The ethics of anonymous gossip


Yesterday gossip site Gawker single-handedly whipped up a scandal that led to the resignation of a NY congressman.

At 2:33 PM, Maureen O’Connor published a post on Gawker containing flirty emails and a shirtless photo supposedly sent from a [married] congressman, Rep. Chris Lee, to an unidentified woman in response to a Craigslist dating ad.

By 5:30 PM, Lee had resigned from Congress.

It’s not the first time that Gawker has published anonymous accounts of the sex lives of political figures.

You’ll remember back in October, they published some unnamed guy’s story of a Halloween night [allegedly] spent drinking, flirting, and making out with Christine O’Donnell, then Delaware Republican Senate candidate.

Back then, the post was met with much disdain, prompting a strongly-worded statement from NOW, among others, condemning “sexist, misogynist attacks against women” and calling Gawker’s decision to run the piece “public sexual harassment”.

But yesterday’s post on [ex]Congressman Lee is raising ethical alarms for different reasons.

First of all, the subject of the post is an actual elected official, not just a candidate, which I think raises the stakes a bit. Second of all, the subject is married. That changes the accusation from good old-fashioned flirtatious fun to good old-fashioned attempted adultery. Third of all, no contact was ever made, or at least it wasn’t reported in the piece. This, for me, makes our collective judgment as the general public feel a lot more petty. Fourth of all, publishing this piece had a very concrete political result- the congressman resigned as a direct consequence of Gawker’s decision to publish the piece. And lastly, of course, the subject of this most recent anonymous Gawker expose is a guy. So at least we can’t accuse them of running tabloid-style stories with a double standard?

What to make of all this?

Well, not much really, except that sex, or anything that resembles or hints at it, is still super taboo in our society. And considering that it is unclear if sex even occurred in this scenario, I don’t get why this is news, especially when the “source” won’t even publicly identify themselves to provide context, transparency, or accountability for their claims.

I feel more disapproving towards Gawker than ever before. Seems like they are trying to come off as some sort of neutral publisher of tips, but are actually contributing to a culture of shame around sex and sexuality by presenting their facts of normal flirtations and sexual encounters in such a sensationalistic manner.

If anything is clear, Gawker’s middle school “gotchya” pranks are just showing us how low we have sunk for what we consider legitimate political dialogue. And finally, it’s clear that we are all going to have to evolve our rules of flirting, dating, and sex to catch up to all these opportunistic internet journalists. But until that happens, may I recommend NOT using your real email address to step out on CL.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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  • Despina

    I disagree with this analysis.

    To me, the difference between the gossip about O’Donnell and the current situation with Lee is clear. In the case of O’Donnell, folks were clearly trying to shame her for rambunctious partying that occurred while she was a) single, and b) not holding or running for political office. In other words, they were trying to bring her private decisions into the political arena in a completely inappropriate context. On the other hand, Lee’s activities occurred while he was married (breaking his vows AND making him a hypocrite for trumpeting “family values” in the public arena), and while he was holding political office (making him open to criticism for abusing his authority).

    • Bethany KJ

      I agree that in O’Donnell’s case she did nothing to betray her values (indeed, she abstained from sex). I also agree that this makes Lee a bit of a scumbag, but not compared to some other, worse scumbags who maintain their position.
      I think adultery makes you a jerk and sometimes a hypocrite (assuming his wife didn’t know and agree to his Craigslist flirting, if he didn’t betray her trust, then it’s none of my business) but it’s not illegal. Others remain in gov’t with worse violations. Clinton messed around with someone he worked with, and Lee didn’t even reveal that he was a congressman, so he wasn’t using his position to get favors.
      It’s possible this is the tip of a more scandalous iceburg, and Lee just resigned to avoid a larger mess? Sure seems odd.

      • Rachel

        If I recall correctly, Christine O’Donnell allegedly had oral sex during her “scandalous” encounter, which makes her a hypocrite as a sex-negative Republican who preaches abstinence.

        I think this is an unfortunate situation. I don’t particularly care what politicians do behind closed doors (unless they run on a platform that attempts to judge, vilify or restrict what I might choose to do behind closed doors), and it doesn’t particularly upset me that this guy was possibly looking to cheat on his wife. There are a million reasons why such behavior could be justified. And I agree with the post that Gawker is contributing to our sexually judgmental culture, even though it caters to young people, who should be the least sexually judgmental.

  • thomas-macaulay-millar

    I’m not usually sympathetic to elected officials, but this sort of thing puts him in a real spot, right? If his marriage is monogamous, the public should know that he refuses to play by the rules with the person who has the most reason to trust him. However, the current state of our culture is that if his marriage is some sort of open or polyamorous relationship, an elected official can’t say that. Roger Stone, who was never elected and merely worked for the Dole campaign, lost his job when his and his wife’s swinging became public. I would much rather vote to an honest poly congresscritter than a lying congresscritter, but I recognize that I don’t represent a majority in that regard.

  • nazza

    Every situation is different and there’s usually a story behind everything. And assuming a public figure was ever in an open relationship, I doubt he or she would ever publicize such a thing without facing considerable backlash from all directions.