Gawker's nonstory about Christine O'Donnell reveals the public's role in making a "sex scandal."

Media criticism.
Oct. 29 2010 5:21 PM

Nick Denton's Smutty Mind—and Yours

Gawker's nonstory about Christine O'Donnell reveals the public's role in making a "sex scandal."

Screengrab from Gawker. Click image to expand.
Screengrab from Gawker

Who will defend Nick Denton's Gawker for publishing that tawdry, first-person piece yesterday ("I Had a One-Night Stand With Christine O'Donnell") about an evening and morning an anonymous guy claims to have spent with senatorial candidate Christine O'Donnell three Halloweens ago?

Don't look at me. But our visceral reactions to this piece of smut shouldn't blind us to the fact that in the annals of sensationalist journalism, the Gawkerarticleis a total swindle. If Mr. Anonymous' account is true, what we learn about O'Donnell is that one night three years ago she 1) got tipsy, 2) put the moves on a younger guy she barely knew, 3) got frisky with him on his couch, 4) got naked with him in bed, 5) revealed in her nakedness that she doesn't wax her pubic hair, and 6) didn't bonk him (both fell asleep).According to Mr. Anonymous, O'Donnell tried later hookups with him, but he rejected her. Ultimately, O'Donnell started dating Mr. Anonymous' roommate.

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"And in case you're wondering, he never had sex with her either, as far as I know," writes Mr. Anonymous. He supplements this confessional with a 16-page slide show of non-risqué photos of O'Donnell, who was dressed in a ladybug outfit in celebration of Halloween.

And that's it.

As sex scandals go, Gawker's O'Donnell story is a small sack of limp. To begin with, the story's sensationalist headline deliberately overstates the level of intimacy O'Donnell and Mr. Anonymous shared. Where I come from, it's not a one-night stand unless you fill the Twinkie. But we know from Mr. Anonymous' own admission that the couple didn't make pastry that night or any other night. Because the folks at Gawker—Denton especially—pick their words shrewdly, the publication knew exactly what it was doing when it tarted up the story with the headline. A story headlined "Controversial Senatorial Candidate Passes on Sex and Passes Out" isn't the sort of traffic driver Gawkerspecializes in.

After composing its fraudulent headline, Gawker had to do something salacious with the story because there is so little to it. Had it assigned one of its reporters to write a piece based on an interview with Mr. Anonymous, the copy would probably have been as unspicy as my summary above. But by making it a first-person account of a sleepover under its bogus headline, Gawkergives the encounter the stink of a homemade porn reel in which one of the participants has a bag over his head. In Mr. Anonymous' telling, O'Donnell is insufficient in every way, but attractive enough for him to go to bed with. She's a slut because she's sexually aggressive, but she's a freak because she declines to have sex. He zooms in on her unwaxed private parts, which he takes as "signs that she wasn't very experienced sexually," and pans away from his own performance.

Completely anti-climactic, the yarn derives its strength from its taboo-busting, which distracts the average reader from their civilized frame of reference. Such public airings of middling private facts are so cringe-making that they engage the smut centers of even the most chaste reader. So do photos of the "participants," no matter what they show. In O'Donnell's case, the pics present nothing sexier or more revealing than multiple shots of a pile of potatoes.

How many of the smart people who expressed their shock and outrage at the Gawkerpiece  missed the fact that Mr. Anonymous never describes—or implies—anything in his article beyond heavy petting? This must be the first sex confessional that aroused prurient interest but possessed no genuine prurience. Ultimately, this isn't the work product of pornographers but illusionists, who can't do their magic without a credulous audience.

If you're in your twenties or thirties and have never suffered through an evening such as Mr. Anonymous describes, I invite you to leave the convent or seminary now and report back to me in a couple of weeks. What adult among us has not been Mr. Anonymous or Christine O'Donnell (or both!?) in their lifetimes? Fumbling sexual encounters, even those of unmarried senatorial candidates, are as noteworthy as a bucket of sand. If the Gawkerpiece engaged or enraged you, you're a sucker, and Denton is laughing at you.

Addendum, 7:27 p.m.:Nick Denton asked me to link to Gawker's explanation for why it ran the O'Donnell story. Here it is.

******

Thanks to Dave Weigel's smutty mind for sharing with me his best ideas. Send legal smut to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Every now and then, my Twitter feed works blue. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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