By Margaret Sullivan
Call it the Gawker Effect.
After Jim DeRogatis, the veteran Chicago rock critic, reported for months on a stunning story about R&B singer R. Kelly and the young women said to be under his psychological and sexual control, it came time to get it published.
Three separate media organizations were interested but got cold feet at the last minute, DeRogatis said.
Each one, after investing months of work, backed away from the story that used named sources and documents to describe how women near Atlanta and Chicago were held as if in a cult, according to what parents and others had told police.
(DeRogatis declined to name the news organizations because of his appreciation of the editors he worked with; they weren't the ones who pulled the plug. They include a regional print publication, a world-famous multimedia behemoth and a radio-based digital outlet.)
"Gawker came up in a lot of those conversations," DeRogatis said, referring to the snarky and risk-taking website that was put out of business last summer after a lawsuit brought by Terry Bollea, also known as Hulk Hogan. The invasion-of-privacy suit was bankrolled by billionaire Peter Thiel, a confidant of President Donald Trump.
"Nobody wanted to take that risk."
DeRogatis has pursued the R. Kelly story doggedly, first writing about it well over a decade ago and taking the Fifth Amendment in a subsequent trial rather than reveal his sources. (The longtime rock critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, DeRogatis also had a brief stint with Rolling Stone magazine; he was famously fired after he complained publicly that publisher Jann Wenner had killed his pan of a Hootie and the Blowfish album.)
"This is a tawdry, sickening tale," he told me. In an interview with Vox, he described the "rape culture" he believes is the underlying story.
Ultimately, DeRogatis turned to a fourth outlet, BuzzFeed, which published the jaw-dropping story this month under the headline "Inside the Pied Piper of R&B's 'Cult.' "
"When we pursue a story, our primary concern is whether it's accurate and newsworthy - not whether the subject is too rich or powerful, be it Russian oligarchs, R. Kelly or the Trump White House," said BuzzFeed spokesman Matt Mittenthal.
But it's not just a question of having what DeRogatis calls "major cojones." BuzzFeed's lawyers managed to make the story bulletproof, or apparently so, since there has been no challenge to its facts, not even a request for a minor correction. (Kelly has publicly insisted that there's no truth that he runs a cult or anything like it.)
There's a lot of uncertainty and fear out there, post-Gawker, said Nabiha Syed, BuzzFeed's assistant general counsel, who vetted the story before publication.
"The answer to uncertainty in the environment is certainty in our mission," she said. And in making sure that a story is accurate, that it can be backed up and that it serves a purpose.
Hamilton Nolan, a longtime Gawker writer now with the website Splinter, sees a huge change since his former employer went bankrupt and then was forced to stop publishing.
The Hogan suit "was a demonstration to the media - you can be put out of business," Nolan told me."It's fresh in the minds of everybody."
The Netflix documentary "Nobody Speak" (in which I have a bit part) takes up the far-reaching effects of the Gawker suit, especially in the Trump era.
Nolan is convinced that there are worthy but risky stories out there that are simply not getting published because of fear: "Who knows how many - probably a lot."
What's more, he told me, there's a kind of story that never even surfaces anymore: quintessential Gawker pieces - for example on the most horrible bosses in New York or Walmart workers who hate their jobs. These are "everybody talks about it but nobody publishes it" stories, he said, like his 2008 look at Irena Briganti of Fox News under the headline, "The most vindictive flack in the media world."
"Gawker was like the id of America, and potential sources knew where a story like that - representing the voice of the creative underclass - could get published," he said.
Plenty of people were disgusted by Gawker's airing of the Hulk Hogan sex tape and, as a result, not unhappy to see the site go out of business. But some of them would be less pleased to know that a story like the R. Kelly reporting - or many others that we don't know about - might never see the light of day.
"I don't feel like anything has changed legally," Syed said. "But there is a lot of fear out there."
That fear can result in self-censorship at any stage of a story's development, maybe before it ever gets out of a reporter's notebook, or in the hour before planned publication. Or it might even be a factor when retracting a story last month about billionaire Anthony Scaramucci (now Trump's spokesman), as CNN did just before it took the extreme measure of sending three journalists out the door.
Gawker was still publishing a year ago. The press-hating president had just become the press-baiting Republican nominee.
Peter Thiel, once just a billionaire with a grudge, is now in the inner circle of power. And the blueprint for how to take down a media organization is clearly established.
DeRogatis, for one, is worried. "People came to the press about Kelly for the best reason - 'Nobody else will help me, can you tell my story?' "
These days, the answer is more likely to be no.