Diary of ‘Skanky’ News Ethics

Over the past four days, a story I wrote about female scribes and what I deemed their “provocative” and “sexpot” Twitter avatars has made the rounds in different publications on the web. I published the story Thursday and, much to my surprise, it went viral in a way I had not experienced before. It took on a hateful life of its own and not one entirely based in reality.

The headline that made the feminists and others go wild: “Female Campaign Reporters Go for Sexpot Look.” After it published, I was called a number of colorful terms: Slut, Skank, “loose in the bedroom.” Contrary to those strangers who labeled me slutty, I was also told I needed to “get laid.” And then I was told to “watch my ass.” NYT‘s media guru David Carr remarked on Twitter, “Apparently, @fishbowlDC has lost every marble she ever had and started a dreamy wonk throwdown.” I only wish I could seek psychotherapy from Carr — and borrow some of his marbles. But this is par for the course these days in the world of online journalism. I do not think my story was earth shattering, nor did it break any actual news. But it introduced a subject matter that hit an unexpected nerve.

As the name-calling hit a fever pitch Thursday afternoon, the only journalist who sought an actual quote from me was Matt Wells of The Guardian. The outlet published a story the following day. Later, others sought me out — an old boss in California who I’d worked with in Florida wrote, “Shades of Boca. Go get ’em!” And friends who worried about all the nastiness they were reading on Twitter reached out to say hello. One, a female reporter friend in New York, texted to say, “Sheesh, people get way way too worked up about these things. They all need to relax. By tomorrow people will have a whole other thing to fixate on. Sending good thoughts your way – can’t be easy dealing with how toxic people are.” Meanwhile, a reporter friend in Kiev, wrote in to say, “Now in Kiev, where they desperately need a Fishbowl. Lots of sex, lies, videotape, etc.” A longtime source Jason Roe, a GOP campaign consultant now based in San Diego, wrote an email with the subject line: “I don’t hate you.” I laughed. I’m no victim here, but it’s hard not to feel touched by those who check in during the storm. He also wrote, “It does go to show how thin-skinned DC people are. There is never a single day that I miss being there. And now, I’m going to have an afternoon beer at a beachside dive bar.”

On Friday, 78,989 page views later, the hate continued. Feminists called me a “horrible writer” and a “horrible person.” They said I had “viciously attacked” women for simply having photos. They LOLed their way through the day by personally insulting me. BuzzFeed Editor Ben Smith threw himself to the wolves (we’re not close but have always had a respectful rapport) by writing on Twitter, “In sincere defense of @FishbowlDC: It’s nice to have a DC journo or two who doesn’t care what her peers think of her.” The public stoning participants went wild. “Oh fuck you dude,” one wrote to Smith. A feminist wrote simply, “Huh?” and proceeded to shriek at Smith for being wrong.

One reporter who continues  to be enthralled by the story is Hunter Walker, a political reporter for The New York Observer, who published a 2000-word piece on the matter on Friday night and another update yesterday. I’ve never met him, but Hunter previously worked at Gawker as well as mediabistro’s FishbowlNY. From the start, he took a leading role in the procession of predominately New York-based reporters and feminists who somehow felt violated by my piece. On Friday he wrote that the Internet felt naked without an apology from me. But it was Hunter who actually depicted himself as naked. He began a series of tweets criticizing my story and even corralled a group of male reporters who began calling themselves “PressDudesGoneWild.” Hunter changed his Twitter avatar, he told me, by searching for “sexy 80s men” and photoshopped his face onto Tom Selleck‘s body. Catchy, I thought. And funny.

Until Hunter’s journalistic tactics became not quite so funny.

For starters, any reporter who tries to convince you that he’s doing the story for your benefit as opposed to his own is either lying or delusional. “Nice spin, Hunter!” I wrote him privately on Twitter after his emotional, overly compassionate pitch. Then I sought guidance from my boss, who encouraged me to do the interview. On Friday night Hunter published his gargantuan piece on my story and its aftermath. For several hours that night, I had to implore Hunter to run the facts. In a jarring opening graph, he wrote that I called Gawker‘s Maureen O’Connor a “skank.” He said this was in response to critics, but he didn’t bother to explain it. I informed Hunter several times (including during our interview) that I responded to Maureen after she called me this. I wrote her specifically on Twitter, “Before calling anyone a skank, you may want to look in the mirror.” If there is a next time, I wouldn’t engage with Maureen, or anyone, in that manner. But the past is the past.

But what came next was startling. Not only did Hunter fail to grasp that Maureen had first entered the word “skank” into the dialogue, other bloggers (one called @publicroad) reached the same conclusion — that I had called Maureen a skank just because I felt like it.

During our interview, Hunter fully disclosed to me that he is “friends” with Maureen, so I couldn’t help but wonder if he therefore gave her an easier time and me a harder one. “Why not just write the truth?” I asked him by email Friday night. He whined about it being Friday night and how long he had worked on the story. I said Friday or not, the facts matter. He said he linked to the actual exchange. I said linking was not enough. He said I explained it at the bottom of his story.

Eventually he wrote that I “implied” that she was a skank. Still, no acknowledgement of how the word actually entered the dialogue. Hours after publishing, he made the change. For real this time. Thank God courageous Hunter is eventually able to write the truth, despite the wrath he might endure from Maureen when she sees that he — gasp! — accurately quoted us. When I pointed out the correction on Twitter, he wrote, “Hardly a correction, just part of my exceptional and exceeding efforts to be fair given the sensitive nature of this story.”

A stranger reading Hunter’s initial story would think Maureen (who wrote about Arianna Huffington’s alleged cell phone pooping habits) was an angelic bystander or that I go around regularly using a word like “skank.” Truthfully the word isn’t a part of my regular vocabulary. Other nasty ones are, just not that. I’ve used the word more than I ever have in my life in the past four days — but only in jest as I have friends who now think it’s funny to call me that (and it is) and repeating what actually happened in that Twitter exchange.

Then yesterday Hunter shaded the truth once again as he added an update to his story and remarked on Twitter that I “misremembered” something about my personal Twitter avatar, that I didn’t recall using a picture in which my shoulders are exposed. Except that, in fact, I did remember. I remember all two pictures I’ve ever had for a personal Twitter account that I’ve scarcely used in two years. One has been playing hopscotch around the Internet. The other has not, but, as I let Hunter know, I’m fully clothed in it. The most important thing is this: I never cared what picture I used as I never felt I was insulting the women I wrote about in the first place. But Hunter seemed to think this was his “gotcha” moment on me considering my shoulders are bare. In our interview, Hunter suggested that “sexpot” is the new “skank” — he even openly sympathized with Maureen, saying, wasn’t she just calling me what I had called the women? That, by the way, emerged in our conversation by phone which he taped without informing me first. Sure, it was on the record, but doesn’t one ask before they record — or, at the very least, inform? As it happens, NY and DC are one-consent jurisdictions, so taping the call wasn’t illegal. But the ethics of not informing me from the start are, at best, fuzzy.

So I told Hunter how I felt.

I’ve never subscribed to the school of thought that says someone can slap “Off the Record” atop an email and freely speak his or her mind. But yesterday I broke my own unofficial rule and gave Hunter a piece of my mind with an “Off the Record” banner and asked him a question. Namely, “What the f–k is your problem already?” (No dashes.) You see, Walker shades the truth in a way that should make a lot of people uncomfortable. I also have nothing to hide in regards to any Twitter avatar I have ever used, or anything I have said or done in regards to a story that made waves late last week and into the weekend.

Hunter wrote back and informed me that moving forward none of my emails will be considered “Off the record.” It’s a nice start – ethics, honesty and no name-calling.

My intention for the story I wrote was not hateful. I was not scolding these women or judging them as bad for having whatever photographs they so desire, but I do understand that is the perception among some. My goal was to start a dialogue about the increasingly loose, unguided, turbulent world of Twitter. And I’d do it again, regardless of the push back.

UPDATE and Correction: I removed a tweet above from GOOD‘s Amanda Hess that wasn’t actually directed at me or the story I wrote. She never wrote, “You’re still a hater.” She wrote, to no one in particular, “I’m still not a player but you’re still a hater.” My apologies to her.

Publish date: February 28, 2012 https://dev.adweek.com/digital/diary-of-skanky-news-ethics/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT