Most Bewildering Controversy of the Week

Whose water is Gawker carrying?

Earlier this week we stumbled across an interview with Nick Denton, proprietor of Gawker, a website we used to frequent back when it was interesting. That interview is now sealed behind paid access, but happily Google still has it in the cache:

If a good exclusive used to provide 10 times the traffic of a standard regurgitated blog post, now it garners a hundred times as much…

We’ve hired John Cook — formerly of Radar magazine and the Chicago Tribune — to Gawker.

And sure enough, John Cook’s byline appears on “Mancow’s ‘Waterboarding’ Was Completely Fake,” a Friday exclusive that tallied 34,776 views when we checked last night, almost three times as many as Mommy 1.0’s crossposted Jezebel piece regurgitating GQ’s Levi Johnston feature.

Gawker itself regurgitated the Mancow waterboarding video Wednesday morning, only five days after everyone else in the known blogosphere ran it. (More precisely, Gawker regurgitated Tuesday’s Countdown segment with Mancow, having overlooked the original event.)

Thursday night, somebody forwarded Gawker a series of curious emails purporting to describe the scene leading up to the publicity stunt. Of note is a message from Linda Shafran, Mancow’s corporate publicist:

It is going to have to look “real” but of course would be simulated with Mancow acting like he is drowning. It will be a hoax but have to look real.

Smoking gun? It would certainly grab our attention. And to Gawker’s credit, night editor Cajun Boy asked Shafran for clarification:

It was NOT a hoax. Early on when we were looking for someone to waterboard, an email was sent out looking for someone to do it and I mistakenly said it would be staged. That was my mistake and a misunderstanding.

But that was early and NOT TRUE AT ALL. It was not staged. NOT AT ALL. When it happened several days later, it was real, honest, actual, not staged.

Any info you have was my mistake. THE WATERBOARDING OF MANCOW WAS REAL!!!!!!

Of course, “several days later” is a tad confusing, since the original email was dated the night before the stunt. But the context of that email was that the original waterboarder had dropped out, and they were looking for a last-minute replacement. So we’ll allow for confusion on the part of Shafran, although confusion isn’t something you want expressed by your professional publicist.

To wrap up his follow-up post, Gawker’s Cajun Boy compared the Mancow video to the earlier Christopher Hitchens waterboarding, and noticed some discrepancies: Hitch was splashed strictly to code, while Mancow took a few liberties with the process — something also pointed out by wingnut critics last week. Without going into details, it’s fair to say that Mancow endured Waterboarding Lite — and only once, not 183 times.

Still, that was enough for Cajun Boy to fret that everyone had been “duped by a cheap publicity stunt.”

(Which calls for a digression: Well, duh. Mancow, by all accounts a rabid wingnut and Hannity phone pal, was trying to prove a simple point that waterboarding is harmless. He even had his listeners vote on whether he or his announcer would take the splash. His casual confidence that he could endure a water wienie was what made the outcome significant.)

And that’s where Gawker Investigator John Cook, taking a break from investigating chronic chyron typos, stepped in Friday morning. No fretting for the Radar and Trib veteran — a real journalist knows how to milk a story:

Olbermann is a disingenuous ideologue who hurts his own cause — and ours — when he takes this fakery at face value and promotes it as evidence of his own rectitude on the torture debate.

Astonishingly, MSNBC is standing by its flackery for Muller’s hoax.

Them’s fightin’ words — words guaranteed to get Gawker prominent publicity on Countdown last night, just like Gawker accuses Mancow of doing. And while there’s likely little overlap between Olbermann’s and Mancow’s potential audiences, a Countdown plug for Gawker is worth something. Gossip reporters know the value of feuds.

Which brings us to the bewildering part: What would Mancow have to gain by faking his submission? We know what Gawker had to gain from disputing it — and we also can reasonably suspect what an anonymous tipster had to gain by forwarding those emails, since the only way to undermine Mancow’s waterboarding is to claim it wasn’t really waterboarding.

Somebody was certainly duped. But Gawker’s pointing its finger in the wrong direction.

Waterboarding Hoax? [Countdown]

Update: Oh, Keith [Gawker]


Nojo, You brought your A-Game to this post. Nice work.

(I’m gonna go it. Apologies.)

Gawker has long since jumped the shark. I’ve only been there recently to get Shlomi’s mug shot.

Fuck me for paying attention to this, but since we ran with the original video, I felt obligated…

Late Friday, Gawker ran its response, which is as unreadable as their original posts, but still worth 18,000 views for the USA Network ad.

And amusingly, John Cook is competing with Keef for the High Umbrage award.

Gawker is sticking with its story, of course. But right near the top, John gets a major fact wrong:

This would have probably gone largely unnoticed except for the fact that Keith Olbermann designated him as the leading critic of torture.

Well, no. Countdown doesn’t air until 8 p.m. Eastern, and the Mancow video was all over the place that Friday. Just because Gawker didn’t notice until the following Wednesday doesn’t mean everyone else was asleep at the wheel.

We’re increasingly convinced that Muller’s waterboarding escapade was a purposeful fabrication — that he set out to engineer a publicity event based on the reversal of his position.

Um, wow. No: wow. And we thought wingnuts had the best conspiracy theories.

[Olbermann] said that “the only actual evidence” that Muller’s supposed waterboarding was not, in fact, a waterboarding was “the use of the word ‘hoax’ in an e-mail.” Well, we’d say that’s something, considering the e-mail in question was from Muller’s publicist, Linda Shafran.

It certainly is something. It’s also the only thing. And as we understand it, Shafran is not Muller’s personal publicist, but a corporate flack for his radio network.

Also: Dude, you’re taking the flack’s word for it?

Still, we agree that the emails are newsworthy, and Gawker’s Cajun Boy was reasonably circumspect when he posted them. It’s only when Professional Investigator John Cook picked up the story the next day that Gawker’s outrage kicked into high gear.

Why would she write that Muller would be “acting like he is drowning”? Wouldn’t he act like he wasn’t drowning? Like waterboarding isn’t a “big deal”?

Because it makes better radio? It was a stunt, after all. Ohmigod, I’m drowning, aiyeeee! No, just kidding.

Someone who was interested in making Muller look like a clown would have wanted him to go on your show before leaking the e-mails. This leaker tried to stop him.

Choose your unverifiable assumption. Our take is that someone wanted to undermine Mancow’s credibility and limit the exposure his stunt received. Cook argues that the anonymous tipster was actually trying to save Olbermann from himself — that a cannier operative would have waited until after the broadcast to take them both down.

Perhaps so, but that’s an extraordinary piece of reasoning — one that seems contrived to save Gawker’s face instead of fit the facts as known. It reflects Cook’s entire approach, which attempts what he accuses Olbermann of doing: Save the story at all costs.

There’s a lot more, but it’s exhausting. But that USA Network show looks interesting.

[And here’s Mancow’s statement]

By Mancow Muller

I am not a magician. Many news cameras were there!

Obviously, it was on the radio and I wasn’t in prison. I’m also not a radicalized Muslim terrorist. But it was not a hoax! I repeat: NOT A HOAX.

We kept telling management, the insurance companies, and the local Chicago cops we weren’t really going to do it until we did. Otherwise, they weren’t gonna let us do it! We got a U.S. Marine that told us he had studied how to do it and he volunteered to waterboard me in return for a mention of his charity.   

I was on a decline and I was waterboarded. Was I in chains? No. Does that make it less real? I am failing to get the point attempted by my detractors. We never claimed it was an exact recreation.

The CIA technique is exactly what we did:

1. Keep the chest elevated above the head and neck to keep the lungs “above the waterline.”

2. Incline the head, both to keep the throat open and to present the nostrils for easier filling.

3. Force the mouth open so that water can be poured into both the nose and mouth.

Sorry, I thought for years it wasn’t torture and now I do. The video is there for all to see.

The left has taken my message and distorted it as well. Would I wanterboard to save my daughters (or any American children)? Yes!

The three terrorists that were waterboarded at Guantanamo were done so by military professionals. And it was done to save lives with America’s best interests at heart. Mine was a silly radio time filler in comparison. Its apples & hand grenades! 

It would be insane to equate what I did with anything that happens in prison. I am simply a free man in a radio studio that always tries to get inside the big issues. This is an ugly issue with no easy answers. But I now see it’s easier for some to dismiss me than to do any real soul searching on this very heady issue.

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