Editor’s note: With Gawker.com ceasing publication next week and founder Nick Denton leaving Gawker Media (which will live on after a $135 million auction bid by Univision), we figured it would be a good time to revisit this op-ed from mid-June, back when the shit first went down…
OK, that headline is a bit disingenuous: I don’t consider myself a journalist. But then again, I don’t consider anyone over at Gawker Media to be a journalist, either.
Here’s the backstory for anyone out of the loop: Hulk Hogan sued Gawker Media for posting parts of his leaked sex tape. Hogan won—to the tune of $140 million. But there was something a little off about the lawsuit. For example, Hogan refused to settle. And he didn’t sue for anything Gawker’s presumably large and comprehensive insurance policy would cover. Why not? Was Hogan on a personal crusade?
Well, sort of. He was on a crusade backed by billionaire and real American (OK, naturalized American from Germany) hero Peter Thiel. Gawker outed Thiel as gay, which left a man with very deep pockets with a very big chip on his shoulder. Thiel has spent an estimated $10 million chasing Nick Denton, A.J. Daulerio and friends. Faced with the prospect of a relentless zillionaire bankrolling their nemesis and a $50 million bond to pony up for appeal, Gawker decided to declare bankruptcy.
The website has more in common with the Soviet Krokodil, a sort of communist MAD that mocked people as they were carted off to the gulag, than it does with genuine journalism.
I imagine that how I felt when Gawker declared bankruptcy is how people felt when the Berlin Wall fell. “Ding dong, the witch is dead.” Dilbert creator Scott Adams compared the company to “a rapist eating his own vomit.” This strikes me as a rather charitable assessment. With apologies to Susan Sontag, to call Gawker the cancer of journalism is an insult to cancer cells. The website has more in common with the Soviet Krokodil, a sort of communist MAD that mocked people as they were carted off to the gulag, than it does with genuine journalism.
Gawker are the worst practices of British tabloids unleashed in the American legal system where defamation laws are very weak. And, being that this is America, the whole “is this an appropriate thing to print” question makes about as much sense as Chinese algebra. America has long been dedicated to the principle that “all the news that’s fit to print” means “whatever garbage we can get the punters to shell out for.” In the age of clickbait, that means anything that makes social media zombies click to find out how much number 7 will shock them.
We’re not exactly talking about free speech champions here. This isn’t the Pentagon Papers. In 2014, Gawker writer Adam Weinstein suggested that so-called “climate change deniers” be jailed. Michelle Malkin, who Gawker once referred to as an “ignorant slut,” conducted a wonderful post mortem at the New York Post about Gawker’s rather troubling history of attacking conservative women. As I wrote about over at Taki’s Mag when it happened, they were also responsible for railroading former Business Insider CTO Pax Dickinson out of a job for not liking his tweets.
For Thiel’s part, he’s got a track record of donating to bona fide free speech causes like the Committee to Project Journalists. On journalists, Thiel told the New York Times: “I refuse to believe that journalism means massive privacy violations. I think much more highly of journalists than that. It’s precisely because I respect journalists that I do not believe they are endangered by fighting back against Gawker.”
Will there be a chilling effect on the industry as a whole? Boy, I sure hope so. The prospect that publishers might actually question if their stories are both in the public interest and in conformity with decency and good taste sounds just fine to me.
Word on the street is Gawker is going to sell, rebrand or go through some kind of chicanery in the bankruptcy courts to get out of paying what they owe Hogan. Of course, it’s not entirely clear what any of this will mean considering that a man with an effectively unlimited supply of money has promised to reign hellfire and brimstone down on them. Gawker has approximately the market value of recycled radioactive waste.
The company is known for breaking taboos, but it’s not necessarily certain that Gawker is actually breaking taboos or that breaking taboos is, in and of itself, a good thing. Far more established is Gawker’s track record of dragging people through the mud because they don’t like their politics. There’s little risk in acting as a shrill attack dog for the far-left edge of the Obama coalition. Think of them less as journalism and more as some unholy synthesis of MSNBC and a teenage social media bully.
Will there be a chilling effect on the industry as a whole? Boy, I sure hope so. The prospect that publishers might actually have to take a step back to the days when they questioned if their stories were both in the public interest and in conformity with decency and good taste sounds just fine to me.
As Gawker types are fond of pointing out when decrying “hate speech” (which really means any speech they hate), the purpose of free speech isn’t so that every yahoo can froth at the mouth. The purpose of free speech is to create a marketplace of ideas and an environment as far from Stalinist Russia as possible—a place where people don’t feel like they have to look over their digital or physical shoulder before they speak. And, in the final analysis, it’s just not really clear how posting videos of Hulk Hogan’s dong accomplishes that.