On Gawker’s Demise

In case you missed it… Gawker.com is ceasing operations this week.

The news has generated a lot of commentary online — much of it warning of the dangers presented to journalism as a result of this case. Some are even painting Gawker as victims in this case of a mean old Mr. Potter-like billionaire, Peter Thiel (the PayPal founder whom Gawker had outed as gay in 2007). The warnings have gone up about the influence wealthy individuals can have on the process of journalism, and the influence of money on justice when journalistic rights are concerned.

Well, I’ll say it, because not everyone’s been willing to: Gawker editorial leadership were horrible people who made the profession of journalism look awful. They made involuntarily outing people for sport and clicks their stock and trade, and they didn’t care whose lives they ruined in the process. Far too often and on most days, Gawker leadership and the editors of its publications badly confused snark for wit, and mistook jerkishness for “hard-nosed journalism.”  As all the pieces mourning Gawker’s demise and warning of chill effects get published, let’s not lose sight of something: Gawker’s raison d’etre was humiliating people for fun and profit.

Even the cases that would eventually cost them their existence were based on trying to humiliate and embarrass another human being — be it outing Peter Theil a decade ago, or the publishing of Hulk Hogan’s private sex tape. Gawker didn’t care about the impact they had on anyone’s life, so long as it generated clicks. Gawker justified its reporters’ behavior under a weak and phony rationale that no one (except Nick Denton, apparently) is entitled to secrets or a private life; everything is a matter of public interest if a self-proclaimed “journalist” says it is, in the Gawker world.

That justification is a lousy and unaccepted excuse. Gawker’s leadership and editorial staff were bullies of the worst order, pure and simple. They hid their behavior behind the shield of the First Amendment, justifying their conduct and vindictiveness like the schoolyard bully who says his wedgies, threats, and mockery were “just a joke.” Many of Gawker’s vendettas and crusades against their targets had nothing to do with the public interest journalism is supposed to serve; the modus operandi was simply to generate traffic through salaciousness, no matter the cost to the individuals placed in the Gawker spotlight. I am not mourning the loss of Gawker.com; I have a healthy case of schadenfreude about seeing its leadership suffer.

And yet…

There is something admittedly disconcerting about the way Gawker went down. Peter Thiel demonstrated the Trump principle: if tie your adversaries up in court for so long that they can’t afford to continue the fight, you win. And while no one — and I do mean, no one — should mourn the demise of Gawker.com itself, you have to be concerned about the dynamic that was demonstrated in this case. As USA Today put it, “Money talks. Sometimes louder than speech.”

While I will never argue that the First Amendment was intended to protect a bully’s right to torment people (as Nick Denton and his staff did regularly), I am concerned about the precedent. What happens if another moneyed billionaire — say, the Koch Brothers or George Soros — decides they don’t like what’s being published about them or causes dear to them? Did Peter Thiel just provide a playbook to billionaires on how to shut down unfavorable coverage or a journalistic outlet whose editorial outlook they find distasteful? Could we be entering an era in which the moneyed can’t just “buy coverage,” but can shut down and darken any spotlight that shines upon them, simply through superior financial firepower?

Is it important, as some have suggested, to take a stand here on behalf of journalism — even yellow journalism — so that the kill ’em-through-dragging-out-the-courts precedent isn’t set in stone?  Is this a case where we should invoke the famous Niemoller quotation, “First They Came…” and worry that if we don’t speak when “they” come for Gawker,  there will eventually be no one left to speak for the Washington Post, New York Times, or Wall Street Journal?

For me, the answer lies in a hard truth: It’s hard to defend Gawker.com. This is kind of like having to be vocal about opposing the death penalty when confronted with the case of a confessed serial killer who is on death row… does disdain for the subject of the case override one’s principles about the overarching issue?

In the end, I don’t think this case will have this kind of long-term, first-they-came impact. Gawker simply didn’t have enough allies; there were lots of people in the rest of the media and in corridors of power who were disgusted by its M.O. — the Washington Post ran a column last July titled “Gawker Is Keeping Its Sleaze Game In Shape,” just as one example — and no one really wanted to put money or their own reputation on the line to protect what Gawker represented to them, or to defend the posting of a sex tape with no actual news value.  Despite Nick Denton’s repeated attempts to paint himself as the bullied victim of a bad guy vindictive billionaire, too many people just really believed that Denton and Gawker had this coming. It seems to me that many people may have felt that Thiel was justified. I’m not the only one experiencing a little schadenfreude, this much seems clear.

But should a similar case ever arise against a more reputable, more decent bunch of people who practice journalism in the actual public interest? I think you’d see think tanks, journalism schools, interest groups and activists jumping into the fight, both financially and via the tone of their editorial coverage. I think if the Thiel playbook were implemented against actual journalism, the case would become such a cause celebre that a similar progression would be unlikely.  To me, anyway.

I’m certainly not a legal scholar, and I don’t claim any special expertise here. It’s just one guy’s opinion about one case, one publisher, and one editorial staff. I’d like to know your thoughts… if this case had involved an outlet that was easier to defend, do you think the result might have concerned more people?  And do you think the Thiel playbook sets a precedent that concerns you?





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