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Writer on “Shitty Media Men” list settles defamation case

(Stock image, Graphic by The Desk)

A writer whose name appeared on a viral list of toxic men in the media industry has settled his defamation case against the list’s original author.

The case was brought by author Stephen Elliott after his name appeared on the “Shitty Media Men” list, a Google Sheets database that circulated at the height of the “Me Too” movement more than four years ago.

The list was originally launched by columnist Moira Donegan, a former editor at the New Republic political magazine, who affirmed she created the database as a “partial remedy” to warn women “warn women away from serial assaulters.”

“In the beginning, I only wanted to create a place for women to share their stories of harassment and assault without being needlessly discredited or judged,” Donegan wrote in a column published by The Cut. “The hope was to create an alternate avenue to report this kind of behavior and warn others without fear of retaliation.”

But the list had few safeguards, and some men were placed in the database with permanent and often unfounded allegations to their name. At its height, the names of more than 70 men appeared on the list.

While Elliott had been accused by several female colleagues in the past of sexual impropriety — at least one woman complained in 2015 that he asked her to go to bed with him in a way that made her feel “uncomfortable” — Elliott has never been charged or convicted of any sexual crime by a law enforcement agency.

Still, it didn’t stop someone from putting his name on the list, which was publicly available and to which almost anyone could contribute. His name was linked to accusations of coercion, sexual harassment and rape.

Elliott denied the allegations. He filed his lawsuit against Donegan shortly after his name appeared on the list.

Donegan initially tried to have the suit tossed by a federal court, arguing protection under Section 230 of the Communications Act, which shields a website owner from contributions that are made by third parties.

Last April, a judge overseeing the case rejected Donegan’s claim of immunity under Section 230, setting the stage for a prolonged civil trial where millions of dollars were potentially on the line.

In the end, Elliott agreed to settle the case for an undisclosed six-figure sum. In an interview with the Daily Beast, Elliott said Donegan’s attorney initially requested that he sign a non-disclosure agreement that would essentially forbid him from speaking about the case and the settlement, an offer he rejected.

“The lawsuit had gone 4 and a half years and would have gone 4 more years I think before going to trial,” Elliott told the Daily Beast. “They were doing everything possible to avoid defending their views in court, so when they offered enough money I agreed to settle.”

Elliott said things came up during the course of the legal process that indicated Donegan knew the allegations against him were unsubstantiated, but allowed them to remain on the “Shitty Media Men” list nonetheless.

“Imagine, a non-profit publisher publicly supporting a media blacklist, even while telling me privately they knew I was innocent, and they believed other people on the list were innocent as well,” he said. “But there’s some closure here. It’s enough money that it’s basically an admission of guilt, and it feels like a victory. And most importantly, it’s helped push back on false accusations and presumptions of guilt.”

Money was not the end goal in his lawsuit, though: Elliott said he hoped to clear his name, sand said the lawsuit was brought for “moral reasons.”

“I felt there was a moral obligation, and I don’t regret that at all,” he affirmed.

Donegan is refusing to talk about the settlement, referring questions to her attorney, who hasn’t returned requests from reporters.

The original Google Sheets list was pulled after a reporter from BuzzFeed made its existence publicly known. By that time, the damage was already done, with copies of the list franchised on blogs and social media platforms, some of which are still online today.

The last incarnation of the list accused some male journalists of benign offenses, including one who was charged with “weird lunch dates.” Other allegations appeared to be copy and pasted from earlier entries: A CNBC journalist was accused of a long list of alleged offenses, and those same allegations were made verbatim against a reporter for The Intercept who once worked at Gawker.

The list set off a firestorm of controversy, with women supporting it as a digital version of a “whisper network” to warn other women of potentially predatory men. Others said the list created serious reputational and legal problems because it allowed anyone to lob accusations against other people with virtually no proof.

Writing at The Cut, Donegan said the list was never intended to be used as a weapon against the men whose names appeared on it.

“Without legal authority or professional power, it offered an impartial, rather than adversarial, tool to those who used it,” Donegan claimed. “It was intended specifically not to inflict consequences, not to be a weapon.”

But the list did inflict consequences: Some of the men who were named in the database were investigated by their employers, and a handful were fired. Others removed themselves from social media. Virtually none of the men have been criminally investigated or charged with misconduct.

Even some of the list’s earliest defenders suggested it might prove to be problematic in the long run. In her BuzzFeed column on the database, Doree Shafrir cheered the creation of the list — “finally, the grossest men in media will be exposed,” she wrote — only to later affirm her own misgivings about the unintended consequences of putting out a database filled with anonymous grievances.

“Things do get complicated when you start lumping all of this behavior together in a big anonymous spreadsheet of unsubstantiated allegations against dozens of named men, who were not given a chance to respond,” Shafrir wrote.

Throughout the process, Donegan still had her supporters: A legal defense fund launched on the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe brought in more than $100,000 for her court costs, even though her lawyers represented her without charge.

In the end, the case didn’t go to trial — which means there’s no specific legal precedent to point to for the dozens of other men who were named on the list and who might want to bring their own legal challenges. If any of them do sue Donegan, or are successful in unmasking the identity of their accusers, they will have to start each legal challenge without the benefit of a legal precedent — essentially, from “square one.”

In statements emailed to reporters, Elliott said his life has been forever changed by the list, but said he was satisfied with the settlement. The outcome of the case didn’t include an apology from Donegan, but Elliott says he believes the outcome of the case will help him clear his name.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 10 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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