Ben Cohen is the founding editor of The Daily Banter and finances all of this out of his own pocket. There’s an entire menu of reasons why it takes balls of iron to do what Ben is doing (his take on the Gawker story can be found here). As someone who also ran a small business without the benefit of a massive infusion of venture capital, I, too, know what it’s like to fly close to the ground, where wind gusts in the form of market whimsy and shifting economic fortunes can easily slam the entire vessel into the ground.
The shittiest aspect of the news today that Gawker is filing for bankruptcy is that it portends a similar — and exponentially more swift — doom for smaller publications like The Daily Banter.
Just to recap, Gawker was sued by Hulk Hogan for publishing the former wrestler’s sex tape. Before filing suit, Hogan was apparently approached by libertarian Silicon Valley billionaire and PayPal founder, Peter Thiel. You might recall how Gawker outed Thiel in 2007 (headline: “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people”), which, in addition to the poor decision to post the Hogan video, was an horrendously awful editorial choice. There’s no excuse for outing anyone, much less a guy with the financial power to retaliate.
And that’s precisely what Thiel did. It turns out, Thiel financed Hogan’s lawsuit as retribution for the 2007 article.
Fast forward to last month when a jury awarded Hogan $140 million — a verdict that precipitated Gawker‘s decision to file Chapter 11. The jury-award was obviously enough to ruin Gawker‘s financial health for the foreseeable future, while destroying its autonomy by forcing it to approach publishing giant Ziff Davis for a bailout.
Cue the round of applause from Gawker haters, and a mysteriously deafening silence from self-identified press freedom crusaders Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, The Freedom of the Press Foundation, Edward Snowden or any of the usual suspects who, we were told, championed independent journalism.
If you’re applauding Gawker‘s bankruptcy, you simply don’t get what’s happening here. No, Gawker isn’t a publication known for its serious reporting or high-brow activism — nor has it lived up to Greenwald’s standards of integrity. but it’s a publication that employs actual journalists nevertheless. You might not like what Gawker did to Thiel or Hogan, or its early-adoption of clickbait headlines, but, frankly, this isn’t just about Gawker.
The Gawker story is just as much about press freedom and the emerging threat of millionaires and billionaires — “oligarchs,” in Bernie Sanders’ vernacular — who are financially capable of destroying journalists and publications for nothing more than shits and giggles. Thiel’s apparent motivation for his retaliatory strike wasn’t frivolous, but his financing of the Hogan lawsuit certainly was. The Gawker suit and its verdict has opened the door for any constipated billionaire to relentlessly destroy any publication that he or she deems to be a personal threat.
This is colossally dangerous and represents a chilling effect on journalism that’s arguably harsher than anything the big, bad U.S. government has doled out, and, even then, there’s press freedom clause in the First Amendment as a backstop. That amendment doesn’t protect Gawker or The Daily Banter, for that matter, from kneejerk legal annihilation. In terms of the latter, it’d be very easy to utterly ruin the publication you’re reading right now, given how low to the ground we’re flying.
And we don’t pull our punches. Sure, Banter doesn’t publish sex tapes, nor do we out anyone. However, we routinely publish opinions that are decidedly outside the mainstream of progressive dogma, and there are no sacred cows here. Banter is personality-driven and we’re built upon the unfettered views of our staff. No one, including Ben, tells us what we can and can’t write. The writers here have complete editorial autonomy, and that makes us dangerous to certain thin-skinned power-brokers with limitless bank accounts (Trump and Roseanne Barr come to mind). We also don’t have the readership of Gawker, and we certainly don’t have the resources to fight an extended legal battle. A guy like Thiel or Trump could snuff us out in one smooth motion — for publishing this article or any other article deemed offensive by Billionaire X.
Perhaps there needs to be a constitutional amendment shielding the press from frivolous litigation. Who knows. But when I hear from people who are disgusted with America to the point of wanting to leave, I always point to the fact that we have some of the best protections in place for satirists (thanks to Larry Flynt) and journalists alike, and there are few other places in the world where I can do my job without fear of being financially ruined for it. But with this latest development, it seems much easier for billionaires to destroy the lives of reporters and publications than it’d ever be for the government to do so.