Gawker Is Gone But It’s A DilemmaFor Media
There are a lot of things that aren’t mutually exclusive. As much as the Internet would love to say that things are tied together. If “this happens, then that” or “this place is awful because of x, y and z.”
That’s what is the tale of Gawker Media. Nicholas Dent’s media company finalized an auction sale to Univision last week and Gawker.com shut down as part of the sale. It was a bitter, and shocking, end to a media company that prided itself on it’s independence.
So how did one of the most influential media companies, who helped impact digital journalism, end up here? Well, there are two schools of thought on this, Gawker deserved to be shut down after publishing a clip of former wrestler Hulk Hogan having sex, something every would consider private. The other school of thought is that Gawker had the right to publish under the First Amendment.
That argument plays big into Gawker’s demise but so does the idea that media companies can legally be eliminated through lawsuits if someone doesn’t like the coverage of a certain story. While that sounds broad, that’s where Gawker’s demise actually began.
For those who don’t know, Hogan did not pay for his lawsuit, it was actually bank rolled by a man named Peter Thiel. Thiel, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, definitely had a reason to fund the lawsuit on Hogan’s behalf. The reason being that Thiel was scrutiny of some Gawker coverage years ago that essentially outed him as being gay. We’ve already seen backlash for this type of coverage due to what happened at the Olympics with Nico Hines and The Daily Beast.
So in essence, this was a hit done by Thiel, who to his credit took advantage of an opportunity to put Gawker in it’s place—which is to say put it out of business. Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, gave his final farewell and expressed the dangerous precedent this case represents.
“In cultural and business terms, this is an act of destruction, because Gawker.com was a popular and profitable digital media property—before the legal bills mounted,” Denton said on his beloved site. “Peter Thiel’s lawyers have been scouring the sites on a daily basis for at least four years for stories to sue over.”
Finally, Thiel had the perfect setup and took his chance to strike. While one can’t deny that he had a vested interest, he took to The New York Times to explain his reasoning about why he bankrolled a lawsuit that brought down a media company, albeit a controversial one.
“Since cruelty and recklessness were intrinsic parts of Gawker’s business model, it seemed only a matter of time before they would try to pretend that journalism justified the very worst,” he wrote. “For my part, I am proud to have contributed financial support to his case. I will support him until his final victory — Gawker said it intends to appeal — and I would gladly support someone else in the same position….It is ridiculous to claim that journalism requires indiscriminate access to private people’s sex lives.”
While Thiel brings up an interesting discussion, the problem still lies in how does one know that he won’t do this to another organization or someone else follow the same path? Right now, Melania Trump is suing Politico, The Daily Mail and others over a story claiming that she allegedly was a former escort.
The report is based on a biography written by a Slovenia author. The contents of the book actually suggest that Mrs. Trump allegedly worked for a “gentleman’s type of club thing” per the Daily Mail’s story. However, there’s another reason the Trumps would be eager to have the Daily Mail and the other outlets take down the articles being written—and that’s due to the implicit questions it raises about Mrs. Trump’s immigration status in the mid-90s.
Oh her lawyer?
It happens to be none other than Charles Harder who represented Hogan in his case and has helped Thiel find the perfect story to bring down Gawker. This is a dangerous precedent.
However, Thiel has tried to rebrand himself as an activist who wants to frame the debate for journalism and one shouldn’t doubt him. It’s just what he’s done to be thrust into the spotlight makes one wonder.
“A free press is vital for public debate. Since sensitive information can sometimes be publicly relevant, exercising judgment is always part of the journalist’s profession,” Thiel wrote. “It’s not for me to draw the line, but journalists should condemn those who willfully cross it. The press is too important to let its role be undermined by those who would search for clicks at the cost of the profession’s reputation.”
But Thiel did draw that line.
By putting Gawker in it’s place, Thiel has already set a precedent that many who have the resources may feel comfortable with pursuing the same type of options. It makes the “if I don’t like what you wrote, I’m going to sue you crowd” a lot more lawsuit ready because there has already been success. The Trumps are already on board and they aren’t going after outlets like Gawker, who have a questionable publishing past, they are going after some institionalized media such as Politico.
The debate on what freedom of speech about journalism has always been an issue for society. However, this potential to sue any media outlet as well as set the standard for what’s considered news is a dangerous precedent. Thiel may be an advocate for free press and want’s it to continue, but Gawker’s demise has shown that free press could very well be in danger.