When Gawker took down New York GOP representative Christopher Lee of the 26th district, they did so based on the emails of an anonymous woman who made a Craigslist posting. In it, the woman begged, “Will someone prove to me not all CL men look like toads?” In response she got shirtless pictures of a man who claimed to be a divorced lobbyist, but with some simple Googling, she found out he was the very married Christopher Lee, an elected official. Following a few anonymous interviews, the Washington Post has outed Yesha Callahan, a 34-year-old employee of the University of Maryland, as the source. Somehow, she thought she could avoid scrutiny. Find out why that was a ridiculous expectation inside the Friday edition of Press Clips, our daily media column.
No Source Is Safe: “I didn’t do this for the attention or, you know, notoriety or money or whatever,” Callahan told Lonnae O’Neal Parker of the Post. “Now I just want to go about my daily business.” Her expectations were altogether out of touch:
At a friend’s suggestion, Callahan reached out to Maureen O’Connor at the gossip Web site Gawker, which guaranteed her anonymity. After the story appeared and the New York representative resigned, Belton interviewed Callahan anonymously about what happened for the Web site TheLoop21.com.
When contacted by the Post, Callahan said she’s reeling from the intense interest in the story, noting with dismay that people were already trying find information about her. She expected — maybe unrealistically — to remain unidentified, and is now worried about the impact on her family, career and personal life.
Giving two anonymous interviews — one to her friend at Loop21 and another as a follow-up on Gawker — didn’t help Callahan’s cause to stay discreet. For instance, in the Gawker interview, Callahan insinuated that she followed the reporter, Maureen O’Connor, on Twitter, possibly narrowing her down to a pool of around 2,000 people.
But if she really hoped to stay anonymous, Callahan picked the wrong publication to bring her story to in the first place, considering how extensively anonymous sources factor in to the telling of Gawker’s most tabloid-y posts. Take, for instance, three of their largest scoops in the last year, all based on the accounts of anonymous sources:
1. The iPhone 4: When an Apple employee (Gray Powell, outed by Gizmodo themselves) lost an iPhone prototype at a bar, a 21-year-old student found it and sold it to Gawker Media’s Gizmodo for $5,000. Wired quickly identified Brian Hogan as the source.
2. Christine O’Donnell’s Hook-Up: Gawker questionably published one sleazy man’s account of a drunken Halloween he spent with a Tea Party candidate, and later that day, the anonymous ass was already fingered as Dustin Dominiak, after some digging by The Smoking Gun and Runnin’ Scared.
3. Mark Sanchez’s 17-year-old Squeeze: Just before the Craigslist Congressman, Gawker Media’s sports site Deadspin had a little scoop of their own — though the level of scandal is debatable — when an anonymous 17-year-old said she hooked up with Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. Though she initially gave Deadspin the story for the promise of anonymity, she changed her mind about going through with it because that’s what teenagers do: make brash decisions and then change their minds. Problem is, she’d already talked to the cutthroat editor A.J. Daulerio on the record before threatening him with litigation if he published her story.
So he made her pay. Throughout the semi-lurid tale, he littered hints about her identity, including a partially obscured photo, her initials and the fact that she appeared in the background of a Patrick McMullan party photo. Sure enough, the anonymous Sanchez source was outed as Eliza Kruger very soon after.
Then there’s Callahan, who makes four. Save the Sanchez/Kruger case, it’s not that the Gawker Media reporters hoped to have their sources outed. It happens to every news organization. But the way Gawker’s narrative sensibilities work, the account of the unnamed is crucial to the storytelling, thus littering the features (which also often include photographic proof with faces barely edited out) with clues. Then the entire internet latches on to the anonymity and won’t stop until they have their own piece of the pie. In some cases, like the Christine O’Donnell leak, it’s because the anonymous source comes off like an ass, and the hive mind is out for revenge. In others, like for Callahan, it’s merely a thirst to have the knowledge which has been withheld — a good detective-like hunt for any hungry journalists. In an age when almost everyone has something of an online trail, it’s not even very difficult! But Gawker tends to make it even easier.