No Tears for Gawker; This Is Our Victory, Too.
Gawker has made its fortune on rumor, slander, and acting in bad faith. Hulk Hogan and Peter Thiel were right to take it down for invasion of privacy, and journalism as an institution has been improved. Gawker being held responsible is reason for all fans of intelligent journalism to celebrate.
Gawker Media, the parent company to the host of Nick Denton’s blogs, has fallen on hard times. Worth $45M in 2014, a court recently ruled against Gawker, forcing it to pay $140M in damages to Hulk Hogan. Hogan sued Gawker for leaking a sex tape starring the former wrestling star, and then refusing to remove it when ordered to by a judge, citing their first amendment rights. Hogan went forward with a lawsuit, while his legal fees were at least partly paid for by conservative billionaire Peter Thiel. Gawker had outed Thiel publicly as gay in 2007, despite Thiel already being out to his family and friends. When it was revealed that Thiel had been funding lawsuits against Gawker, including one other beyond Hogan’s, he claimed it was philanthropic. The jury in Hogan’s case ruled in his favor, and on June 10th, 2016, Gawker filed for bankruptcy. As of this writing, Gawker remains up for auction.
Since then, a significant portion of the media at large, from Wired to The New Yorker and beyond, have either expressed serious concern at the way Gawker was taken down, or have outright lamented Gawker’s loss. Despite the standards of these publications far outstripping Gawker’s, the general consensus seems to be that Hogan’s lawsuit — really Thiel’s lawsuits — are a threat to American free press. In these cases, Gawker is sometimes portrayed as an outlet of free speech and “the truth,” speaking truth to power in Silicon Valley and beyond. It seems that many in the journalism and tech industries wanted to have their cake and eat it, too; while they wished for a world without Gawker while it existed and was causing havoc for their friends and foes alike, the reality of Gawker’s unseemly end has caused a cornucopia of concerned journalists. The refrain of these articles goes something like this: Because Thiel used his money and time to turn the law against Gawker, any rich fat cat with an axe to grind could use their money and time to turn the law against any news outlet they choose to take down.
I have good news for real journalists and bad news for tabloid writers: Gawker’s destruction was entirely warranted, other tabloids have serious cause for concern if they want to follow suit, and journalism — free journalism — as a whole has just been done a great service. If Gawker had been a serious media outlet, if they had the editorial oversight to produce quality, they would not have adamantly defended the post of Hulk Hogan’s sex tape. What really ought to have been an open and shut invasion of privacy case became the rock that Gawker shattered itself on. With Gawker punished for what it did, the ones concerned ought to be tabloids that run pointless and damaging stories like Gawker’s, not legitimate media outlets which cover significant news. Thiel made no new litigation, no new laws. He broke no laws when he funded Hogan’s lawsuit, nor was Hogan’s lawsuit egregious, considering Gawker’s behavior surrounding the case. If Gawker had been clearly in the right, if there had been a clearly newsworthy element to its material, it would not have lost so soundly each step of the way. Most importantly, Gawker and sites like it deserve this. This is perhaps the first time Gawker has had to face serious consequences for what it publishes; it is long overdue.
Gawker was and is the poster child for the worst instincts of online media. Every time I hear about Gawker, I am instantly reminded of Ryan Holiday’s book “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.” A large chunk of the book uses Gawker as its primary case study and testing ground, precisely because Gawker’s business model revolves around pumping up shock, scandal, and snark to get clicks. The book is primarily about how what passes for modern news blogs is really just a second age of yellow journalism. It takes only a brief look through any free news site, like Gawker, HuffPo, Breitbart, etc to see just how depressingly true this is. Modern tabloids of all stripes are prone to saying anything and everything for ad revenue, precisely because they must rely on clicks and views to survive.
They play to a couple emotions specifically: Fearful shaming of perceived enemies and heretics, and proud bragging about nasty behavior on their own part, or the nasty behavior of those on “their side.” Gawker’s responses to Thiel have been in keeping with this, shaming him for behavior unrelated to the case, musing about censorship of Trump’s hair, and speculating as to all the “real” reasons Thiel hates Gawker, besides the obvious one: He believes, rightly so, that they are amoral gossip-mongers that ought to be stopped, and Gawker has given him many opportunities to do that through its own petulance. There is little to miss about Gawker, and as for its “groundbreaking” material, would you miss not being able to eat chocolate half-lodged in a turd?
Gawker is a thoroughly unpleasant institution even to visit, let alone interact with. Throughout its history, it has used and abused rumor, embellishment, clearly libelous material, cheap headlines, and an abiding disregard for privacy and the lives of the people it impacted in order to produce some of the internet’s worst clickbait. By “clickbait,” I mean that what it posted was often presented as so timely, pointed, snarky, and unbelievable that even if Gawker itself disgusted you, you could hardly help but to see what their latest article was, if only because Gawker mastered the art of the scandalous headline. In this way, viewers were bought and sold as ad revenue farms. Gawker didn’t care if it stomped on lives along the way, lied wholesale, and acted as the biggest rumor-monger on the block. It certainly didn’t care about privacy, except when it suited its purposes to appear progressive, without having to put in much work beyond public shaming.
To Gawker, leaked sex tape posts of Hulk Hogan are worthy of keeping up through a legal battle, while leaked nudes of female celebrities, Jennifer Lawrence apparently chief among them, are an invasion of privacy. To Gawker, there’s nothing wrong with being extremely disrespectful so long as it doesn’t care about the victim, and isn’t it wrong that people are ruining someone’s life over self-publishing one foolish moment? Of course, if you happen to be nasty, disrespectful, and threatening to them specifically, that is, if you behave as Gawker behaves but to different people, you didn’t just make a “stupid mistake,” you’re a “dishonest fascist.” These are not the qualities of a crucial news outlet, these are the qualities of a hypocritical tabloid, unworthy of the eulogies that have already poured in over it. Meanwhile, Gawker continues to function, gnashing its teeth with even more snark and vitrol, most of it pointed Thiel’s way, now that the shoe is on the other foot.
However this ending to Gawker has impacted things, however negative you may feel it is to see a bastion of yellow journalism shut down because of the principle of free press, do not be fooled into lamenting its loss. Gawker deserves to pay for what it’s done, and nobody except perhaps Gawker staff ought to grieve, certainly not actual journalists, of which there are many who are unduly scared by this ruling. All that was ruled was that Gawker must pay for seriously violating Hulk Hogan’s privacy. The scope of the ruling sends one clear message: Even those who report news must follow rules. Whether going bankrupt was a fitting punishment is not my place to say; that was Gawker Media’s decision, not Hogan’s, not Thiel’s, not the judge’s, not the jury’s, and not mine.
Peter Thiel was right to help Hogan. I am not personally a fan of Peter Thiel’s behavior or views outside of this case, but then, I don’t have to be. In fact, I don’t even have to be a fan of the way Peter Thiel took down Gawker to know that the end result was a net good. Consider that it would not have been possible to take Gawker down if Gawker had not been so eager to publish, then defend a private sex tape of Hulk Hogan as being “newsworthy.” I hardly see the news value of actually seeing that Hulk Hogan had sex in private with a consenting adult partner. Unless it was a crime, no writer at Gawker was ever under some ethical obligation to share the video. Further, Thiel was not in the wrong for paying the legal fees of lawsuits against Gawker. Legal activists do this regularly. Would it have been relevant to the case for the jury to know who was paying Hogan’s legal fees? No. That had nothing to do with the details of Gawker’s behavior regarding the sex tape itself. Hogan wasn’t even the only one who could have gone after Gawker, he simply was the most high-profile plaintiff who did. Gawker has published scores of libelous material and it is high time someone held them accountable for their actions; if it had not been Hogan, it would have been someone else. In fact, Thiel’s support of other lawsuits against Gawker prove that there are grounds for precisely that.
Countless news outlets publish legitimate material every day that keeps people informed without playing to their worst instincts. We as a society do better than Gawker every day. We ought to laud journalists that hold themselves to certain basic standards of truth and editorial vision, not cry over the consequences of rumor mills. Our free speech is not in jeopardy because Gawker went bankrupt. If anything, our speech is better for it. However I may feel about Peter Thiel personally, he has done journalism a service by raising the standards readers can expect from their media, even if only a little at first. As for Gawker, only time will tell what will become of the tabloid giant. Perhaps fear of its total demise is just gossip, but there’s a little phrase Gawker likes to throw around: Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news. Good riddance.