The American media has reacted with near-universal revulsion to an article Gawker posted last night (since taken down) that purports to expose the secret homosexuality of a married executive at Conde Nast. But Gawker might not just be losing goodwill: It could end up losing a lot of money or even facing criminal charges.
The gist of the story: A gay male escort, whom Gawker calls “Ryan” but who since has been identified as Leif Derek Truitt, approached Gawker with a series of pictures and text messages that show him planning a sexual encounter with David Geithner, the CFO of media company Conde Nast, in return for $2,500. Truitt apparently discovered that Geithner is the brother of former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and decided to blackmail him. He demanded that Geithner use his personal connections to help Truitt in a housing dispute he has with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). When Geithner tried to break off the arrangement, Truitt took everything to Gawker’s Jordan Sargent, who published it all.
Geithner, for his part, has denied everything, telling Gawker he is the victim of a “shakedown.”
Gawker’s decision to publish the article raises huge ethical questions, because it appears to be gratutiously ruining a person’s life for no real reason. Gawker has a history of trying to “out” politicians and other public figures as gay, but David Geithner, who is married to a woman and has three children, is no such public figure. He isn’t a political candidate or government official, and he’s never done anything to publicize his sex life or protest gay rights. Blasting the details of his sex life for everybody to hear about accomplishes nothing other than being lurid; in some ways, it’s akin to “revenge porn.”
Some have accused Gawker of hypocrisy, calling the article bullying of the sort Gawker has condemned.
But it’s also hardly a surprise coming from Jordan Sargent, who wrote the piece and has a history of bullying random, un-newsworthy people. Last year, he vilified a woman for chasing down a mugger and pressing charges against him, and just a few months ago he attacked a concertgoer for being white and singing along during a song that contained the word “nigga.” When people pointed out this seemed like pointless bullying, Sargent’s response was “He’s a white teen. He’ll be fine! We all were.”
Still, Thursday’s story was several steps beyond what has come before, and several journalists have directly attacked Gawker for grossly crossing the line:
I'm a fan of Gawker & several of its journalists, but that article is reprehensible beyond belief: it's deranged to publish that.
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) July 17, 2015
The #Gawker formula: Substitute sleaze for news and snark for thought.
— Cathy Young (@CathyYoung63) July 17, 2015
Even some Gawker employees are disavowing the article:
I had no part in this. I would not have chosen to run it as is. http://t.co/kHOz1YA87S
— Adam Weinstein (@AdamWeinstein) July 17, 2015
Gawker’s gratutious outing may not just have bruised its reputation, though: It could bruise its pocketbook.
Eugene Volokh, a professor at UCLA, told The Daily Caller News Foundation that even if the story is 100 percent true, Geithner could potentially sue Gawker for publishing private facts that served no public purpose.
“The theory is, if there’s certain information that has to do with a person’s private life that would generally be seen as offensive to have revealed, and that is not newsworthy, that can’t be published,” Volokh said. This tort doesn’t exist in every state, and Volokh said suits of this nature are typically restricted to where the plaintiff lives. If the state Geithner lives in allows such suits, Volokh indicated he would have a chance of prevailing.
“Based on what little I know about the story, it sounds like there would be a pretty strong claim,” Volokh said. If the claim is successful, Geithner would be able to claim damages stemming from the harm to his reputation, emotional distress, and more. Given his successful career prior to the article, the amount of damages inflicted could be all the greater.
If the story is false, as Geithner claims, then Gawker would be in far deeper trouble, as it could face a major libel lawsuit. Not only could Geithner extract emotional damages and the like, but Volokh said he could even win “presumed damages,” reflecting the assumption that he must have suffered major damages even if they can’t be directly proven.
Volokh also said that, depending on the state, Geithner could be able to win punitive damages. Massachusetts doesn’t allow for punitive damages in libel, though New York (where Conde Nast is headquartered) and many other states do. If Gawker’s behavior was found to be particularly egregious, the damages could go into the millions.
And with Gawker already facing a big lawsuit from Hulk Hogan for publishing his sex tape, that’s the last thing they need.
Volokh did, however, pour water on the idea that Gawker did anything illegal by potentially helping with Truitt’s blackmail scheme. As long as a piece of information can be legally published, he said, it doesn’t matter if it was obtained from a blackmailer.
“I think the blackmailing angle is not really legally relevent here,” he said.
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