I remember clearly, in Gawker’s early days, when my old friend Nick Denton insisted that what his new blog was producing was not journalism. He didn’t want to come speak at a journalism school. He refused to hire journalists, as they’d already been ruined for Gawker’s work.
But yesterday, in his eulogy for the devil baby he birthed, Nick draped Gawker’s casket in the flag of Journalism, waving the words journalist, journalism, and even journalismism 27 times.
Sorry, Nick, but maybe you were right the first time.
Don’t worry: I’m not about to launch into a J-schoolmarm scold about about Gawker violating journalism’s ten thousand commandments. No, I’m going to use this as a teachable moment to ask: WTF is journalism now? After Gawker. On the internet. In the age of Trump.
I had the honor of spending last week with our impressive incoming class at the CUNY J-school, trying to help them put journalism — their coming months of classes and their careers thereafter — in the context of history, business, and our role in society. I asked them each to begin by defining journalism. We discussed many thoughtful insights, including the idea that journalism exists to “cultivate an educated, empathetic, and engaged society.” We also discussed one definition that might as well have been Nick’s in his remembrance: that it is the journalist’s job to disrupt the status quo and bring down powerful institutions or people. That is certainly a common view in the profession.
Once having done our jobs afflicting the comfortable, do we ever ask, “What then?” Is it journalism’s job just to expose and destroy? Or to build and improve? Should we ask the same question of the net today: Is it the purpose of blogs and now social media to upend? Or to progress? Why are we here? Why do we bother?
In her more excellent elegy to Gawker, its founding editor, Elizabeth Spiers, saw in Gawker’s life the larger story of blogs: “Blogging gave us everything we love — and hate — about the web,” said the headline. Right. We had freedom and attitude and reported to no one. In our existence and our worldview, we were the anti-institutions. Elizabeth writes:
We hoped blogs would democratize media and allow people to make real connections via the Web. We feared that power would accrue to a handful of sites or writers; that this small group of people would talk among themselves and exclude others; that eventually, inevitably, what we considered an art (sort of) would be degraded by commerce.
Yes, basically all the bad things came true.
Now I wonder whether the death of Gawker — not to mention the departure of Arianna Huffington from Huffington Post — signals the super nova of blogs and everything we held dear and every ill we caused. I don’t say this from atop a pedestal. In my day, I was down in the blogging trenches, snarking along with the rest of them. I had my share of feuds and fits. You could say I damned near brought Dell down. That all seemed like fun until it wasn’t. Now I long not for the return of the gatekeeper institutions, only for a path to civility.
What hath we wrought? Did blogs and their commercial, psychotic apotheosis, Gawker, open the door for the armies of trolls that have taken over social media? Did we cause Breitbart or can we blame that on Fox News and Roger Ailes? Should we blame Gawker for Trumpism and Twitter? In Advertising Age, Simon Domenco damned near does:
There was something downright proto-Trumpian about Gawker as it shifted from afflict-the-comfortable snark to take-no-prisoners drive-bys. In fact, these days, when Donald Trump really loses it and gets personal and goes absolutely nuclear on his targets — particularly when he attacks the family members of his targets — it’s hard for me not to think of the tone and tactics of Gawker at its worst.
It is often lamented that the Arab Spring proved good at tearing down old regimes but not at building new ones. Is that what journalism, news, and media have become? Are we simply too early in this process of disruption and destruction to expect more? Or is that precisely our problem: We expect too little. I return to my student Kate Ryan’s high aspiration for journalism:
It is a means to inform the public and, in doing so, cultivate an educated, empathetic, and engaged society.
Gawker did not have that ambition. In this election, cable news does not have that ambition. How much of journalism does? As I think about trying to save journalism, I ask first what we are trying to save. The answer can’t be snark, gossip, meaningless blather, and cruel destruction. We must be of value in people’s lives, helping them improve their communities and society. Or why bother? Therein lies the only hope of finding a new business model for journalism: raising it up, being of value.
In Gawker, we also saw the implosion — the symbolic last gasp — of the mass-media business model, in which Reach Rules, forcing us to do anything (and I mean anything) to get more page views, more traffic, for more ads and more pennies.
We know precisely where that leads: to the day when Gawker outed a private and married media executive being blackmailed by a gay escort. Gawker’s editors did that just because they could. They had freedom, remember? Freedom was Gawker’s ultimate value. But on that day, Nick finally found his limit and killed that reprehensible piece. His editors quit in protest, claiming freedom of speech. No, boys, freedom of speech does not mean that you have to publish everything you could publish. Freedom of speech also protects the right and necessity to edit responsibly. One of those editors, Max Read, wasn’t exactly contrite in his less-good obit for Gawker:
It would be nice to say that I struggled with the ethics of publishing the story, or that, even better, my maniacal and sociopathic boss pressured me into publishing it. But there was very little question in my mind: It seemed so naturally a Gawker story that I assigned it immediately. . . . I had gone out on the limb because I liked it out there. I liked being the villain, the critic, the bomb-thrower. If one of my bombs went off in my face, it was only my fault.
Gawker no longer brought down the powerful. Gawker became the power to be brought down. Enter Peter Thiel.
So now we come to the real lesson in Gawker’s death. Nick would have us believe that (sorry for the spoiler): “Gawker’s demise turns out to be the ultimate Gawker story. It shows how things work.”
Sorry, Nick, but the real moral to this story is banal, prosaic, obvious, and trite. Gawker’s editors and Gawker’s destroyer, Thiel, each teach us the exact same lesson: