Being that I am more than three years old, I’m old enough to remember when it was cool to hate on Gawker. The news site, which did its share of great reporting and hosted its share of great writing in its time, was also frequently “problematic,” to use the lingo of a much more sensitive quadrant of the internet. Not problematic in the sense that Gawker crossed the ever-shifting lines of internet faux outrage, but by the fact that they routinely crossed the lines of common decency we real people encounter on a daily basis.
Now they’ve been put out of business and stripped for parts, victims of evil mastermind Peter Thiel and his swimming pool of bitcoins. However cool it used to be to point out Gawker’s terrible editorial decisions, it isn’t now. These days, the only thing you’re able to find are paeans to a site that was too beautiful for the internet.
Let’s cut the bullshit, people. Gawker was unique, but it wasn’t some shining jewel of the internet. It was a deeply flawed blog portfolio that was among the first — and far from the only — to figure out the rules of new media. It influenced many sites stylistically (including the one you’re reading now) but its time came to an end. Sorry dudes. In an era that’s witnessing far better news outlets shut their doors, the death of Gawker doesn’t move me that much.
My position on Gawker's demise originates from this point: the number of news outlets that have incurred the wrath of monied and motivated interests is approximately all of them. Journalists have been exposing the misdeeds of the business class, in the modern sense, for over a century. Creatives and humorists have lampooned elites forever. In open societies, they do it freely.
When the impulse to shed light intersects with the public interest, Americans have no problem defending the resulting journalism. In this country, the free press is encouraged by a social order that respects it and by a legal regime that protects it. US law enshrines not only freedom of speech, but the absolute defense of the truth. It permits satire and recognizes the fair use doctrine. This is not a hostile environment for journalists who want to rattle the cage.
To evince this claim, we don’t have to look any further than Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker. For the entire opening stage of the legal battle, Hogan got nowhere. After the site published excerpts of Hogan’s sex tape, the wrestler sued to seek a temporary injunction and get the video taken down. His request was denied, first in federal court, then eventually in state court. Even during the period when a judge did grant an injunction against Gawker, they smugly refused on First Amendment grounds and weren’t punished for it.
Like every other publication in America, Gawker was protected by a robust set of press freedoms. Had they stayed within those lines, they would undoubtedly exist today.
Know who does still publish today? TMZ. The National Enquirer. Countless outlets, in fact, who consider themselves as dedicated to celebrity gossip as Gawker. Many of them share Gawker’s aggressive, a-ethical tactics for sourcing stories. Many tell lies. Vanishingly few of them have been put out of business. And thank god, because the day I have to hear about how The Drudge Report “dared speak truth to power, RIP” is the day my fingers will dice themselves into the keyboard like it’s Saddam’s woodchipper.
Gawker got put out of business because they made it their M.O. to spurn the kind of editorial judgment they considered effete and society considered to be simple decency. Spoiled by the social and legal protections they would eventually lament as being too weak, Gawker operated under the theory that journalistic integrity was as due for disruption as the rest of the media landscape. They were wrong.
The first time I grasped the scumminess of Gawker was in 2011, when I read a Deadspin article breaking the news that Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez was dating a 17-year-old girl from New Jersey. The piece had no redeeming reportage. It was newsworthy in a purely tabloid way. Mostly the story centered not on Sanchez, who had done nothing wrong, but on the epic saga of how smartest-ass-in-the-frat AJ Daulerio intrepidly tricked an overwhelmed and panicking teenage girl into publicizing way more about her personal life than she felt comfortable doing.
It was a winning formula the website repeated more than once. Gawker had few scruples when it came to publishing some mean girl shit on Jezebel or taking an extortionist’s story public and outing a Condé Nast executive against his will. Bravo, Gawker. Truth to power.
The problem wasn’t just that Gawker was willing to ruin private reputations for negligible news benefit. It was also the fact that the staff seemed to uniformly drink their own Kool-Aid. They thought they were doing God’s work. It's frustrating that most of the internet now does too.
This week, as the site announced it was shutting down, Gawker’s Tom Scocca wrote the most self-righteous elision of unethical behavior this side of the Bush administration. After comparing Gawker favorably to The New York Times and making no mention of why someone might be angry at the site, he wrote: “Gawker always said it was in the business of publishing true stories. Here is one last true story: You live in a country where a billionaire can put a publication out of business. A billionaire can pick off an individual writer and leave that person penniless.”
Oh really. I wonder if there’s at least one now-22-year old young woman in New Jersey cheering on the newfound poverty of the aforementioned AJ Daulerio, who far from being Scocca’s “individual writer” was the editor-in-chief of the whole goddamn site. I wonder if that young woman might have a different story about how Gawker handles the imbalance of power between subject and publisher.
I also wonder what Stephanie Mencimer would say if you informed her that press freedoms wither in the face of wealthy egos. She’s the reporter from Mother Jones who published a 2012 exposé on the homophobic agenda of one of Mitt Romney’s big-ticket donors, and last year beat a defamation case brought by the billionaire in the wake of the story. Mencimer’s advice to Gawker might have something to do with making sure to write something from which the public benefits and cast aspersions only after sourcing assiduously. It would have a lot to do with taking journalism seriously and not just invoking its tradition when you get your ass caught in a lawsuit.
A lawsuit, by the way, which Gawker treated as a joke until they no longer could. When Mencimer’s story was challenged by its subject, Mother Jones ran a corrected version of the story and noted their changes. They acted responsibly. In the eyes of the court, that can’t hurt. Regardless of which billionaire is coming for you.
If Tom Scocca is unclear on why the Times gets a pass on publishing things it later wishes it could retract, he might refer to the public goodwill built up over decades of high-quality news reporting and carefully applied journalistic standards. This was the publication that defended their right to publicize The Pentagon Papers and the Snowden files. An outlet that provides a legitimate public service daily, something Gawker had no interest in matching. All Gawker offered was a couple of articles that required FOIA requests sprinkled in with this shit.
So let’s not allow Gawker, or an emotionally shaken commentariat, to forget the fact that Peter Thiel would have gotten nothing had the site been more ethical. There’s a certain romanticism about saying "fuck it" to a formal, legal vetting process, but when the story they’re sprinting to post is outing a man against his will, are they really heroes?
As for Thiel himself, I could give a shit about how evil and libertarian he is. I hope his seastead floats into a Somali block party — fine. What deeply bothers me is that his eccentricity is cited by supposedly liberal writers as evidence of his villainy. That’s way more disturbing than the idea that a rich guy figured out he could fund someone else’s lawsuit.
And when you mention Thiel and the operatic scope of his vendetta, you have to also contend with the fact that he had to wait a decade to find something he could nail Gawker with. The law was robust enough to protect a careless news organization against a powerful and focused enemy for years. Had Gawker taken even rudimentary steps to conform to journalistic standards, they’d still be around to publish Kate Middleton nudes for another decade.
Ultimately, this was not the fault of the system, man. Gawker was a poorly-run gossip rag that made a powerful enemy in an unethical way. They were geniuses at generating traffic, but the culture was directed sloppily enough that it wasted the legal protections of an industry well-equipped to make powerful enemies.
Gawker was not the entirety of internet journalism. It wasn’t even essential to internet journalism. Gawker was a complex, disruptive theory of internet journalism that had some good elements and some bad. In the context of the massive, generation-defining project of taking news media online, Gawker’s closure has settled an important question: the future of credible American "new media" won’t require sinking to the level of trashy British tabloids. And on this question, I’ll out myself: I’m glad it happened.