Last Friday, a Florida jury awarded Terry G. Bollea, otherwise known as Hulk Hogan, $115 million in damages in his suit against Gawker.com for posting a sex tape featuring the retired professional wrestler and the wife of his best friend.
While it was a landmark case that may have repercussions for the media industry as it relates to First Amendment rights (although that is still debatable), it should be regarded as Gawker's long awaited comeuppance for publishing astonishingly cruel stories about public and private people for the purposes of web traffic.
Gawker argued the video was newsworthy and of interest to their readers, maintaining its right to publish stories that were damaging to individuals in the name of extreme openness. “We believed the story had value,” Gawker founder Nick Denton said in court. “That it was true, that it was a story honestly told, and that it was interesting to millions of people.”
Hogan of course did not see it that way, and broke down in court when the verdict was read out in his favor. Whatever sins Hogan may have committed in his personal life (and he has committed many), it is perfectly rational to believe he did not deserve to have his sex life broadcast over the internet without his consent, just as other celebrities who had their phones illegally hacked did not deserve to have naked photos of themselves shared by millions of masturbating teenagers.
The fact that Gawker is supposedly a reputable media company that adheres to strict journalistic standards, as Denton argued in court, makes it even worse. The gossip site has a long and storied history of wrecking people's lives for the sake of entertainment, most notably with the outing of the CFO of Conde Nast last year. The episode of extreme gay shaming created a complete meltdown internally at Gawker, with several editors walking out after the decision was made by management to take the post down. No doubt fearing an advertiser exodus, Denton then claimed that Gawker was turning over a new leaf and would be "20% nicer" -- a breathtakingly sociopathic statement that revealed just how cynical Denton is when it comes to quantifying human emotion and how to profit from it.
Regardless of Gawker's "20% nicer" model, its history lives on the internet forever, and it isn't a pretty one. As the Observer noted:
Gawker has posted stolen nude photographs of female celebrities (while simultaneously running a feminist site that supposedly cares about women), published utterly untrue gossip and lies (while regularly criticizing politicians and companies who are less than honest), sheltered millions in offshore tax havens (while criticizing people who do the same), used stolen property and ill-gotten information from criminals as the basis for their reporting, and of course, regularly exploited and profited off audiences of all types as one of the internet’s foremost purveyors of outrage porn.
Gawker has also published revolting stories about Arianna Huffington's toilet habits (and no, we're not linking to it), stalked Fox New's Shepard Smith in efforts to out him as a gay man, and spent an insane amount of time doing the same to James Franco.
In fairness, Gawker also does some excellent reporting too, and covers important stories much of the media won't touch (see Hamilton Nolan on issues of poverty and inequality for example). We link to their work regularly, and it would be a shame to see their responsible journalists diminished by the trash their colleagues get paid to vomit out. That being said, there must be a collective responsibility when it comes to profiting from human misery, and given the company's callous indifference to the lives of others, they should not expect too much sympathy should the Hulk Hogan case take them down completely.
It is possible that the ruling against Gawker might not survive their promised appellate review, and their fine will be greatly reduced. But the case has damaged Gawker and its brand badly, and if the damages stick it is hard to see how they rebuild after such a heavy loss. The truth is, the public has grown less sympathetic to those profiting from other people's misery, and the ruling reflects a changing mood that is beginning to value privacy. Denton's attempt to change the business model ultimately came too late, and Gawker's sordid history finally caught up with it and could very well bring the site to its knees.