On the ‘Craigslist Congressman’: Gawker licks many toads, but Chris Lee’s a prince

'Are all Congress Members toads?' (via Gawker.)
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The resignation of Rep. Chris Lee of Buffalo yesterday just three hours after Gawker broke the story of the congressman's internet transactions with a woman on Craigslist (in furtherance of which he took a shirtless posing-picture of himself on his Blackberry to send to her) has provoked the usual discussions. Is this guttersnipe reporting? Does the private life of a public official matter? Is the Internet safe?

I'd like to ask another question: How did this particular episode become a scandal?

In the early days of the Washington web site Wonkette (which was started by Denton with editor Ana-Marie Cox), stories about the misdeeds of congressmen and Washington worthies was constant grist. Anyone who knows Washington well knows that its underbelly is perfectly fascinating to the local constituencies of each of the low-level representatives who have become targets of gossip in Washington, and a small subset of Washington gossips. That's what Wonkette was in a unique position to cater to.

It was a great success in terms of traffic, if not as a business: In the Gawker Media universe of March, 2008, though the site logged 5.8 million pageviews, it was a hard sell to advertisers. Politics was its own thing, and Gawker Media's specialty at the time was with advertisers in consumer electronics and entertainment. Denton sold the site to its then-editor, Ken Layne, for an unreported sum speculated at the time to have been close to zero.

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Today, Denton leads Gawker.com, the original title, with the story, and proclaims on Twitter that stories like the Craigslist Congressman are the reason "news sites" have front pages.

What's really happening here is that Denton finally has a national, general-interest brand. A story like this, sold on Gawker, gets more reach with readers and gets him more from his advertisers than it could have during the period where he felt a "cold wind" coming for niche blogs.

The story of the Chris Lee scandal, then, is one about the Internet business, about reporting and how news is broken, and about the spaces news organizations are carving out for themselves on the web. And in it, Gawker Media has emerged as the driving force of a current kind of reporting that probably was not quite sustainable before, either by news desks or as a way of doing business, and which is not likely to be stolen from them by anyone else. But which also may not have legs.

New York Times media writer David Carr and ex-Gawker editor Choire Sicha have anatomized both the way Gawker can own a story that develops from someone else's original report, and the "Gawker exclusive." The obsessive follow-up on stories where the topic and the brand are a perfect match; the packaging of information available to anyone snoopy enough to hunt around for it and connect it all in the case of the latter. This, I'm arguing, is different, and could be big.

"The splash will help," Denton said to me this morning via IM, when asked what the story does for Gawker Media.

IT SIMPLY SHOULD NOT BE POSSIBLE THAT 435 MEN AND WOMEN on a moderate salary with decent expense accounts and somewhat substantial power and status, away for weeks at a time (depending on their lifestyle) from their families and social networks from home, should not embarrass themselves before some locals. So it also seems impossible that stories like the one reported by Gawker about Representative Chris Lee are not delivered more regularly, and that some percentage of them should have real legs. (This one, in all likelihood, won't. But Lee's still-anonymous Craigslist correspondent may not care one way or another.)

First, those locals have to have the means and motive of telling their stories. Advocates of off-the-bus journalism as a democratized ideal of political coverage will say that they already have it: The Internet is open to everyone. But even they are aware that to reach a significant audience requires a media brand.

What's more, self-publishing can be dangerous. Consider the case of the short-lived anonymous blog Washingtonienne. If Jessica Cutler, then a staff assistant to Sen. Michael DeWine, had given Wonkette her tales of sleeping with six Washington big-shots, sometimes in exchange for money, would she have been the target of a Wonkette investigation into her identity, or that of a protected source? Of course, in retrospect it seems Cutler was ready for the publicity, since it led to a Playboy spread and the publication of a novel that sold for a reported $300,000.

But the point is that, for the civilian population that would prefer to remain civilian, tipping off Gawker isn't just the surest way to promulgate something widely: It's perceived to be the easiest.

In an interview with the woman who gave the story to Gawker published this morning on black news and culture website TheLoop21, "Anonymous" said, "My friend said I should give it to Gawker, but I did not want to be exposed. I wanted to remain anonymous, but she assured me Gawker would keep me anonymous."

Recent evidence suggests that while Gawker can keep its promises to tipsters, it doesn't necessarily stop other people from finding out who they are.

With its publication of pictures from the Halloween evening of Maryland Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, Washington civilians got a taste of just how much they could change things in the Capital by writing Gawker. The safety of doing so—after all, Christine O'Donnell's bedmate of that evening was ultimately exposed—is the thing Gawker might have to work on.

But then, Gawker offers a national news platform for this kind of story. Simply blogging it yourself is unlikely to result in the kind of saturation-bombing coverage you presumably would like to see if you are telling the story to the media in the first place. And while lots of commenters on Gawker and elsewhere have been quite articulate about Chris Lee's fittingness for an expose because of his positions on gays in the military, the likelihood is that the vast majority of those commenters googled him and looked up his votes and speeches after having the term "Chris Lee" to search under, not because they'd been doggedly following his voting record already.

Consider Roll Call's rather awkward naming of Chris Lee in an article about new Majority Leader Jack Boehner's scolding of Congress for its behavior in D.C. Did you read it? I was alerted to it today, as a value- add from political writers I read regularly, on yesterday's Gawker break.

In other words, it's the fact the story is on Gawker that makes it national news, as much as it's because, presumably, a congressman from Buffalo gets to cast votes in a national legislative body. (How quickly would this have resulted in resignation if the legislator had been a state senator? Ask Hiram Monserrate, who ran for reelection after glassing his girlfriend's face.)

At different times in the recent history of Washington that space has been opened up, only to close down again fairly quickly. The reasons for this are simple enough: A venue has to be able to make hay when the sun is shining on those kinds of scoops, and be serving up enough stuff to the audience of Washington civilians in the interstices to stay front-of-mind as a potential outlet for their funny, or shocking stories. Gawker is not the only Denton site that's opened up this space, and the space is not just in Washington. Remember how Gawker Media's tech property, Gizmodo, got hold of a next-generation Iphone, with the help of a dopey Apple product-tester who lost it at a bar in Redwood City, Calif.? More recently, how Deadspin revealed that Brett Favre, while playing for the Jets, had texted pictures of his nether regions to Jenn Sterger? How a reader tipoff based solely on the physical resemblance of the performer in the video to the wife of Jets coach Rex Ryan resulted in the exposure of the couple's swinging and foot-fetishism? How, as recently as this week, a young woman's bragging about bedding Jets star Mark Sanchez resulted in yet another Deadspin sexposé? (It's important to note that before publication the tipster in this case tried to retract the story, unsuccessfully; Deadspin honored its commitment to her anonymity, but it was too late when it became clear that it would be easy for anyone else following up on the story to expose. So the fact that she is now a known person is a lesson in tipstering that's arguably more powerful than the lesson that even Gawker pretends Lee ought to have learned about anonymity on the internet.)

What's interesting is the traction Gawker is gaining in this particular field, and that, despite the fact that it is wide open, they are unlikely to lose it to a competitor. If the other guy is fast enough he won't be big enough; if he's big enough he won't be interested enough.

Of course, investigation and verification is required once the tip comes in. But it's largely—and I do not say this to in any way diminish the journalistic successes—a passive role. Gawker promotes itself as a receptacle of these sorts of exposes, of which in Washington alone there must be hundreds waiting in the wings. So it's fertile territory. But Gawker, far from treading on turf that ought to belong to more prominent national news outlets, is essentially curating a form of citizen journalism which can only build with each big, clean news break. We don't know the identity of the woman who sent Gawker this correspondence, but the likelihood that reporter Maureen O'Connor will be able to tap her again for more stories about congressmen is pretty low. If the story had come from, say, a sourpuss with an office in the Rayburn Building, it might be a different story.

Denton, asked why he thought Anonymous went to Gawker instead of The Washington Post or Politico, said, "Because we actually publish."