I spent much of 2014 at a digital media startup that sought to experiment with new forms and delivery systems for investigative and public service journalism. The team I was working with planned to use humor and attention-grabbing stunts to create journalism that people actually wanted to read. That experiment… did not quite work out, but having spent months coming up with crazy ideas with a group of fiercely talented writers, reporters and generally creative types, the idea of going back to merely blogging about Mitt Romney for a living didn’t sound particularly appealing.
Fortunately, Gawker stepped in to save me from pure, hopeless punditry, offering me the amusingly vague title of "Special Projects Editor."
Prior to my hiring, this position was informally known in-house as the "pranks editor." Pranks, hoaxes, and stings don't have the best reputation at the moment. The organizations with the resources and talent to pull off great, revealing stunts are too humorless and chickenshit to do so. The sorts of reporters willing to use subterfuge to uncover great stories or embarrass powerful people tend to be partisan hacks who seek to mislead their audiences as well as their ill-chosen targets. Stings shouldn’t be the sole province of trashy TV newsmagazines and incompetent adolescent Breitbart cultists. A prank can aim higher than "worst twerk fail."
In my introduction post, John Cook already mentioned a few of Gawker Media’s greatest hits. My favorites are Deadspin’s sullying of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Gizmodo's perfectly juvenile universal remote prank.
To give you more of an idea of what sort of projects I hope to work on, here are a few of my favorite media hijinks of years past: Spy sending checks for absurdly small sums of money to various celebrities to see which ones would go to the trouble of cashing them; The Baffler revealing how The New York Times was taken in by faux "grunge" lingo; Dan Savage attempting to infect Gary Bauer with the flu; Christopher Morris leading a conservative MP to bring up a "made-up drug" in Parliament; Michael Moore having Janeane Garofalo confess the same sin at Catholic Churches across the country to see which ones were the most lenient; and Ken Silverstein enlisting Washington lobbyists to work for a corrupt and repressive regime.
It’s an eclectic list, encompassing targets and methods ranging from harmless tomfoolery to the exposing of serious corruption. Gawker Media, historical home of both celebrity dick picks and fearless investigative reporting, is one of the few legitimate American news organizations (and, yes, it is one of those, now) with the ambition, talent, and institutional courage to pursue projects like these.
Over the next few weeks, I plan to work closely with site leads, editors and reporters from all the Gawker Media sites to identify the perfect targets—the most obnoxious puffed-up blowhards, sanctimonious poobahs, corrupt gatekeepers, venal officials, and credulous watchdogs in each site's respective fields—and dream up entertaining ways to embarrass or expose them. Everyone who works for very long at a Gawker Media site develops a list, even if it's unwritten, of crazy things they'd do if they only had the time and resources. Now we do. It's going to be fun.