A recent controversy involving feminist video games activist Zoe Quinn and “anti-abuse” campaigner Randi Harper has led to allegations of journalistic malpractice, the silencing of critics, and an internet firestorm.
No, you aren’t reading an article from September 2014. After two years and one SPJ conference on the issue, the mainstream media still appears to treat any story connected to GamerGate as a partisan free-for-all where the normal rules of journalism do not apply.
The latest victim of dubious journalism is Candace Owens, a Wall Street VP-turned-anti-cyberbullying campaigner. As we reported last week, Owens attracted the enmity of Quinn and Harper after launching a project to expose anonymous abusers on the web. Bizarrely, both Quinn and Harper opposed her project, despite spending most of last year complaining to the media about the horrors of anonymous web abuse.
It makes more sense when you consider that Quinn and Harper have both built careers, and received thousands of dollars in donations, as a result of these anonymous trolls.
We’ve already covered the strange behaviour of Quinn and Harper. Just as interesting, however, is the behaviour of the journalists in their corner.
New York Magazine
After the spat spilled over onto social media, Owens was approached by two of Quinn’s staunchest defenders in the mainstream media, Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post and Jesse Singal of New York Magazine.
Neither of them told her that, of course. Indeed, Singal went out of his way to pose as a friend to Owens, offering her advice and sympathy in private before labeling her a conspiracy theorist in the pages of New York Magazine. After Owens told him she suspected Quinn was directing anonymous web trolls and colluding with journalists, Singal, instead of revealing his long-standing skepticism towards such claims, said he was “excited to hear more.”
After winning her trust, Singal went on to extract more comments and information from her, as well as a promise to delay the publication of her own blog post on the controversy. Only when his piece was on the verge of publication, two days after he initially made contact, did Singal reveal that he was doubtful of Owens’ claims.
Readers can judge for themselves whether Singal’s behaviour, which included “advice” for Owens to delay her blog post, as well as a warning against pursuing her suspicion that Quinn was connected to anonymous trolling, constitute objective journalism — as opposed to activism. In an email to Breitbart, Singal maintained that he “didn’t see a problem” with offering Owens advice.
Singal also told Owens he had heard a rumor that someone was attempting to run a “VC scam” (VC = Venture Capitalist) on her. Singal again offered to assist Owens, asking her to send him the names of VCs who had reached out to her since the controversy began. “I might be able to help you figure out what’s going on,” Singal told Owens.
If your aim is to kill a project, having a list of its potential investors is, of course, extremely valuable. Incidentally, Quinn and Harper have both made their desire to kill Owens’ project abundantly clear. Nevertheless, in an emailed comment to Breitbart, Singal insisted that his motives were pure:
I didn’t care and didn’t ask which VC firms had expressed interest since Owens first started building Social Autopsy. I asked very specifically which had expressed interest since the pile-on began, because the rumor I heard, while poorly sourced, didn’t strike me as beyond the realm of belief. I thought it wouldn’t have been fair not to warn Owens about this, and as soon as she said she personally knew the individuals behind the VC firm that had reached out to her during the pile-on, I dropped it, expressing no further interest in the subject because that told me it couldn’t be a scam.
Owens, unsurprisingly, is unconvinced by Singal’s conduct. In addition to writing a 2,600-word blog post slamming the journalist, she’s also launched an online petition calling on New York Magazine to retract his article. Owens says that Singal has “openly violated” journalistic ethics and “compromises the perception of the Journalistic community at large.”
After the publication of his piece, Singal quickly came under fire from Owens’ sympathisers on social media, over 600 of whom signed Owens’ petition. One comment, from anti-trafficking campaigner Jamie Walton, stood out from the rest.
In her comment, Walton alleged that she had a similar experience with Singal last March, when he reached out to her over her comments regarding former Nintendo employee Alison Rapp. According to Walton, Singal “hounded” her with “fake nice emails and tweets trying to get me on record.” Walton concluded that he “Behaves more like a predator than a journalist.”
For someone like Singal, who claims to oppose misogyny on the web, the claim was damning: the female head of an anti-trafficking organisation accusing him of being more like a predator than a journalist. Indeed, despite a clarification from Walton, Singal found the comment damning enough to want it removed from the web.
Walton’s message has since been deleted and can only be found on archive sites. In a series of tweets, Walton said she had agreed to retract her comments after communicating privately with Singal. Initially, she said that she had removed the tweets because he was being “harassed.”
I'm having my comment about @jessesingal removed from change. It was taken out of context, and he is being harassed because of it.
— Jamie Walton (@JamieWalton) April 26, 2016
Her later tweets, however, took on a distinctly sarcastic tone.
Also, he would like me to retract the statement he hounded me. Yeah, okay. I retract it. Whatever makes him happy. @jessesingal
— Jamie Walton (@JamieWalton) April 26, 2016
Okay, @jessesingal wants me to say he didn't hound me. Okay. He didn't hound me and I am a horrible fibber, and I am so sorry.
— Jamie Walton (@JamieWalton) April 26, 2016
How did Singal persuade Walton to retract her comment? If the tweets above are any guide, she only did so reluctantly. Was she coerced?
Whatever he did, Singal isn’t telling. “We agreed not to comment further on this,” he told Breitbart.
The Washington Post
Owens was also contacted by Caitlin Dewey, a Washington Post reporter who has previously called Zoe Quinn’s critics in the GamerGate movement “hateful and amorphous trolls.”
According to Owens, Dewey was more upfront about her bias in favour of Quinn and Harper than Singal:
She couldn’t hide her opinion and emotions while she was talking. She was angry at me for insinuating that Zoe and Randi had harassed me, and kept trying to get me to admit that I couldn’t “definitively state” that they had.
Caitlin had been trying to get me to understand that Zoe Quinn was a victim, and that I was too under-researched in the Gamergate controversy to understand that.
Where Dewey did mimic Singal was in her determination to discover the names of the venture capitalists who had reached out to Owens since the controversy began.
Similar to Jesse, she kept wanting me to specifically list which anti-bullying organizations we had dealt with. I declined to answer this point entirely and I told her explicitly that the reason was that I did not want to drag anymore unrelated third parties into this mess, as anyone who had been even remotely associated with us had received some form of unwarranted contact.
Caitlin moved on and kept wanting me to list specifically, which Venture Capitalists firms we had heard from since the video got torpedoed. I again declined using the the same reason… she was persistent. She asked me if I wanted to tell her the firms “off the record”.
Owens declined to name them. Undeterred, Dewey proceeded to independently track down Social Autopsy’s partners, despite the fact that Owens hadn’t named any of them.
As it turns out, it was lucky that Owens hadn’t. Because when Dewey successfully located what she thought was one of Social Autopsy’s partner organisations, the result proved disastrous.
According to Owens, Dewey told the organisation that Owens claimed they had acted as consultants on her website, and that they had received “hate mail” following the fallout between her and Quinn. Owens maintains that she made neither claim, yet Dewey nonetheless relayed the information to the organisation.
The result was an angry phone call to Owens from the organisation:
He was angry, that I saw it fit to relay to the Washington Post that his company was acting as “consultants” to us on our app. He was also angry that as a result, I made a statement on their behalf, that their company had been receiving tons of “hate mail”.
This prompted a cease-and-desist letter:
he simply stated that he would have to shoot over a cease and desist letter from their lawyers to warn me against lying about them in the media. He also gave me a heads up that they had issue[d] a strong statement against me to Caitlin
Had Owens actually been lying about them in the media, the organisation’s response would, of course, have been completely understandable. But Owens maintains that she told Dewey nothing, and that the reporter acted on her own initiative.
We reached out to Dewey to get her side of the story, but she did not respond to our request for comment.
After Owens complained to the Washington Post, she received a response from David Malitz, the Deputy Features Editor. Malitz told Owens that he was killing Dewey’s story, although he emphasised that there were no irregularities in the way Dewey had conducted herself, and that the story was instead being killed because Owens was no longer “newsworthy.”
If so, why was Dewey’s investigation approved in the first place?
Malitz, like Dewey, did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s still about ethics in journalism
With so many parties remaining silent, there are still several questions that have yet to be answered. Why was Dewey, like Singal, so interested in Owens’ investors and partners? Why did both journalists try to persuade Owens to drop her suspicions of Quinn and Harper? And just what did Jesse Singal say to Jamie Walton to convince her to retract her comments?