Inside D.C. entertainment

Why did Gawker publish, then retract, a gruesome murder photo?

November 10, 2010 - 05:00 AM
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Recently, Gawker did something unusual: It removed a photo that was upsetting people. The photo showed the body of Christopher Jusko, a 21-year-old graffiti artist who was stabbed to death in New York's East Village on Oct. 25. "Friends and family of Jusko have been in touch and asked that we remove the photo," the post reads. "We have decided to honor that request."

Many of those requests were first made in the comments section of the post. While some readers defended the photo ("I think sometimes people need to see the ramifications of violence"), and others were simply insensitive ("I had no idea blood was so thick! Is it just me, or is that pool about an inch high?"), most commenters were critical of Gawker, calling the post "distasteful," "disrespectful," "vile," "disturbing," and "horrible."

The overall tenor of the comments, though, was disappointment. "Isn't this a little much?" wrote one person. "It's not really a Gawker kind of story ether, it's more straight news with no other reason for being here than you had an awful photo you could post." Wrote another, "Yeah, I don't see the need for posting a photo of a dead, bleeding body. I read Gawker for entertainment." And a third: "It's sad to see a website go down this path. Why post this? Many people are murdered everyday and they don't get posted like this."

It's a good question. The photo was more befitting a site like Ogrish.com — which, for good reason, I won't link to — than a site with the tagline "Gossip from Manhattan and the Beltway to Hollywood and the Valley." Gawker covers only violent crimes that are especially sensational. Consider, for instance, another story that broke on Oct. 25: the "hiccup girl" was charged with murder, and Gawker wrote not one, but two articles about it that day. Now that's a Gawker story. A dead guy lying in a pool of blood? Not so much.

I'm hardly an impartial observer of this story. Jusko's stepsister, Christina Rumpf, is a good friend of mine from graduate school; a mutual acquaintance had told me about the murder the next day. The day after that, an e-mail appeared in my inbox with the subject line "Boycott Gawker." It read, in part:

"What has compounded this tragedy is the fact that Gawker (as many of you saw) posted a pretty horrific picture of my brother, lying dead on the street in a pool of his own blood," Rumpf wrote. "I'm not going to link to it here, because I don't want to give it any more traffic than it has already had. If you would like to do something to help our family, please write to them and ask them to take it down."

The post's author, Hamilton Nolan, wrote in an e-mail to my acquaintance John DiResta, "But the fact is that the photo was newsworthy, and that's why we ran it. The fact that it was unpleasant and graphic does not mean it was not newsworthy. We posted a warning, and we didn't sensationalize the story. I can assure you, based on the hate mail I've gotten, that it's not 'easier' for me to post a photo like that than it would have been to simply ignore. But I believe that it was a legitimate news item, judging by a fair standard of newsworthiness."

And, in fact, other news outlets covered the story, the New York Times, the New York Daily News, the New York Post, and Gothamist among them. Not a single story included a graphic photo. Either Gawker had an exclusive, or it was the only organization that decided the public would be better served by a photo of a man who'd been stabbed in the neck in a dispute over a woman. (The evidence suggests that Gawker published the post hastily. Despite its brevity, it contains an inaccuracy: Jusko lived in Bushwick; the apartment was the suspect's. That correction has yet to be made.)

The question, then, is whether it's even worth criticizing a website that, through an unapologetic commitment to sensationalism, has made itself nearly impervious to criticism. The very same week, for instance, it published an anonymously written account of a one-night stand with former U.S. Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, which drew not a few denunciations from media critics (and more than a million pageviews).

In an group-bylined defense of that post, Gawker said that O'Donnell was "seeking federal office based in part on her self-generated, and carefully tended, image as a sexually chaste woman." The story proved that to be a lie, Gawker said. "We thought information documenting that lie — that O'Donnell does not live a chaste life as she defines the word, and in fact hops into bed, naked and drunk, with men that she's just met — was of interest to our readers."

Complicating matters, Gawker can be a home to actually important journalism, like when it published photos of partying security contractors in Iraq or e-mails that revealed how members of the press pandered to Rod Blagojevich after his arrest. All of which makes criticizing the site a bit of a fool's errand. For all its snark and mockery, Gawker wants desperately to be taken seriously, and stories like those I've just mentioned have earned it a certain grudging respect, or at least a degree of credibility, in the journalism field. And then, wearing that cloak of journalistic righteousness, Gawker asserts that an anonymous account about O'Donnell's ungroomed vagina is as fair and newsworthy as anything else the site publishes.

David Carr, the New York Times' media reporter, has grappled with this very issue for years — so much so that he chose not to comment for this story because, in his words, "I am becoming designated scold on gawker." But in a 2005 piece about the site's coverage of Peter Braunstein, a freelance writer eventually convicted of kidnapping and sexual abuse, Carr wrote:

But even beyond this incident, Gawker has a peculiar tone-deafness around death and its collateral damage. Traffic deaths — an everyday heartbreak in the city — become an inflection point for irony when they happen outside an Urban Outfitters store (an Aug. 26 posting had a picture of the dead pedestrian under a cloth on the street).

Because I know Rumpf, I know how that collateral damage lands. She told me her stepfather learned of his son's murder at around 10 a.m., and he promptly went to sleep, hoping that when he woke up, his son would no longer be dead — that it would all turn out to be an awful dream. When he awoke and faced the reality of what had happened, he began calling family members, including Rumpf. But he couldn't bring himself to tell his wife, Rumpf's mother, until he began receiving calls from members of the press, who informed him that Jusko's name had already been published — and that, in fact, a photo of his dead body could be found on Gawker.

Hearing this, Rumpf, now at her mother's house, Googled Jusko's name. "Gawker was the first thing that came up," she says. She clicked the link, which took her directly to the post. She didn't even have the chance to see Gawker's warning that the photo was graphic. "It was right in front me already," she says.

John Long, who chairs ethics for the National Press Photographers Association, says the question journalists must ask themselves is this: "Does the public need this information in order to make informed choices for society? This would be the driving force behind running sensational photos — not profit, not titillation."

He notes certain photos that, despite being graphic, met that requirement: the dead American soldier dragged through the streets of Mogadishu; the naked girl fleeing a napalm bomb during the Vietnam War; the execution of a Viet Cong captain during the same war. Though Long hasn't seen the photo of Jusko's body, he says that, based on the Gawker post and what I've told him, "It seems like there wasn't any social necessity for this particular photograph."

"I would not pull the picture simply because the family objects, because then you'd be pulling pictures all the time," says Long. "You pull it because there's no need for society to share in it." But, he adds, "every news organization is individual in nature. It is between this paper and its readers. It's a compact that has been established over the years — this is the level of grossness, this is the level of impact, this is as far as we go."

Nolan, editor Remy Stern, and Gawker Media founder Nick Denton all chose not to comment for this story — and they never published a defense of the Jusko post, so we don't know for certain their argument for publishing, and then retracting, the photo. In an e-mail to my editor, Nolan confirmed that Stern made the decision to pull the photo.

So why did it happen? The only argument I can come up with is pretty cynical. As the New Yorker's Ben McGrath points out in a recent profile of Gawker Media founder Nick Denton, the company's NoLita loft has a "Big Board" hanging inside that "lists the ten best-performing posts across the company network.... Denton says that the primary purpose of the Big Board is to encourage competition among his writers."

That's the kind of incentive that could make anyone's qualms about publishing a gruesome photo disappear.

By the time Stern pulled the photo, Nolan's post had achieved more than 42,000 page views, which would be huge for a site like TBD but less than half of what yesterday's Gawker post "7 Things You Should Never Do in a Club" garnered. The post was old news; it had already drawn all of the traffic it was ever going to draw. By taking down the photo, Gawker could make itself appear sensitive to its readers' concerns, perhaps even remorseful (without, of course, making any admission of error).

I have a slightly more generous theory: Relying heavily on leaked material and on content that exists elsewhere online, Gawker's writers spend most of their time, I suspect, in front of their computers. Most of their stories seem not to involve any reporting whatsoever, beyond surfing the Internet; their beats are explored digitally rather than by the proverbial pounding of pavement. There's nothing essentially wrong about this, of course, but it can create a gaping disconnect between reporter and subject. Having to speak with, say, the friends of a murdered man — as the Times did in its Jusko coverage — will make a journalist think twice about publishing a photo of the man's bloody corpse. 

The more common practice, of course, is to run a photo of the body after it's been covered with a sheet, as the Times did. TBD itself has done likewise before — and, more questionably, published my Twittered photo of blood on a crosswalk after Ali Ahmed Mohammed's death outside DC9 last month. There have always been publications eager to go further — Weegee's career depended on it  — but photos of dead bodies aren't Gawker's stock in trade. The site has made its name by tearing down celebrities, real or imagined, and mocking the minutiae of American life. Its readers come for stories about Lindsay Lohan and the Hipster Grifter; for a photo of Keith Richards's penis, perhaps, but not of a murdered stranger.

Gawker probably believes its lack of engagement with its subjects makes it more independent — more free to report the actual truth, that is, rather than a truth mitigated by emotional considerations. In reality, this disconnect simply allows the site to be more callous in its coverage. The Jusko photo, however, caused enough of an uproar as to force Gawker, for once, to consider the real-life consequences of its careless (in the truest sense of the word) approach to journalism.

That the photo was later taken down — and only after tens of thousands of people, including Jusko's stepsister, had already seen it — says more about Gawker's journalistic integrity, or lack thereof, than any statement Denton et al. could whip up. They might be too proud of their perceived mercilessness to admit they made a mistake, but the photo's retraction is itself an admission — if not of a mistake, then at least that even Gawker, sometimes, can go too far.

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