Gawker closing provides Rorschach test for the media
Most media reporters appear appalled by the idea that a wealthy, angry reader could take down a media company, but Gawker’s own history of sometimes mean spirited journalism tempers the outcry of more than a few commentaries
What, in the end, does the closing of Gawker mean for the press in America. Is a lesson concerning the limits of freedom of the press, or a warning shot from a wealthy readers angry at coverage?
There has been no shortage of opinion concerning Gawker Media and its tormenter Peter Thiel, the billionaire Silicon Valley investor outed by the website, who then funded the lawsuit that eventually brought the media company and its founder Nick Denton down.
But before reviewing what those in the media are saying about Gawker it might be good to remember that the public remains pretty uninformed about all this. I have never seen a poll about Gawker’s travails, likely because the answer most would give to a question about whether Gawker should have been shuttered for its brand of journalism would be “I don’t know.”
The closest thing I’ve seen to an opinion poll about Gawker was over a year ago when another controversy arose. If you recall, Gawker outed Condé Nast’s CFO in a terrible story that really was obviously out-of-line. Fast Company’s Rusty Foster reported the story and the subsequent apology from Nick Denton – who, I might add, had at first supported the story. He then asked readers for their opinion. What they said I do not know, mainly because the poll did not give instant results, and the Fast Company website is so hard to navigate that I could not find the follow-up story that gave the results. Even Google was no help, telling what you need to know about the site’s SEO. I’ll assume “I don’t care” was the most popular response from readers.
But judging from reader comments on most Gawker stories, the public is not with the media on this one. In fact, as Pew pointed out, few are with the media on anything, considering the media’s reputation only slightly ahead of that of the Congress. The public may, in theory, support freedom of the press, but it is not an absolute. Maybe it is better if no polls are taken, after all.
Note: I did find an AdAge poll that was conducted after the Hulk Hogan verdict came in against Gawker. Only 20 percent thought the wrong side won that case, though 46 percent thought the monetary judgement was excessive. Of course, AdAge is an advertising trade journal, and one might guess that ad professionals are hardly the media’s best friends, right?
Each morning you wake to a new set of lies. They vary in subject and value and size. Some are omissions and some are direct, but the accretion of deceit contributes to a culture of cynicism and despair. Even knowing that you are being lied to is no help when everything around you is lies. You know that the positive reviews you read are written by writers who will not offer honest criticism for fear that it might hurt their future prospects. You know that no one is making the world a better place with an app that allows you to be chauffeured from a bar on one side of town to a bar on the other. You know that the people who are paid to tell you about your government regurgitate conventional wisdom to make themselves sound more authoritative. You know that you are being fed fear or hope or an idealized sense of yourself so that you will accede to their demands…
…What Gawker did at its best was stand up and say, “No, you’re right, these are lies, you are correct to think that you are being lied to” and for however long that assertion hung there in the air you were able remind yourself that you weren’t wrong to feel discomfort with what whatever narrative they were pushing at you. You weren’t alone. It did not make the world better but at least it pressed pause on the world’s becoming worse. Gawker was not always, or even often, at its best. (See — or actually, please don’t — everything I wrote during my tenure there.) Gawker published a lot of garbage, and the strident defense of that garbage by the people who worked at Gawker was all the proof you need that everyone is captured in their own web of dishonesty eventually; Gawker’s biggest lies were the ones it told about itself.
If you want proof of the journalism profession’s staggeringly high self-regard, you could do worse than to study the kerfuffle over the not-quite-demise of Gawker…
…Gilles Wullus of the group Reporters Without Borders told the BBC that the Gawker case poses a dire threat to press freedom. “Journalism ethics should be taken care of by journalists themselves,” he said. “In case they do not, we think that nobody else can do it in their place, neither states nor governments; especially not wealthy individuals.”
What nonsense. Yes, a free press is an important institution in a democracy (and even more important in non-democracies), but journalists don’t have any rights the rest of us don’t. A reporter has the right to free speech, and so does a plumber.
It is difficult to defend Gawker, which long dined out on exposés that, even by a generous interpretation, often walked dangerously close to ethical and legal cliffs. And Denton’s brashness and general hubris, though somewhat ameliorated in recent years, make him perhaps a less-than-ideal champion of a free press.
As numerous media commentators have pointed out, however, the implications for watchdog journalism are deeply troubling.
A crucial concern, of course, is that the verdict sends the disturbing message that powerful people with deep pockets can, if they choose, shut down criticism not just in particular instances but permanently. In the words of long-time media observer and USA Today columnist Rem Rieder: “The idea of wealthy people being able to squash publications they detest should give comfort to no one who cares about free speech.”
Or as former Gawker editor Gabe Snyder wrote: “There’s nothing stopping what happened to Gawker.com from happening to any other publication that can’t match the resources of a vengeful billionaire.”
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. In Vanessa’s story, for instance, she recounted how on Sept. 27, 2007, Gawker published a post titled “Elijah Pollack Is Going To Be A Horror” — a hit job on a preschooler intended, apparently, to punish his father for being a writer Gawker hates…
…Gawker simply didn’t know when to hit the brakes — or maybe it didn’t even know how to operate the brakes. It slammed into a tree or crashed through the guardrail and over the cliff or [insert a visual of your choice here, with the horror level depending on whether or not you or any of your colleagues or friends or family have ever been brutalized by Gawker].
By the logic of this narrative, Gawker killed itself. We can’t rule it a suicide, though, because clearly Gawker didn’t intend to die.
But maybe it was more along the lines of, say, autoerotic asphyxiation.
The question remains, who killed it?
1. Nick Denton…
…Nick had spent ten years crafting, and supporting, an editorial ethos and culture, not to mention a public persona, predicated on frankness, fearlessness, and, yes, sometimes, cruelty — and was now trying to change its course by objecting in the comments of his own writers’ posts. This was top-down, institutional schizophrenia, and it was inevitable that it would resolve itself messily.
Of course, “public opinion” online is hard to gauge, since it tends to be determined by the loudest and most persistent voices. If you can mobilize and engage even a fairly small number of people, you can create an impression of enough outrage to destabilize a business. As Gawker was imploding in the summer of 2015, a group of teenage video-game enthusiasts was throwing gasoline on the already-raging fire. These were the Gamergaters…