On MSNBC today, Mediaite's Glynnis MacNicol and Contessa Brewer speculated that none other than this humble site is responsible for the State Department's investigation into contractor misbehavior in Kabul, Afghanistan. Oh, you crazy kids.
This morning MacNicol posted a story on Mediaite crediting Gawker for prompting a State Dept. investigation into the ArmorGroup security contractors by publishing photos of them acting out a gay porn version ofAnimal House. MacNicol's hilarious (if flattering) headline: "Does the Long Arm of Gawker Reach the State Department?"
Over at MSNBC — where MacNicol's P.R.-man boss Dan Abrams is the ex-boss and current contributor — they were fascinated. "The question that you guys have raised on the web site today," Brewer said to MacNicol, "is whether it took Gawker.com, a popular blog web site—the headline 'Our Embassy in Afghanistan Guarded by Sexually Confused Frat Boys,' along with those pictures—whether it took Gawker posting the pictures to prompt the State Department to take action."
Now, we're happy that we were the first news organization to publish photos of State Department security contractors engaged in homoerotic hijinks and hazing rituals. We're also happy that the State Department is launching an investigation into allegations of a "Lord of the Flies environment" among employees of ArmorGroup North America, the contractor tasked with ensuring the security of State Department facilities and personnel in Kabul. But it's also very strange to speculate that someone in the State Department said, "Oh shit, it's on Gawker now. Investigate!"
We think it's stranger still to assume, as MacNicol did, that we were fed the photos by the Project on Government Oversight, the good-government group that conducted the investigation into ArmorGroup North America, as part of a deliberate media strategy:
What may be the most interesting part of all this is that POGO chose to "provide" Gawker with those pictures early on, when no doubt there are plenty of mainstream organizations who would have been happy to pick up. Someone at POGO knows their new media stuff: Gawker is the online tastemaker and is capable of immediately getting a story out to a large, connected audience, who will pay attention and quickly pass it on.
Ah, if only it were that coordinated. But there's a funny story behind all this, one that's instructive about the way mainstream media organizations approach digital media and the way digital media organizations approach reporting.
Here's how it happened:
1. The Project on Government did an enormous amount of work uncovering a pattern of coercive and unprofessional behavior at ArmorGroup North America, including "extensive interviews with eyewitnesses, and examination of documents, photographs, videos, and emails." POGO's executive director, Danielle Brian, assembled that work into a letter to Hillary Clinton, which she sent along with attachments, photos and videos. Then she posted the letter on the internet.
2. We read it. It mentioned a whole bunch of pictures of gross stuff. We wanted to see the pictures!
3. We called POGO. They are lovely people. Could we see the pictures?
4. Yes! They e-mailed us the pictures.
5. They were gross, so we put them on the internet.
The end. That's how you launch a State Department investigation. What makes this amusing to us is that POGO held a news conference at 10 a.m. yesterday, six hours before we published the photos. Ten or so reporters showed up. Brian walked them through the letter, and then showed them all the pictures — the self-same pictures that we published — on a projector screen. POGO provided CD-ROMs with the photos to reporters who asked for them. After the conference, the AP, Mother Jones (that's how we initially became aware of the story), and a handful of other outlets ran stories, but no one thought to put the pictures of the guys drinking vodka off the other guys' butts online.
There's a lesson here for newspapers, maybe? And popular blog web sites?