"One of Gawker’s most cherished tags was “How Things Work,” a rubric that applied to posts revealing the sausage-making, the secret ways that power manifests itself. The phrase has a children’s book feel to it, bringing to mind colorful illustrations of animals in human work clothes building houses or delivering mail. Of course it also carries the morbid sense of innocence lost, and the distance between the stories we tell ourselves about the world and the way it actually works. Collapsing that distance is, in many ways, what Gawker has always been about. And so Gawker’s demise turns out to be the ultimate Gawker story. It shows how things work." -- The final lines of the final post at Gawker, penned by the site's creator and publisher, Nick Denton
Maybe this was the way it always had to be. Maybe a site as unapologetically audacious and gleefully anarchic as Gawker was doomed from the start to an abbreviated life and a blaze-of-glory death. Maybe Gawker's demise is, in some strange way, its greatest triumph. Maybe. But while the all-day wake over at the site on this, its final day of publication, has been at turns nostalgic (a bittersweet look back at all Gawker has done and meant for its writers, by Hamilton Nolan) and defiant (a post headlined simply "Fuck It," by Hudson Hongo) it's impossible not to regard Gawker's end with a different emotion altogether: white-hot outrage. Gawker shouldn't have to shut down. Certainly not because one asshole Silicon Valley billionaire with unlimited resources and a breathtaking ability to hold a grudge decided all by himself that it doesn't deserve to exist.
What Peter Thiel did is abhorrent and in a just world there would be torches and pitchforks assembled at the gates of his nine-million-dollar mansion in San Francisco. This isn't about Gawker and whether you loved or hated the site and what it stood for. That's not the issue here. That's not the existential threat to freedom of the press. What is the issue, and what is the existential threat to a free press, is what Peter Thiel did: He used his vast wealth to surreptitiously target and destroy a journalistic outlet he simply didn't like. He didn't like Gawker's relentless negative coverage of him and his "disruptive" ilk -- and don't believe that self-righteous horseshit about how this was all about privacy, a product of the site's Valleywag offshoot outing him in 2007 -- so he had a team of lawyers launch a secret, coordinated offensive against the site with the intention of destroying it. And he succeeded.
Think about that for a moment. A vengeful tech billionaire, a libertarian plutocrat, a Donald Trump supporter with the means to silence press coverage he didn't like did just that. By funding Tampa, Florida folk hero Hulk Hogan's largely unnecessary civil action to the point where there was no need for him to settle for a fair amount -- and by quietly plaintiff trawling in other potential cases and funding them as well -- Thiel sought to teach Gawker a lesson. And that lesson was nothing more noble than this: You can't publish stories Peter Thiel doesn't approve of. You can't exercise your freedom to write the kind of stories you want to write and to be the kind of media outlet you want to be if it violates the whims of a plutocrat. Because if you do, that plutocrat will crush you just because he can.
The kind of journalism Gawker did, while provocative and sometimes imprudent, was in large part necessary. Any outfit that operated the way Gawker did, with such a thin barrier between the writer and the page, was bound to have occasions when it went a little too far out on the limb. But the occasions of Gawker genuinely breaking the rules, as opposed to simply leaving hurt feelings in its wake, are few -- especially when you consider the sheer volume of material published over its 14-year life-span. Gawker wasn't simply a site, it was an ethos. A giddy fuck-you to polite society. And even when it failed spectacularly, it was in the freedom to try anything that it maybe deserved our utmost respect. It was in its willingness to suicidally put its fists through walls and its unwillingness to respect authority or hold any sacred cows that made it great.
The First Amendment exists not to protect easy speech and journalism, the kind everyone agrees is harmless. It exists to protect those who say the sorts of things that piss people off. It exists to protect those like Gawker. But the Constitution of the United States of America wasn't enough to protect it from the kind of creature who, in the year 2016, is far more powerful than any government. It couldn't protect Gawker from Peter Thiel. Nothing could. Think about that. And think about the absolute fact that there are plenty more Peter Thiels out there and they've just been given a blueprint for how to bring down a troublesome news outlet.
Adding: I try not to post outside supplements around here, but Boing Boing has put together a nice little list of questions you should be asking yourself if you're someone who thinks that Gawker's death at the hand of Peter Thiel is no big deal. This is one of those subjects upon which you're not going to get a lot of wiggle room or quarter from me. If you're arguing that Gawker deserved its death sentence and that as long as you're a media outlet that doesn't "misbehave" you have little to fear from people like Thiel and their billions, you're wrong. Period.