A Gawker ethic

Remember Chris Lee, the congressman who resigned after a woman he met on Craigslist sent a suggestive photo to Gawker that he had sent to her? The allegations and the resignation happened so quickly that it fell out of the news cycle fairly quickly.

Two D.C.-area transgender women have contacted Gawker with stories about making connections with the lawmaker through Craigslist. Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Weisman had suggested there was more to the story when he tweeted, “Back story on Chris Lee is gonna be juicy. Lots of reporters were chasing it this fall. None of us could break it.”

Since the resignation, I have held an interesting piece from Steve Kornacki of Salon in my “guilt file,” something I meant to highlight that week but ran out of time. Since new allegations have surfaced, it’s worth looking back at this piece for a look at a section of Gawker’s piece.

Yesterday, we reached out to Rep. Lee, whose support for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and vote to reject federal abortion funding suggests a certain comfort with publicly scrutinizing others’ sex lives.

That’s Gawker’s justification for running the story, apparently. Salon’s Kornacki responds:

Really? A congressman’s apparent use of Craigslist to seek an extramarital sex partner is only news because he also voted against taxpayer-financed abortions and for continuing DADT? It’s not news because … he’s a member of Congress stupidly using a gmail account in his own name to send shirtless images of himself to complete strangers? Would Gawker have not run this story if it involved, say, Rep. John Tierney, a married Massachusetts Democrat who supports public money for abortions and who opposed DADT? (To be clear: I’m not implying anything about Tierney; I picked his name because, geographically, he’s the closest married male congressman to my hometown who holds both of those issue positions.)

Kornacki notes that ironically, a a New Yorker profile reported that Nick Denton once announced that while he is in favor of gay marriage, he is against abortion: “if you’ve got to draw a line somewhere, it might as well be at conception.”

It’s unclear whether there are any religion angles in former Rep. Lee’s particular case. It seems difficult to find any details on his faith, as his profile listed him as Protestant, Religion does come up in Kornacki’s column when he points out that Gawker uses a similar rationalization when writing about John Travolta’s love life.

There’s nothing wrong with hooking up with guys in bathhouses; we firmly believe that consenting adults should have as much sex as humanly possible. But Travolta’s salacious trips to steam rooms are a little unusual considering the circumstances. Not only has he been married to Kelly Preston since 1991 (and fathered three children with her, including one that died and one that’s about to be born any day now), he’s also a prominent member of the Church of Scientology, which believes in “curing” people of their homosexuality. Critics of the church claim that information culled during “auditing sessions”–a process in which members clear themselves of “negative influences” and occasionally brings up details of sexual liaisons–is used to keep celebrities in the closet and in the church. Scientology’s position on homosexuality, needless to say, is controversial. Indeed the church’s hard-line stance has lost them a number of prominent members in recent years.

It’s interesting see religion become the scapegoat here. So guess what guys: if you are a member of a religious body that takes certain views on sexuality, it gives Gawker an excuse to dig into your own sex life. Kornacki suggests that the site is merely rationalizing its stories for the mega hits. Welcome to a Gawker ethic in religion reporting.

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  • Harold

    “Welcome to a Gawker ethic in religion reporting.”

    But, as you pointed out, they weren’t reporting on religion, unless you are suggesting that any attack on Scientology is an attack on religion generally. There’s nothing in the Lee story about religion. We don’t know if his opposition to gay rights and abortion is religion-based.

    For a public figure who espouses one ethic (and legislates it) and then lives another, they are really asking for some scrutiny. Is it any different from questioning the Catholicism of public officials who support abortion rights and gay rights. That’s a common approach in the conservative media. Are you equally concerned about that ethical approach?

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Harold,
    Good comments. Perhaps I was a bit sweeping. What I meant to point out was that Gawker seemed to use Travolta’s religion as a way to justify a story on his sex life. Sounds like a pretty strange rationalization for journalism. I did suggest that I didn’t know whether there was a religion angle in the Lee story.

    Public figures do deserve scrutiny, definitely. I didn’t understand why they had to justify it by connecting it to his votes on certain hot button issues. On questioning Catholicism, I wonder if it’s comparing apples and oranges, since that might raise a question about, for instance, whether the official could take communion. Again, I’m focusing on Gawker’s justification of these stories and wondering how that would apply across the board.

  • Jesi

    Ditto what Harold said. I can’t put it better myself.

  • Harold

    “I wonder if it’s comparing apples and oranges, since that might raise a question about, for instance, whether the official could take communion.”

    But that is questioning the Catholicism of a public figure and is agenda-driven. In that sense, no different from Gawker really.

    As for the Gawker ethic, we are talking about a gossip site. A Congressman–no matter what religion–is going to be scrutinized for sending shirtless pictures of himself to people on Craigslist. A politician who advocates for the homeless and poor, for instance, and then is seeing shouting at a homeless person or buying a lavish yacht is going to get similar scrutiny by Gawker.

  • Martha

    That last bit about Travolta is a little puzzling. It seems to be the good old rationale of ‘public interest’ combined with ‘hypocrisy’; in other words, since Travolta is a member of an organisation that allegedly disapproves of homosexuality (and I haven’t a clue as to Scientology policy on this topic), then he’s being a hypocrite if he has alleged same-sex encounters.

    But the trouble with that is, so it’s not about him being married and the father of a family? If he was, say, an Episcopalian, it’d be fine for him to commit adultery (that’s what they’re accusing him of, in essence) because The Episcopal Church is an inclusive one?

    Or would they accept that it would be okay for a Scientologist to commit heterosexual adultery, since the sexual encounters in that case would not be homosexual?

    Honestly, pinning it to religion is not well thought-out. The reason for such stories is ‘celebrity gossip appeals to the public’, the rationale is ‘journalistic revelation of hypocrisy on the part of public figures’ and saying “We think everyone should have as much sex as possible, so it’s not his adultery we disapprove of, it’s his religion – or rather, his religion’s views on such matters skewing either conservative or progressive”? Not a good excuse.

  • http://www.magdalenesegg.blogspot.com Rev. Michael Church

    I like to imagine that any member of Congress who engaged in this sort of duplicitous, immoral and frankly stupid conduct would be exposed by the press, and quickly, regardless of his or her political positions.

    Yes, people do have a right to privacy, and there is no easy answer to where that right is trumped by either freedom of the press or, more important, the public’s right to know things about their elected leaders. But if he were my congressman, this sort of behavior would unquestionably affect my decision at the next election, which seems to make the story fair game.

    All that said, Sarah, I think that your connection of the Lee case to the Travolta one may be too glib. They really are different — a movie star does not have the public trust that a member of Congress does, and therefore can claim a right to greater privacy. At least in theory; in fact, of course, they have little or none.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Michael, just to clarify – I was showing the Travolta case because it is different from covering politicians, but it has a religion element. Journalists do assume a different standard of privacy, but help me understand how that was glib. I don’t think I was saying they should be covered the same way.

  • http://www.magdalenesegg.blogspot.com Rev. Michael Church

    “Glib” may not have been the best word, and I never really got the thought out anyway. Sorry. I was thinking, but never wrote, that trying to discuss the Lee story here, when it has no discernible religious angle (except, of course, for the adultery he is not actually known to have committed) by comparing it to the Travolta story seemed like a reach. “Facile” is probably too strong a word, but you see where I’m going.

    This is an interesting journalism story, but I’m not sure there’s a good way to treat it as a religion story.

  • Judy Harrow

    I think the issue is hypocrisy — advocating, even legislating one behavior while practicing something quite different. This can happen on the Left as easily as on the Right. For example, a politician who advocates for environmental protection and holds stock in strip mines. I think it’s important for citizens to know when our elected officials are dishonest, and that hypocrisy is actually a more destructive form of dishonesty than ordinary financial corruption.

  • http://www.magdalenesegg.blogspot.com Rev. Michael Church

    I still haven’t got the thought out, and I’m going to try again. I’m taking issue with the way your piece starts out talking about coverage of Lee and winds up talking about Travolta, even though the two cases are, as you say, different from a journalistic perspective. Yes, the Travolta story is about religion, and Gawker may (arguably) be off-base in reporting it. But your header is about the Lee story, which isn’t about religion, and seems a lot more newsworthy either way.

    So the “Gawker ethic” you are trying to point to doesn’t really seem to apply equally to both stories, which makes it hard to see your real point.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Michael, the actual reporting is not the same, but the rationale seems similar. There’s a line a reasoning Gawker has in publishing these stories, the second one had to do with religion. I picked up on it because of the Lee story and acknowledged that it wasn’t necessarily a religion focus. Does that make more sense?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Sometimes I think that “hypocrisy” — and a particular definition of same — is the only thing the media can do w/ a post-modern worldview where relativism reigns supreme.

    I’m so bored with it.

  • http://catholicecology.blogspot.com/ Bill P.

    Sarah, your point is valid. There is a religious connection (albeit, an unstated one) between the Lee and Travolta stories—and Kornacki tells us why.

    While the Lee story may not discuss “religion” the way most readers of Getreligion.org would understand the word, the story is nevertheless very much a creature of how many critics of religious people (that is, typically the Progressive left) understand it.

    Your quoted text from the Lee story tells it all.

    Yesterday, we reached out to Rep. Lee, whose support for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and vote to reject federal abortion funding suggests a certain comfort with publicly scrutinizing others’ sex lives.

    To me, there’s an unspoken, wink-wink implication about Lee in this rationale. In the code of Progressive-speak, he’s one of those intolerant religious people, even if the r-word isn’t used. And in the minds of too many consumers of websites and contemporary news outlets, religion—especially Christianity (it’s safer to pick on then Islam)—is only, only, only about denying people a fun, wild, carefree, we’re-not-hurting-anyone sex life. Thus, they like to make fun of people who hold a high set of ideals but are too weak to attain them. Nothing like kicking a sinner while he’s down.

    It’s a sad state of affairs, but then, why should we expect every entrepreneur with a keyboard and an IP address (or their readers) to get religion?

  • Ben

    But Mollie would you give up on the Drudge headlines crowing about the amount of CO2 spent on a climate change conference, or the carbon footprint of Al Gore’s house? Or the number of calories served at a Michele Obama party after she just espoused an anti-obesity message? Or the cost of John Edwards’ haircut after he talks about Two Americas?

    The thing about hypocrisy that makes it worth pointing out is that it sometimes raises valuable questions about the limits of human nature and the rationality of having government or even religion try to extend those. Or, for those that don’t see religious ethics as something that can evolve, it’s still a valuable reminder of how difficult it is for us fallen folk to be good and that evokes a certain compassion to love the sinner. Jesus didn’t seem to get bored with hypocrisy.

    For instance, if Al Gore can’t even live a low carbon existence, then how can we reasonably expect massive government regulation of everyone’s carbon footprint will work? On the flip side, if a constant parade of people uphold a religious tenet that homosexuality is disordered, but can’t seem to help doing it themselves, then it at least raises some questions about whether it’s actually part of the order of things.

  • Jerry

    Sometimes I think that “hypocrisy” — and a particular definition of same — is the only thing the media can do w/ a post-modern worldview where relativism reigns supreme.

    I’m so bored with it.

    Mollie, I’m sure I took what you wrote incorrectly because I read what you wrote as being not concerned with hypocrisy. And I know that’s not correct given what the Bible says http://www.bible-topics.com/Hypocrites.html So I think it would help me if you restated your point.

  • Sylvia

    Sarah,
    I totally agree with your point here. It is a story because he is a Congressman and it should have been a story whether he was a Democrat or a Republican – for or against DADT.
    Regarding John Travolta, it’s very similar. Bringing up his religion is irrelevant. I am a Scientologist and can tell you there is no policy or attempt to “cure” people of homosexuality. In our DC Church there are a couple of very overtly homosexual members who are well accepted and actively participate regularly.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: For instance, if Al Gore can’t even live a low carbon existence,

    Al Gore may not live a low carbon lifesrtle, but many people do.

  • http://demographymatters.blogspot.com Donald

    @ Bill P: “In the code of Progressive-speak, he’s one of those intolerant religious people, even if the r-word isn’t used. And in the minds of too many consumers of websites and contemporary news outlets, religion—especially Christianity (it’s safer to pick on then Islam)—is only, only, only about denying people a fun, wild, carefree, we’re-not-hurting-anyone sex life.”

    More accurately, he’s one of those people belonging to the dominant religious tradition of the United States–Islam is pretty far from that sort of position–who says one thing but, enthusiastically, does another, even as he supports public policies which hurt people’s lives and their abilities to construct families and communities. Hypocrite?

    Thus, they like to make fun of people who hold a high set of ideals but are too weak to attain them. Nothing like kicking a sinner while he’s down.

  • Jerry

    I just read something which I think applies here. It certainly does in other similar situations:

    … people tend to simply divide the world up into do-gooders and evil-doers, so “psychologically, the perceived distance between a hero and a villain is quite small, whereas there’s a wide gap between a villain and a victim. This means that heroes are easily recast as evil-doers, whereas it’s very hard to turn a victim into a villain,” Gray explained.

    http://health.yahoo.net/news/s/hsn/heroesjudgedharshlyforbadbehaviorstudyfinds

    I think this finding is directly transferable to what has happened to Catholic priests and others who are held in high esteem when they are found to be evil doers.