History repeats itself, we have been told, and recent events in the world of online journalism seem to bear this out. A few weeks ago, Gawker.com, an internet playpen for the lower-information millennial set, saw the departure of its three top editors, accompanied by a solemn promise from the publisher that the site would now become “20% nicer.” The impetus for all this arose from an article that claimed the CFO of a competitor online media company had solicited paid sex from a male prostitute, and the article was based solely on the claims of the prostitute, with no corroborating evidence — or attempt to obtain any. Further, in order to “protect” the accuser, Gawker named only the CFO in the article.
Alas, it obtained that the “accuser” was an extortionist, albeit a somewhat unbalanced one, who successfully duped Gawker into acting as an accomplice in his plot to blackmail the CFO. This was a little much, even for Gawker’s readers, who turned on the publication with the fury of an enraged Macbeth, blasting the site for more than a week with an endless stream of taunts and vitriol in its comments section.
Sound familiar? Perhaps only to those who followed the exotically bizarre Village Voice series on Bruce McMahan and his ex-wife Elena. The two narratives are eerily identical: a deranged and ruthless extortionist contacts a publication so eager for pageviews that it finds a way to print nonsense of the flimsiest and abjectly absurd tenor, despite obvious red flags and bone-jarring contradictions in the blackmailers’ narratives. Elena enlisted the Village Voice as her dupe, which ran two articles claiming that McMahan had a lengthy affair with his own daughter.
How did this happen? Briefly, Elena McMahan had gotten caught by her husband with her hand in the family cookie jar, and a divorce impended. Elena, aware that she was going to have to settle for the terms of her pre-nup, attempted to gain control of McMahan’s entire fortune through a blackmail threat — “either give me everything or I’ll go to the press and say you’ve been sleeping with your daughter.” McMahan, believing that no credible publication could be so stupid or so gullible as to fall for this fantasy, told her to go right ahead. McMahan didn’t reckon on the Village Voice. The Voice ran the story.
This naturally created more than a little consternation in the McMahan family, which watched helplessly as the Voice printed a rich tapestry of absurdities supported by impossibilities, including the assertion that McMahan had married the daughter in a ceremony at Westminster Abbey. This story fell apart very quickly under the briefest scrutiny, but the Voice never offered a retraction or apology. The damage to McMahan was done; his only recourse was to sue, but such a suit could only draw more attention to the story, and the Voice was facing bankruptcy for other reasons, including an outstanding judgement of roughly $15 million against it for unfair business practices in California. Subsequently, it was revealed that Village Voice Media was essentially a front for an online child prostitution website, Backpage.com, which provided by far the majority of the company’s revenues. In short, a pretty squalid little bunch of gangsters and pimps had walked into McMahan’s living room and sprayed it with bullshit, leaving him and his children to clean up the mess as best they could.
Gawker is still reeling from its outing fiasco, with major advertisers dropping the site in revulsion, and the Village Voice now limps along under new ownership, as the former owners sold it off for almost nothing. They did, however, maintain ownership of the kiddy-hooker website, which remains under attack by various parties, including a few dozen state attorneys-general.
In Gawker’s case, the extortion plot was quickly unmasked.
McMahan’s situation, however, took many years finally be decided in any satisfactory way.
McMahan’s ex-wife, frustrated by her failure to gain control of McMahan’s sizable fortune through outright blackmail, then sought to regain leverage on him — and millions of dollars — through an attempt to obtain sole custody of their two children, which initially had been awarded them jointly by the court.
Elena spent the next several years filing custody lawsuits, seeking to have a court declare Bruce McMahan an “unfit parent,” citing the Village Voice story. Judge after judge dismissed the story as absurd, and refused to allow it to be entered as evidence. Her own behavior towards the children, however, became more and more erratic, resulting in an increasing set of restrictions on her parental rights, including an order by one court that she enter psychiatric care in order to maintain any visitation rights, which the courts had already steadily reduced.
Now the decision sought by Elena has in fact been handed down. But the “unfit parent” isn’t Bruce. A Florida court has ruled that Elena no longer may claim any parental rights to the children whatever, awarding sole and permanent custody to Bruce McMahan. Moreover, it does so by detailing the threats she presents to her children in unambiguous terms of clinical precision, observing:
“Former wife…demonstrates a continuing disregard for the well-being of the minor children.”
“The court finds that there is no significant love, affection and emotional ties between Former Wife and the minor children.”
The court finally concludes:
“The minor children have a stable, satisfactory relationship with the Former Husband, and it is most desirable to continue this placement.”
And that’s that. Elena McMahan told repulsive lies about Bruce McMahan for the most selfish of reasons, certainly, never stopping to consider the degree of harm she was inflicting on own children. “Your daddy is a monster” is hardly good news for a child to hear, even if true; in McMahan’s case, it was as malevolent and shameful a slander as she could possibly invent. Now the court has told its own story, in language of soul-shriveling harshness, using words and phrases no mother could ever bear to hear.
McMahan, we hope, can now take some comfort in his vindication. But Gawker — beware. The Village Voice now languishes in obscurity, operating a bare-bones budget with a skeleton staff.
As for Elena, the game she played, using her children as pawns, is now over. No check, no mate.