Gawker’s Bankruptcy Is How a Free Press Dies, One VC at a Time
Gawker is dead.
Yes, Gawker Media—the corporate entity that publishes cool tech sites like Gizmodo, Kotaku, and Lifehacker; the purveyor of Jalopnik, Deadspin, and Jezebel—will survive bankruptcy in some form. And those sites probably won’t go away. They’ve got great niche audiences. They’ve got domain expertise. Their brands are easy to understand, which makes them easy to pitch to advertisers. Someone’s going to take those assets and make money.
But not Gawker itself. The site started in the early aughts as a gleefully insider-y gossip rag for New York media types and became a pioneer of online snark. But founder Nick Denton clearly had greater ambitions; he iterated on Gawker’s roots to create a new style of online journalism that prided itself on publishing what everyone knew but no one else would say, in a voice everyone would emulate.
That’s the spirit in which Gawker’s Silicon Valley gossip offshoot Valleywag published a story in 2007 that announced billionaire PayPal co-founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel was gay. The piece didn’t “out” Thiel, as so many have written; Owen Thomas, the writer of the piece and now the business editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, says Thiel was open about his sexuality with friends and colleagues. The point of the piece, rather, was to call out the hypocrisy of other venture capitalists, who supposedly prize non-conformity but would rather keep talk of sexual difference hush-hush. It’s a perfect crystallization of Gawker’s editorial posture.
And it’s why no one else is going to be willing to take the risk of keeping Gawker alive.
The funny thing when you read Thomas’ original piece, as he himself pointed out in a recent column, is that it doesn’t make Thiel look bad at all. Just the opposite: “Peter Thiel, the smartest VC in the world, is gay. More power to him.” In Thiel’s moral universe, however, that’s apparently life-ruining stuff, though there’s no sign his fortunes flagged in the years after the piece ran.
Nevertheless, Thiel has recently, proudly acknowledged his pursuit of a years-long secret vendetta against Gawker. He sought out people with grievances against the site’s journalism in order to fund lawsuits that would bring Gawker down. He found the perfect plaintiff in Hulk Hogan, whom Gawker had embarrassed by posting excerpts from a video in which the former wrestler is having sex with his friend’s wife. Yes, the news value of the post is debatable, but debate clearly doesn’t interest Thiel. If speaking out against Gawker was what Thiel wanted to do, his vast resources and noteriety would have made that easy. But Thiel wasn’t interested in equal time. He just wanted to buy a muzzle.
Now he has. The $140 million judgment in favor of Hogan and the prospect of a protracted legal battle drove Gawker into bankruptcy. That makes Gawker’s sensibility a liability no one else will want to assume. That’s a death blow that will generate plenty of schadenfreude, not least among some glib members of the Fourth Estate who don’t think Gawker’s brand of journalism deserves the name. But it won’t last long: the Peter Thiels of the world are coming for you next. Ask not for whom the oligarchy tolls; it tolls for thee.
The Power to Silence
At its worst, Gawker errs on the side of too much information. That may be the case with the Hogan post. But that should be an editorial question, not an existential one. The First Amendment isn’t just about protecting the right of free speech. It’s the expression of an ideal: Through vigorous debate, the clash of ideas, and the free flow of information, a free and civil society emerges.
That’s an ideal that Thiel apparently believes is in need of disruption. Thiel is a wealthy public figure, widely and justifiably admired for his business savvy and intellect. He could have fought speech with speech, and he would have been heard. Such an approach would be in keeping with Thiel’s purportedly libertarian leanings. Take on Gawker in the marketplace of ideas, and see who wins on the merits.
But Thiel’s anti-Gawker crusade shows he’s not really much of a libertarian at all. In seeking to destroy Gawker, Thiel showed that what matters to him isn’t freedom but the raw exercise of power, which really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise from someone who’s a professed believer in “natural monopolies.” As The Economist recently said, he’s more of a “corporate Nietzchean.” We have a different word for someone who uses power to silence the press. Look it up.
In Thiel’s world, winners and losers don’t rise and fall on the merits. As a certain candidate for president might have it, winning is the merit, and its own justification.
Now that Thiel has created a template for using money to bring an unruly press to heel, it’s likely to happen again. That presidential candidate (the one Thiel supports) has promised to “open up” libel laws to make suing the press easier. In the old days, billionaires might just buy their own outlets. But now, engaging the press not in argument but in a legal war of attrition is apparently no longer taboo. Don’t like what you hear? Don’t speak up, just shut it down. The Voxes and Buzzfeeds of the world, the New York Timeses and WIREDs, can’t afford to think that somehow Gawker is a special case. Neither propriety, nor idealism, nor barrel-sized ink purchases protect us from disgruntled oligarchs. Especially at a time when the finances of news organizations are so shaky, we all make easy targets for potentially lethal litigation. Bankruptcy isn’t just game over for Gawker. It’s shots fired at a free press.