Gawker Was Murdered by Gaslight
A lie with a billion dollars behind it is stronger than the truth. Peter Thiel has shut down Gawker.com.
This is the final act in what Thiel wished to present, and succeeded in presenting, as a simple and ancient morality play, a story of hubris meeting its punishment. The premise behind that morality play was, as Thiel wrote in space given him by the New York Times last week, that “cruelty and recklessness were intrinsic parts of Gawker’s business model.” The $140 million judgment that his lawyers secured for Hulk Hogan against Gawker Media, sending the company into a bankruptcy from which its flagship site would not emerge, was a matter of “proving that there are consequences for violating privacy.”
The Times didn’t really need to give Thiel the space in the opinion section to tell his story of the wages of recklessness. You could get it directly from the Times’ own reporters in the news pages. “Gawker’s take-no-prisoners approach has...been to its detriment,” the business section reported. Gawker was, the Styles section wrote, “a place where too many of the articles published were not only mean but inconsequential.”
The message is that Gawker had this coming, that the site was—to some degree, depending on how sympathetic the writer is trying to pose as being—responsible for its own downfall. By now it is conventional wisdom. That conventional wisdom is false.
Gawker.com is out of business because one wealthy person maliciously set out to destroy it, spending millions of dollars in secret, and succeeded. That is the only reason.
The strange and embarrassing thing about being the target of a conspiracy, an actual conspiracy, is that it undermines one’s own understanding of the world. It is true that Gawker was always a publication that took risks. It had bad manners and sometimes bad judgment. Occasionally, it published things that it would regret—just as, for instance, the New York Times has published things that it regrets.
But every publication gives itself room to make mistakes, and is prepared to absorb the damage when it does make a mistake. The New York Post was so eager for a scoop on the Boston Marathon bombing that it put a photo of two innocent men on its front page, after law enforcement had already declared that they were not suspects. The Post was denounced, as it deserved to be, for callously crossing the line, and it ended up settling a defamation lawsuit.
Lawsuits and settlements happen to everyone, and everyone carries insurance to handle them. In Gawker’s wildest, most buccaneering years, it never came close to paying a million dollars for crossing a line.
What Thiel’s covert campaign against Gawker did was to invisibly change the terms of the risk calculation. The change begins with the post about Thiel’s sexual identity in a homophobic investor culture, the post Thiel now cites as the inspiration for his decision to destroy Gawker. It was solidly protected by media law and the First Amendment, as were the other posts that, as Thiel wrote, “attacked and mocked people”—specifically, his cohort of rising plutocrats in Silicon Valley. Hurting rich people’s feelings is, in principle, not a punishable offense.
So rather than fighting the material that he really objected to, Thiel went looking for pretexts. Over time, he came up with them. Gawker found itself attracting legal threats and lawsuits at an unprecedented rate. Among those was Hulk Hogan’s complaint against Gawker for having written about a sex video he appeared in, and for publishing brief excerpts of that video. This was the kind of case that, in the normal course of things, would have gone away. Hogan’s first two attempts to pursue it, in federal court, went nowhere, with judges ruling that the publication was newsworthy and protected.
Yet the case kept moving. Suddenly the company had exhausted the limits of its insurance and was bleeding money on legal fees. The business model on which it had thrived—writing things that people were interested in reading, and selling ads to reach those readers—was foundering due to a whole new class of expenses.
The natural conclusion, even for people on the inside, was that the company must have taken too many risks. The willingness to publish things too ugly for other outlets to touch—an account of seeing video of the mayor of Toronto smoking crack, domestic-violence accusations against Bill O’Reilly—had gone over to destructive irresponsibility, and we were being punished for it. The business side began to believe the editorial side was heedlessly dragging the company down; the editorial side began to believe the business side was fearfully prepared to undermine its integrity.
Nick Denton himself, having taunted and titillated other journalists for years with the message that Gawker would do what they wouldn’t, found that message turned back on him. He internalized what his critics and his legal bills were telling him—that the site was out of control, that it had grown too reckless and irresponsible for the power it had grown to wield. In a recurring and nigh comical routine, he took to asking his editors and writers over and over again, in slightly different ways for slightly different occasions, to name the best stories they’d done, to remind him over and over of what the mission was that he had come up with years before.
Former Gawker editor Max Read wrote an account of this era for New York magazine, where he now works. It was Read and executive editor Tommy Craggs who resigned from Gawker in the summer of last year, after the strain between the editorial and business departments—and between the two sides of Denton’s mind—broke into an open rupture over the publication of a post about a business executive’s entanglement with an escort, and over the company’s decision to remove that post.
Read’s assessment of that episode is clear-eyed and self-critical, and is probably as good a rendition of the story of that disastrous post as can be written. It does not, however, explain Gawker’s demise. Having worked closely with Craggs and Read, and having lived through the whole thing firsthand, I found Read’s history of the era unsettling: It is a thoughtful, deeply considered, and on certain levels deadly accurate portrait, but it is still inescapably a portrait drawn by gaslight.
We hadn’t exposed any great hypocrisy; instead, we’d taken a bit of gossip and brought the full bludgeoning of moral urgency and ideological commitments to bear on it.
Whatever we’d hoped to accomplish with that story, we instead reaffirmed the world’s understanding of what we were: needlessly cruel. Within a week of publication, Nick was promising in interviews a “20 percent nicer” version of Gawker.
That’s not false, on its own terms. When it gets to “the world’s understanding of what we were,” though, it slides into the shadows. The world’s understanding was inescapably shaped by the fact that we had a $100 million lawsuit closing in on us. The Daily Dot, in a roundup of Gawker’s various misdeeds, wrote:
Unlike the most recent case of Gawker’s editorial staff ignoring their better judgement, many of these incidents surrounding the site rest on the belief that celebrities can hold no reasonable expectation of privacy—an argument the site’s lawyers are fighting for in court against a lawsuit levied by Hulk Hogan over a sex tape. The $100 million lawsuit is the most serious challenge faced by Gawker yet and, as Denton explained, might have helped cement his decision to remove the story
Elsewhere, the same piece argued:
[L]arge chunks of Internet culture need to be cleansed of their filthier, less morally sound components if they can hope to survive at all. Gawker is no different.
Somehow, it had become the case that the world was discussing whether a perennially profitable and growing publication could “hope to survive at all.” In one span of a little more than a year, not very long ago, the New York Times mistakenly accepted (and cheered for) a failed Venezuelan coup, printed falsehoods that helped carry the case for invading Iraq, and saw its top editors resign after a humiliating plagiarism scandal. No one suggested the paper had signed its own death warrant.
That the New York Times has the right to exist, to rise above its failings, is taken for granted. No one would mistake the Times for Gawker. At the party this month marking the end of Nick Denton’s ownership of Gawker—and, though we did not quite know it then, the end of Gawker.com—a reporter for the Times, the one who would file the story calling our work “mean” and “inconsequential,” dug into me. Why, he wanted to know, did it seem that no one at Gawker was willing to admit any fault?
This was a stupid question, and I tried to tell him so as nicely as I could. The fact of Thiel’s campaign against Gawker made the question stupid on two different levels. One of those levels was simply practical: What the Hogan trial had demonstrated, and what the other Thiel-backed lawsuits were affirming, was that Gawker’s culture of open dispute and self-criticism had become too dangerous. Hostile lawyers were being paid to look for any negative remark any of us might make, to read it into the record against us.
But it was also stupid in its broad themes. The reason why nobody at Gawker was counting up our sins as our doom descended was that we had realized, belatedly, that the sins and the doom were unconnected. We had reckoned deeply with our regrets and our contradictions, and nothing about them began to add up to $140 million.
Still, the Times reporter asked, what were my own regrets? I told him, finally, that I had worked at Gawker Media for five years, and that all I could say was that nothing in that time was as shameful to me as a story the Times had put on its front page the month before, slanting the results of a study to argue that police weren’t really disproportionately killing black people. I would have been ashamed, I said, if we had run that.
For any number of reasons, that quote didn’t make it into the story. The story was, by its own lights, a melancholy and nuanced one, a portrait of the end of an era. It surveyed the history of the company and the achievements of the people who’ve left it; it concluded with a glimpse of tears in Nick Denton’s eyes.
Again, none of that is why Gawker.com is shutting down tomorrow. Here is the transcript that explains exactly why it is shutting down. It is from a June 10 hearing in the Pinellas County Circuit Court, in which Judge Pamela Campbell, speaking to Gawker’s lawyer Michael Berry, ordered Hogan be granted immediate access to the company’s assets:
THE COURT: I’m signing the order today.
MR. BERRY: Okay. Well, then what I’d like to do, Your Honor, is request a temporary stay to allow us to seek review of that order from the [District Court of Appeal]. We would ask for a temporary stay for a week so that we can file a motion with the DCA by Monday morning — by Monday, and provide plaintiff time to respond. We will ask for this order to be stayed from — for seven days from the entry of it.
THE COURT: That will be denied.
MR. BERRY: Can we ask for until 5:00 p.m. on Monday?
THE COURT: No. Denied.
MR. BERRY: To the end of the day today?
THE COURT: No.
MR. BERRY: Two hours?
THE COURT: I mean, really, we’re way beyond all that.
MR. BERRY: I just ask on behalf of the DCA to provide them the courtesy that we are going to be moving for a stay for them and would like time for the judges there to be able to rule on a request for a stay.
THE COURT: Okay. Denied. I have denied the request.
At this point we had moved past anything having to do with what Gawker did or what it was. We were past the spectacle of the Hogan trial, a trial supposedly about an act of publication, in which the judge had refused to allow the published material to be considered in open court.
Gawker was simply a civil defendant, facing a judgment too large to pay, after a plaintiff had structured the case so that insurance would not help cover the damages. The company was asking only to survive long enough to put the judgment before a higher court, on appeal. This is, supposedly, how the system works.
Instead, there would be no chance to appeal before the company was destroyed. Here was money talking, and nothing but money. The only law was the judge.
It’s a hard story for journalists to tell. Journalists are, despite their political reputation, fundamentally conservative. The only way to keep explaining what’s happening in the world, day after day, is to rely on some basic frames. Cause and effect have to unfold within stable institutions, according to accepted rules.
A story that falls outside the everyday frames—The mayor is a crackhead who leaves a trail of violence where he goes, say, or This beloved entertainer is accused of being a serial rapist—requires a radical shift of perspective. Possibly the best and truest part of the movie Spotlight was how much of the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church’s secret sexual abuse came out of the Globe’s own morgue. The paper had already written the story, piece by piece. It just hadn’t read it.
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 and without legal protection.
If you want to write stories that might anger a billionaire, you need to work for another billionaire yourself, or for a billion-dollar corporation. The law will not protect you. There is no freedom in this world but power and money.