BY CHRIS SZABLA
Bitter, sardonic wit is no stranger to law school. It comes as no surprise, then, that the caustic media gossip blog Gawker.com is one of the more popular websites spangling the screens of distracted HLS students’ laptops. Hence the HL Forum’s decision to interview former Gawker editor Jessica Coen, currently of New York magazine, on Tuesday night. After a surprisingly demure Coen listened to the roster of notable names that had preceded her as guests of the Forum, which included John F. Kennedy and Henry Kissinger, she couldn’t help but blurt out “something isn’t right.”
“Jacked-up on cold medicine and battling the superbug,” Coen told the story of how she went from small-time personal blogger to editor of one of the most popular websites in the country, which grew from 80,000 to over 8 million readers in her time there. Coen came to New York with the intention of attending Columbia Journalism School, but a contact found her a job at Gawker instead. Her parents were furious, until her power over the freewheeling site earned her renown in the pages of the New York Times and on CNN, where she got into a fight with a staffer who complained the website’s celebrity-hunting Gawker Stalker feature was a bit too close for comfort – after sending in a report on his own whereabouts.
Most of the interview with Coen centered on Gawker’s reputation for chasing down or posting nefarious information about celebrities. Responding to a question about how she felt Gawker changes the way people interact with celebrities, she said she thought the website was being given “too much credit.” By contrast, she thought, the website TMZ.com, relying on the philosophy of “if you stand outside long enough, someone will come out,” has had a far more profound effect on Internet stargazing. It led people, Coen thought, to focus on the more minute aspects of celebrities’ lives. The ethical dilemma of running a website which takes such liberties with individuals’ privacy and reputations was a central theme of many of the questions students posed to Coen. She responded that she felt it difficult to have to make daily decisions about whether her posts would rankle friendships and other relationships, but, in the end, “always posted.” She described the fun of receiving a letter from George Clooney asking the site to stop posting about him, only to respond by initiating a contest to get the best photo of Clooney shooting his new film. Still, some of the consequences she described could be unnerving. In one case, a publicist tried to supply her with a plug for a bar by noting that a Congressman was engaged in a dalliance there. Coen posted the item “because it was so ridiculous.” The publicist was fired not long after.Given the exhausting routine of maintaining the website and the persistent need to alienate friends and contacts, Coen is glad to have left Gawker, though she has no regrets about joining in the first place. She failed to offer much advice for those looking to go into the field, though. “Why would you want to get into gossip?” she asked.
When considering the alternative of a life measured out in billable hours, though, Coen’s former lifestyle – defaming the stars in New York’s media constellation from 7am on, in her pajamas, no less – hardly seems so bad.