It was better to have Gawker than not have it.
The flagship site of Nick Denton’s former media empire often operated under a fog of institutional delusion the last few years, outing a Condé Nast media exec who wasn’t bothering anyone, and treating a Hulk Hogan sex tape as if its exposure was vital to the survival of the country. These were true believers who began believing the wrong things. Even at its recent Irish wake of a farewell party, one of the top editors actually invoked the name of Capt. Humayun Khan when speaking of sacrifices made by the blog’s young staffers. Seeming to realize the wrong-mindedness of the notion mid-paragraph, he pivoted, saying: “Not that the sacrifices here come close to losing a loved one, but it is a sacrifice to be a 23-year-old kid and to find your name on a complaint from Hulk Hogan.” Oy gevalt.
That being said, if you go through site’s fourteen year’s worth of posts one by one and delete the many frivolous entries, the majority were on the right side of history and politics, targeting abuses of power. The platform also served as an amazing training ground for young writers and editors who gradually fanned across the media landscape, many of them wonderfully talented. In the big picture, Gawker was always better than no Gawker.
In any picture, Peter Thiel does not emerge from this episode looking good. You don’t get to claim the moral high ground when you’re an advocate for–a delegate of!–a bigoted buffoon like Donald Trump, who’s mocked the disabled and POWs, slandered Mexicans and threatened to ban Muslims. Rationalizing that you’re doing so because “we need to solve real problems instead of fighting fake culture wars” is just so much nonsense, even if Thiel is too buried under his horseshit theories to realize it. Trump is himself trying to rise to power by virtue of fighting a fake culture war in which he’s demonized and disqualified anyone who’s not white, a process the GOP nominee began in earnest five years ago with his Birther bullshit. Was there ever a faker culture war than that?
By bankrolling Hogan’s lawsuit, Thiel scored the most dubious of victories, shuttering one company and sending a chill wind blowing across an already embattled independent media landscape. He may have prevented some from making unkind or unnecessary remarks, but he also provided comfort to those abusing power, safe in the knowledge that there will be fewer voices willing to question them.
The obvious implication for entrepreneurial news organisations is that they must do their utmost to adhere to both ethical responsibilities and legal requirements – not just because it’s the right thing to do but also because their own future depends on it. That is emphatically not to say they should be timid nor that they should pull their punches. It is to say that they should be exceptionally careful to get the story right – and to get it in the right way.
But there is a clear implication for “legacy” news outlets, as well. Despite the proliferation of competition right across the media spectrum, they remain the ones best able to withstand the pressures of those who would prefer they curtail their reporting or, better still, go away altogether. As always, power is needed in order to hold the powerful to account – and to ensure that such accounting reaches public attention.
Staff cutbacks and financial pressures, along with other factors, have meant a well-documented decline in in-depth journalism by legacy outlets in recent years. Some of that gap is indeed being filled by passionate journalists at digitally savvy start-ups, and their work benefits us all.
But as the demise of Gawker reminds us, few if any start-ups – even those that are profitable, with a well-established reputation and following – rest on reliably solid economic ground. In an age of welcome journalistic flowering, the expertise, influence and still relatively rich resources of the mainstream media remain vital social assets that must not be squandered.•