You may be thinking that it wouldn’t be worth your time to read the Playboy interview with Gawker’s Nick Denton, but you would be wrong. I think Denton represents something awful (even though I’m a compulsive reader of his gossip site), but I think the techno-utopian Denton is also a key media figure of our time — and that he’s onto something about the way our media ecology is changing. He thinks it’s going to be great; I think the opposite. But I do think the world is going to look a lot like Nick Denton foresees. Excerpt:
PLAYBOY: You’ve said the mission of Gawker is to publish the stories that journalists talk about with one another in private but never write.
DENTON: Yeah, the founding myth of Gawker happens to be true. I was a journalist at theFinancial Times. Whenever you work at a newspaper, particularly a newspaper with high standards, you’re struck by the gap between the story that appears in the paper the next day and what the journalist who wrote that story will tell you about it after deadline. The version they tell over a drink is much more interesting—legally riskier, sometimes more trivial, and sometimes it fits less neatly into the institution’s narrative. Usually it’s a lot truer. The very fact that a journalist will ask another journalist who has a story in the paper, “So what really happened?”—now, just think about that question. It’s a powerful question. It’s the essence of all meaningful gossip. That’s why this discussion system, Kinja, is so important. It actually allows us to fulfill our original objective, which is to treat everybody equally, to find interesting stories wherever they are, not just if a celebrity is involved. That’s not economical with paid journalists doing all the work. We need reader help. If we’re covering you, we need your colleagues to rat you out or your exes to put in bits and pieces. It has to be a collaborative effort.
PLAYBOY: So Kinja is your bet that in 10 years we will all be part of a crowdsourced gossip press reporting on one another.
DENTON: The Panopticon—the prison in which everybody is exposed to scrutiny all the time. Do you remember the website Fuc*ed Company? It was big in about 2000, 2001. I was CEO of Moreover Technologies at the time. A saleswoman put in an anonymous report to the site about my having paid for the eye operation of a young male executive I had the hots for. The story, like many stories, was roughly half true. Yes, there was a young male executive. Yes, he did have an eye operation. No, it wasn’t paid for by me. It was paid for by the company’s health insurance according to normal procedure. And no, I didn’t fancy him; I detested him. It’s such a great example of Fuc*ed Company and, by extension, most internet discussion systems. There’s some real truth that gets told that is never of a scale to warrant mainstream media attention, and there’s also no mechanism for fact-checking, no mechanism to actually converge on some real truth. It’s out there. Half of it’s right. Half of it’s wrong. You don’t know which half is which. What if we could develop a system for collaboratively reaching the truth? Sources and subjects and writers and editors and readers and casual armchair experts asking questions and answering them, with follow-ups and rebuttals. What if we could actually have a journalistic process that didn’t require paid journalists and tape recorders and the cost of a traditional journalistic operation? You could actually uncover everything—every abusive executive, every corrupt eye operation.
PLAYBOY: What are the implications for the broader society? What does America look like from inside the Panopticon?
DENTON: When people take a look at the change in attitudes toward gay rights or gay marriage, they talk about the example of people who came out, celebrities who came out. That has a pretty powerful effect. But even more powerful are all the friends and relatives, people you know. When it’s no longer some weird group of faggots [N.B., Denton is openly gay. — RD] on Christopher Street but actually people you know, that’s when attitudes change, and my presumption is the internet is going to be a big part of that. You’re going to be bombarded with news you wouldn’t necessarily have consumed—information, humanity, texture. I think Facebook, more than anything else, and the internet have been responsible for a large part of the liberalization of the past five or 10 years when it comes to sex, when it comes to drinking. Five years ago it was embarrassing when somebody had photographs of somebody drunk as a student. There was actually a discussion about whether a whole generation of kids had damaged their career prospects because they put up too much information about themselves in social media. What actually happened was that institutions and organizations changed, and frankly any organization that didn’t change was going to handicap itself because everyone, every normal person, gets drunk in college. There are stupid pictures or sex pictures of pretty much everybody. And if those things are leaked or deliberately shared, I think the effect is to change the institutions rather than to damage the individuals. The internet is a secret-spilling machine, and the spilling of secrets has been very healthy for a lot of people’s lives.
A couple of things. One, Denton is absolutely right about the “official story” — what’s in the papers — and the “real story,” which is to say, the story journalists tell each other. Sometimes there is a discreditable reason for covering up the real story. But more often than not, journalists know things they cannot report because of justifiable legal concerns, or because they cannot prove it (yet). It can be incredibly frustrating when something you know to be true cannot be made public because you fear a libel suit, or because you don’t want to risk publishing something damaging to someone’s reputation unless you can be as certain as humanly possible that it’s true. But this is a better system than what Denton proposes. If you are yourself subject to malicious gossip that’s barely true, or entirely untrue, you will understand why this is so.
In American libel law, we have a strong principle, one that’s lacking in British libel law: Truth is the only absolute defense against libel. If a media outlet in the US can prove something is true, they cannot be found guilty of libel.
Second, aside from a surveillance state, is there anything more horrifying than a society in which everyone spies on everybody else, looking for signs of sin, frailty, and broken humanity, so they can record it and spread the news? What could be more malicious? What could be more self-deceptive, with a million vicious gossips convincing themselves that tattletaling is the virtuous thing to do? We have all been there. There have been times, and still are times, when I engaged in nasty gossip out of malice, because I didn’t think the person I was gossiping about had a right to his or her reputation. I have never passed on anything I knew was untrue, but that’s hardly a defense. I have often passed on things I wasn’t sure were true, but that I thought might be true, because they defamed an unlikable person. I have often passed on things I knew to be true, because of the same thing. Just typing this makes me aware of times I’ve recently done this; I will need to take this to confession this weekend.
For someone in my line of work, this is a huge temptation. It’s hard to tell the difference between legitimate and important information, and pure gossip. The line is often hard to draw. Among Christians, the line is especially difficult, because bad people with something to hide can and do rely on moral prohibitions against gossip (“detraction”) to silence those who have damaging information that ought to be made public. Still, it’s very, very easy to convince oneself that one is justified in publicizing another’s sins and failings because the Cause makes it right.
Readers of Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness Of Being will recall the contrast between the lovers Franz and Sabina. Franz, a Swiss academic, believes in total transparency, on the theory that only when you live in total honesty will your life be truthful. Sabina, a refugee from communist totalitarianism, believes that your life can only be truthful if a sphere of privacy exists, for only then can you be sure that you are not performing for the eyes of others.
Sabina is deceptive, but I find her deceptiveness more humane than Franz’s views on transparency. It seems to me that freedom and human decency require a zone of privacy, and that means we must tolerate a certain degree of hypocrisy and other kinds of evil for the sake of the common good. I absolutely hate the kind of pro-life protesters who used to show up outside the homes of abortion doctors to demonstrate, on the grounds that a doctor who kills unborn children doesn’t deserve to have a zone of privacy. This is a monstrous doctrine. Yes, the abortion doctor’s actions are monstrous. But if we decide that we have a right to violate the privacy of someone simply because we disapprove of their conduct, we are dangerously destabilizing society.
This is the world Nick Denton is helping bring into being: a decentralized police state in which everyone with a smart phone is a potential Stasi agent. What happens to the prospect of trust, the basis for human solidarity, in that world? Denton thinks that obliterating the idea of shame will bring about the New Jerusalem. I think it will instead build the City Of Dis.