case unraveled, the editors did not say anything about it except to mock one of the young men whose life has been by both an overzealous prosecutor and a media rush to judgment. They did mock him, however, on a real-estate related matter. They seemed to realize that one can viciously malign a victim without shouting.
As I gather first impressions, I needed that lesson, too. But that's a subject 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, probably his fifth. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.