What student journalists can learn from Gawker’s demise

The fall of Gawker Media should scare the news world. Team Gawker, Team Thiel and first amendment rights aside, the fact that a national news publication could be bankrupted by a legal battle with a billionaire should worry journalists; it’s an example of the press losing a battle to money and power, no matter what the laws may dictate.

Thankfully, the student press usually enjoys an extra hedge against censorship from universities, which want to appear conducive to free speech and press in the public eye. However, by no means does this mean it shouldn’t be concerned. There are still a few points student journalists can take away from the story of Gawker and Thiel:

1. Anyone with lots of money and a grudge can take down a news publication, even a national one

While it’s doubtful that a person as powerful as Peter Thiel would ever develop a grudge against a college news organization, student journalists may find themselves in a microcosm of the Thiel-Gawker position with their financially powerful universities. Take this recent example from Knight News at the University of Central Florida being asked to pay the university’s defending attorney fees in an open records lawsuit, or this example from The Kentucky Kernel at the University of Kentucky, which recently sued them over its requests for records concerning a professor in a sexual assault case.

Thankfully, the student press has many friends that equip it to battle the legal and financial power of a university or other resource-rich entity. But this advantage might not be around forever. In an article published by The Atlantic, Frank LoMonte, director of the Student Press Law Center, observed that “I don’t think there is any question that image-conscious colleges are taking full advantage of difficult economic times to rid themselves of journalists they never liked anyway… What we’re seeing is the convergence of two worrisome trend lines: Colleges are more obsessed with ‘protecting the brand’ than they’ve ever been before, and journalism as an industry is weaker and less able to defend itself than ever before.”

2. Public scrutiny — both by and of news organizations — ought to be faced with words

“It’s fine to disagree with Gawker,” writes tech entrepreneur Cody Brown in a blog post on Medium. “They certainly have screwed up sometimes, but there’s a reason we made freedom of the press, the first amendment. Why can’t Silicon Valley counter speech with speech? Why do you need to use a proxy lawsuit?”

The premise of Brown’s piece is that many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, like Thiel, are handling scrutiny in disturbingly retaliatory ways. You could enter into an argument here about where the lines are between scrutiny and bullying and libel, but the problem here is that throughout the ordeal, Thiel chose to use legal fees as his primary weapon rather than ideological defenses of his anti-Gawker position. This isn’t how it ought to be, but this is exactly how first amendment laws failed to save Gawker over the power of money.

The ability to criticize — a news organization, a tech billionaire, a government — is what the first amendment was created to protect. Again, one could argue about the ethics of Gawker’s method of scrutiny. But the lesson here is that words ought to be fought with words; student journalists need to promote everyone’s right to speak and publish and criticize, not only their own. When a student news organization’s investigations are met with lawsuits and sanctions, it presents an opportunity to criticize the opposition further: for using duct tape rather than ideological counterstrikes.

3. News organizations need to understand and assert their rights and responsibilities more than ever

With a slogan like “today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news,” Gawker could hardly be called a beacon of traditional journalism: but they knew who they were and what their mission was. The problem for their survival was that Peter Thiel held them to a higher standard:

“A free press is vital for public debate,” he wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times. “Since sensitive information can sometimes be publicly relevant, exercising judgment is always part of the journalist’s profession. It’s not for me to draw the line, but journalists should condemn those who willfully cross it. The press is too important to let its role be undermined by those who would search for clicks at the cost of the profession’s reputation.”

Ethics aside, Thiel’s belief that all journalistic organizations should be bound to the same standards is what fueled the stream of funding that killed Gawker. The lesson for student journalists here is that they need to clearly demarcate, communicate and understand their mission, their rights and their responsibilities. The recent situation at Mt. St. Mary’s University demonstrates the security that comes with an understanding of that mission and those rights; it ultimately reversed the university president’s duct-tape move in retaliation for an exposing, controversial article in The Mountain Echo.

Additionally, it’s often a wise move for student news organizations to communicate with their universities, especially administrators, about first amendment rights and responsibilities. It should never be a requirement, and the legal situations vary greatly: but when the channel is open between both parties, both feel more respected and secure.

The student press isn’t Gawker. But Gawker’s demise illuminates the importance of protecting a free press from those who have the power to silence it.

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