Gawker Hits O'Donnell While She's Down

A younger man's anonymous tale of his not-so-sexual exploits with the Delaware candidate sparks controversy

Christine O'Donnell is down 21 points in Delaware's Senate race. She's presented Democrats with a potential buffer against a Republican takeover of the Senate, and she was repeatedly mocked for a debate last week in which she expressed deep-seated confusion about the First Amendment. In short, her campaign is experiencing some stress.

Add to her woes a blockbuster Gawker account by an anonymous man who claims to have had a "one-night stand" with O'Donnell three years ago. The story has exploded since it was posted earlier this afternoon, and many commentators have expressed outrage.

And the story is pretty outrageous: the writer describes O'Donnell as "aggressive," "intense," and a "cougar" (he was 14 years younger than she was at the time, he claims). He goes into crude detail about their sexual encounter, which it turns out wasn't so sexual after all. Ultimately, the portrait he paints of O'Donnell is rather sad: a somewhat desperate older woman who didn't pick up on his cues that he wasn't interested.

In choosing to publish this story, along with a series of photos of O'Donnell dressed in a racy ladybug costume for the Halloween she allegedly spent with the writer, Gawker walked a tricky editorial line. On the one hand, O'Donnell is a public figure who has opened herself up to media scrutiny and who has suggested that her strictly conservative social views would influence her governance. Delves into how she practices these values in her personal can be viewed as a service to voters.

Editorial questions arise, however, over whether the man who writes about her lying naked in his bed should be able to claim anonymity. Gawker gives readers no reason to believe that the writer didn't make the entire thing up. Only after Forbes contacted Gawker after the post went live did editor Remy Stern confirm that the site had checked the piece out for veracity.

O'Donnell has not been the only young female candidate this cycle to get tripped up by risque photos and public chatter about her sex life. Earlier this month, Gawker ran a slideshow of racy photos of Krystal Ball, a 28-year-old Democrat running for Congress in a heavily Republican district in Virginia. In the photos, which Gawker obtained from a conservative blog, Ball is dressed as a sexy Santa and fellates a dildo attached to her boyfriend's nose. This incident was heralded as a sign of what to expect of political campaigns in an age of lifelong digital footprints, and Ball actually handled it quite well, responding with a statement claiming that "society has to accept that women of my generation have sexual lives that are going to leak into the public sphere."

O'Donnell has not yet responded to Gawker's account. For the gossip/news site, though, the story has been a traffic boon, earning over 200,000 page views in the first few hours after publication. For younger candidates, it's a reminder that privacy is obsolete. And for O'Donnell, it's one more potentially embarrassing addendum to her struggling campaign.