Nick Denton tells a crowd there isn’t enough Internet gossip

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Denton, Shirkey and moderator Sunny Bates. ()
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"Everyone knows that Anderson Cooper is gay."

So pronounced Gawker Media proprietor Nick Denton, perched last night atop a tall stool on a small stage on the third floor of The Standard Hotel, before questioning his own pronouncement.

"Does everyone here know that Anderson Cooper is gay?"

Denton was joined onstage by new-media guru Clay Shirky, Yahoo! pop-tech journalist Virginia Heffernan, former Daily News gossip columnist George Rush and digital strategist Sunny Bates, who was also the evening's host. The audience of a few dozen people, who'd gathered at 7 p.m. for a discussion about the state of gossip in the digital-media era (or whatever you want to call it), burst into laughter.

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Regular readers of Gawker are pretty sure they've got Cooper's number, no doubt. But as Denton's bloggers have pointed out over and over again, "mainstream" media outlets continue to tiptoe around the matter, since Cooper has himself repeatedly refused to confirm or deny reports about his personal and romantic life.

As far back as 2009 Gawker called out a Page Six item that read, in full:

Anderson Cooper has been consoling himself over falling ratings by living it up in Jaipur, India, at one of the world's most opulent hotels. The CNN star was spotted Tuesday with his muscular friend, Benjamin Maisani, an owner of East Village bar Eastern Bloc, at the Rambagh Palace, named the best hotel in the world by Conde Nast Traveler. Cooper's $3,200-a-night room features a four-poster mahogany bed and views of the gardens of the former Maharaja palace. Our source said, "Anderson's room has a large round bathtub. On the first night it was filled with bubbles and sprinkled with red rose petals." CNN declined to comment.

The writer of the Gawker post, Brian Moylan, declared: "Enough: Anderson Cooper is very gay. It's time he said it."

More recently, The New York Times produced an article about the debut of Cooper's new day-time talk show, "Anderson." The review, by Alessandra Stanley, is rife with double meaning.

"The one thing [Cooper] hasn’t done yet—and the lacuna grows more obvious and awkward with each show—is talk about his love life," Stanley wrote in September. "It’s hard to see how he can continue to leave that out selectively and preserve one particular zone of privacy while building a confessional talk show wrapped around his good looks, high spirits and glamorous adventures."

Of course, that obvious and awkward lacuna extends to Stanley's review itself. And that lacuna was the point of Denton's presentation.

It's by now a bromide that the line separating author and audience is nearly totally erased. In part that's a function of the quick publishing and broadcasting mechanisms, many offering a near guarantee of anonymity, available to anyone with a secret to share with the world. And to a lesser degree, it's a function of the proliferation of blogs that are willing to take material from anonymous sources and publish it without confirmation, waiting for the wide web to make the call.

Denton, whose websites fall somewhere along this spectrum, was arguing that digital culture has forced surprisingly few "open secrets" like Cooper's sexuality into the mass consciousness.

"The real story about gossip on the Internet is how little has changed," he said, "and how little [Gawker's] been able to change things. I'm actually disappointed in how little we've done. ... If you take the real measure of secrets that are out there, that are known by people on the inside, and what appears in the media, there's still a gigantic gap."

It wasn't long ago that Denton changed Gawker's tagline, from something rather generic about gossip from New York to the Beltway to Hollywood, to its current one: "Today's gossip is tomorrow's news." Making gossip more transparent has been his conceptual hobbyhorse for some time now.

Last night, Denton predicted that within the next five years, the gap he described would be eliminated, diminishing the role of the journalist as the gatekeeper of the secrets of the power elite.

"Everything open. All secrets out there," he said. "We need a way to take all this information, to have it out there in public, whether it's, Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, whether it's, Nick Denton paid for an eye operation for a guy he fancied, it needs to be out there, and it needs to be subject to challenge. We need to be able to establish the truth of those things. And that doesn't really exist right now. It's something we're working on."

He elaborated.

"Charge, challenge, examination, cross-examination," he said. "A discussion that's actually out in public. Maybe the person making the charge is anonymous. ... So you need a system to challenge those people so that the true allegations are validated, and the ones that aren't are not."

At least one of Denton's fellow panelists objected, if not to the prediction, then to the prescription.

"The problem I have with that," said Rush, "is there are a lot of sick, anarchistic mischief makers who would post something about someone just to get it out there. And it would be a way of hurting the person they wanted to hurt. Unlike old-fashioned newspapers where you can print a retraction and then fish are wrapped in it, it never really goes away on the Internet."

"There are sick mischief-makers who send in tips to newspapers," Denton countered. "Where we differ is that I would trust some organized crowd to vet a story as much as I would trust a journalist to do so. I would rather that process take place in public."

When the event was opened up to questions from the audience, a woman in the front row begged for an example of some scoop or scandal that has long gone untold.

The panelists turned to Rush, who co-wrote the News' famous "Rush & Molloy" column with his wife, Joanna Molloy, before taking a buyout from the paper in 2010.

Rush apparently didn't have a smoking gun in his pocket. But he did recall one story that he "held back on" during his years as a professional gossip, concerning the marriage of Robert Kennedy Jr. and Mary Richardson Kennedy, who committed suicide last month after her marriage to Robert had all but dissolved.

"We'd heard that Bobby had been cheating on her, which is something he's now acknowledged in the divorce affidavit he leaked to Newsweek to besmirch his late wife," Rush said. (Editor's note: The source of the affidavit leaked to Newsweek was not revealed in the original article and hasn't yet been established, at least, in the "mainstream media.") 

"At the time, I called her and asked if it was true that they were having trouble, and she quite painfully said no," Rush continued. "It was really sad, and I just didn't feel like we wanted to turn the knife."

Was it the right decision?

"In hindsight, I don't know whether we were helping or hurting by not doing it," said Rush, to which Heffernan replied: "That's a pretty powerful argument for transparency."