Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Senator George Clooney Interrogates Nick Denton

The Senate Chamber was filled to the brim, every available four-square foot space of carpet was burdened with a human being, from reporters to congressional aides to college students to the lucky tourist who happened to sneak in. There were a good dozen tripods hoisting video cameras, as well as thrice that number of photographers wielding still cameras with protruding white zoom lenses. The rows of seats behind the long witness table were buzzing with chatter as the senators took their places on the dais, the center being chaired by Senator George Clooney.

At the witness table sat Nick Denton. To his right was Hillary, Denton's attorney. Nick was nervous, but then how could one not be in the klieg lights of Washington and Hollywood simultaneously. Nick had spent years building a mini-empire of blogs and other internet watering holes, many of which relied on the support and participation of the public. Nick had a nose for good writing and for attracting insiders who were willing to open windows to social networks that had previously remained behind closed doors. Nick thrusted these no-names into the forefront, giving them an audience and a platform and a mission, ranging from politics to celebrities to gadgets. If there was a demographic, Nick targeted it, staffed it, financed it on the cheap, and built a web audience slowly, steadily, until the site earned money. Nick had accumulated enough profitable websites to generate him a sizeable revenue stream, making him something of a Silicon Valley darling, though on the East Coast thousands of miles from the googlers and yahoos.

With success comes media attention, and although Nick liked people to know about him, he did not savor the spotlight. He preferred controlling the spotlight. Not today. Today the spotlight handles were firmly in Senator Clooney's grip.

"This is not fun, not even a little," whispered Nick to Hillary as he examined Senator George Clooney organizing a pile of papers and chatting with a senatorial aide. It irritated Nick that Clooney looked as good in his fifties as he did in his forties. This was particularly so because Nick had spent the last decade sitting too much in a chair. He carried a little too much weight, and he probably looked dreadful compared to the dashing Senator who had cultivated a love with the camera during his two decades as an actor.

"Witch hunts are never fun," said Hillary, a 38-year old blond beauty from a midtown Manhattan law firm that spent several years early in her career in Washington, DC. She knew the ropes down here in the Beltway, but her primary asset, Nick Denton sometimes thought, were her looks. Plus her raspy voice no doubt caused by a lifelong weekend indulgence with marijuana. Nick was of two minds about his attorney. The drug use was cool, sort of, because she so effortlessly was able to weave weed into her busy legal life. But then, he couldn't help think that she had a lose screw somewhere, a hole in her brain that was burned out. Hillary's parents were both former hippies, and the lifestyle apparently had been passed down from one generation to the next in Hillary's case.

Nick jumped at the sound of wood hitting wood. Senator Clooney had slammed the gavel down on the block that sat on the counter.

"Let me welcome Nicholas Denton to the Hill, and I can speak on behalf of my colleagues that we all thank you for agreeing to appear before the Senate Committee on the Preservation of Privacy," said Senator Clooney with a charismatic smile.

Nick nodded his head, and with each nod a sick pain gurgled in his stomach. Hillary patted the back of Nick's right hand with her left hand to comfort Nick. It was not doing any good. It only made him feel more self conscious, thinking that Hillary heard Nick's rumbling gastrointestinal tract.

"Mr. Denton, do you have an opening statement?" asked Senator Clooney.

"No, sir, I have no opening statement," said Nick Denton. The second Nick said 'sir' he winced. He was calling this guy 'sir' when virtually all of his web properties had for years targeted George Clooney as a fat mouth Hollywood hunk. Now he was saying 'sir' to this guy. Clooney had managed to turn everything around and on its head. A celebrity cannot change the law or the discussion, but a politician can.

"You know, Mr. Denton, many Americans, if not all Americans, are very concerned with the growing intrusion the internet is having on their personal lives," said Mr. Clooney. "And you have one particular internet business which has become what all of us fear the most, which is big brother watching our every move. And we all feared it was the government who was going to be big brother, as it has in some cases. But with your ventures, it is big business that has assumed this role," said Senator Clooney.

"May I speak," said Nick.

"Well, I have not finished, but certainly, you may respond," said Clooney.

"I am hardly a big business. My various companies have never gone public, and we manage our properties on limited budgets, we employ no lobbyists, and we have no deep pockets," said Nick. His hands were shaking every so slightly.

"Is it not true that your company was purchased by the News Corporation for an undisclosed amount of money?' asked Clooney.

"Yes," said Nick.

"Is it not true that your company was purchased by the Sony Corporation?" asked Clooney.

"Yes," said Nick.

"Is it not true that your company was purchased by Playboy Enterprises?" asked Clooney.
"Yes," said Nick.

"It is not true that your company was purchased by the Toyota Corporation?" asked Clooney.

"Yes," said Nick.

"So it is fair to say that your business plan is to create properties that you build and then sell them to large corporations for huge sums of money, avoiding the oversight that going public would subject you to. You have set yourself up so you can avoid any scrutiny, to protect your own privacy at the expense of others, haven't you Mr. Denton," asked Senator Clooney.

Damn, this guy is good. "Well, sir, my plan is not to avoid scrutiny. My business plan is to build businesses and then, possibly, sell them at a profit," said Nick. He was sorry he used the word 'profit' thinking that would not play well on camera.

"Let's talk about your website Gawker Stalker. Gawker Stalker provides the tools to stalk the comings and goings of private individuals, and then posting this information publicly at the Gawker Stalker website on a map for all to see. The very purpose of this website is to intrude on people's privacy, a privacy that forms the foundation of various rights in our Constitution, is that not right?" asked Clooney who was no longer smiling.

"Actually, sir, it is only meant to be a clearinghouse of the location of celebrities, not private individiuals," said Nick.

"Mr. Denton, don't think you can minimize the intrusive nature, don't think you can dismiss the assault on the public's privacy perpetrated by Gawker Stalker by telling this Committee that all you care about are celebrities," said Clooney.

"Sir, I hardly think that Gawker Stalker would have survived as a business model if it was merely announcing to the world where my Aunt Sadie is buying her groceries," said Nick. The Senate Chamber laughed. This made Nick feel good.

"Do you have an Aunt Sadie, Mr. Denton?" asked Clooney, taking back control of the room.
Damn. Nick thought he could get away with that one. He did not have an Aunt Sadie. Clooney had done his homework. "Well, I was using Aunt Sadie to generically refer to anyone's Aunt, sir," said Nick.

"May I remind you sir that even though you are not under oath, you stand before the American people, and this hallowed Senate Chamber stands for the truth and not a joke for your Manhattan internet buddies, Mr. Denton," said Clooney with a bit of anger in his voice.

"Yes, sir, sorry," said Nick.

"And may I ask you something, Mr. Denton? Is an American citizen who happens to have some public status and recognition, big or small, any less worthy of constitutional protection than the generic Aunt you refer to? Is an actor, one who toils for years earning no money but restaurant tips, one who studies their craft day in and day out, one who works all their lives to entertain and fill your life with joy and entertainment, is that actor now no longer in possession of their private life, is that actor now merely the grist on which you plow your trade filling your pockets with bucket loads of big corporate money? Tell me that, Mr. Denton? Tell me how you can sleep at night knowing that your company Gawker Stalker is hounding and stalking pregnant movies stars who only seek a little pre-natal privacy? Tell America how you can sleep at night knowing your company Gawker Stalker causes pain and misery and fear among the artistic community, the very community of artists, actors and musicians that work their lives to entertain and provoke you? Tell America that, sir," said Senator George Clooney.

Unlike most Senators, Senator George Clooney made that little speech without once looking down at a script. Clooney had it memorized. Nick refused to believe Clooney made it up on the spot. Nick refused to believe Clooney was improvising, even though that's what actors do at times. Clooney going on and on about Gawker Stalker in the Senate Chamber on national television; it was surreal. I mean, afterall, Gawker Stalker was started almost as a goof over at Gawker Media, Nick Denton's parent company that had given birth to all his blogs and internet properties. When Google gave everyone the means to use its mapping service, hundreds of websites spawned overnight mapping everything from real estate to impromptu meetings and political demonstrations. All Nick thought of mapping were celebrities. And with cell phone cameras and on the spot internet access, why not map the location of a celebrity instantaneously. Nick had thought it cute, at first. But Nick had no idea how it would take off, how Gawker Stalker was to become one of the hottest websites. And clearly it had pissed some people off. But it never mattered pissing a celebrity off. In fact, it was good to piss celebrities off. Celebrities who complained always seemed so silly and defensive. The celebrities who ignored the tabloid press maintained some dignity. The celebrities complained were babies. But now there was the Clooney option. Ignore it, or become a politician.

"Mr. Denton, would you like me to repeat the question?" asked Senator George Clooney.

"No, sir, I heard you," said Nick. Hillary, leaned over.

"The Senator has made his speech, and his friends in Hollywood are no doubt now satisfied. Remember not to get angry. Be the small businessman that you are, trying to make a buck, feeding your family," whispered Hillary in Nick's ear.

Small businessman? Well, maybe, compared to Gates and Jobs and the CEO of Exxon Mobil. But the millions have poured in over the last few years, and he did not think of himself as a small businessman, like the guy who owns the drugstore or the local coffee shop. Nick Denton was the master of a corner of the internet, a big corner, and he was anything but small. But he got what Hillary was saying. What irked Nick was that there was a larger issue here. And that larger issue was freedom of speech. But no one was talking about freedom of speech or the First Amendment. Clooney was on the bandwagon of privacy, the right to privacy, as if he was taking the pro-choice ride through Hollywood to save the asses of his phony and very rich actor buddies.

"Senator, I am a small businessman that is merely trying to exercise his rights under the First Amendment," said Nick.

Senator George Clooney's eyes went wide in shock, as if this statement came as a total surprise.
Hillary placed her hand over the microphone and clearly indicated to the panel of senators that she needed a consult.

"What are you doing?" whispered Hillary. "You know the agreement I worked out with Clooney's staff. No discussion of the First Amendment. No freedom of speech grandstanding. This is about privacy concerns. Clooney is a big supporter of the First Amendment and does not want to talk about it. OK? Are you hearing me?" whispered Hillary who was clearly upset. Nick knew why she was upset. When you work out a deal with a Senator of the United States Congress, you make certain your client sticks with the deal or else your career is ruined. Hillary would never again be able to walk the halls of Capital Hill as a power broker again. This was serious stuff.

"Yes, Hillary, I know. But maybe it is time to take a stand. Maybe there is a reason I am here? And maybe it is the First Amendment," whispered Nick back at Hillary.

"The reason you are here is because of me, Nick. Don't start thinking you have some higher calling. You are not Edward R. Murrow. This is not some Good Night and Good Luck thing here. This is a deal I worked out to save your ass and make Senator Clooney happy. Stick with the program," whispered Hillary harshly.

Nick turned toward Senator George Clooney, who was glaring at him. Stick with the program. Make the Senator happy. He won't get any legislation passed that affects Nick. So everyone gets what he wants. But something inside Nick told him that he would really not be able to sleep at night. Something told Nick that Clooney and Hillary could both kiss his ass. The hell with them. But then, money is money, his life was his life, and maybe it would be better to pick this fight on another ball field at another time.

All the video cameras were aimed at him. All the photographers were pointing their zoom lenses at him, clicking away, recording each second. What to do? Stick with the program? Maybe it was a matter of phrasing. Maybe he could somehow communicate that this was an early inning and not the bottom of the ninth. Maybe. Damn, he wished he had one of his writers with him.

"Senator Clooney, I apologize. I did not mean to change the subject. Afterall, today's topic is the right to privacy, not freedom of speech. And that is the issue I will address," said Nick. He was not totally happy. He thought the blogosphere will get it. Today's topic is Clooney's topic. But tomorrow's will be Nick's. He hoped. With the internet, you always had the last word, at least for a moment.

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