This is the way the world ends…. not with a bang
Gawker.com is shutting down today, Monday 22nd August, 2016, some 13 years after it began and two days before the end of my forties. It is the end of an era.
The staff will move to new jobs on other properties in Gawker Media Group, which are lively and intact, and the whole operation will continue under new ownership, after being acquired for $135 million by Univision. But I will not be going with my colleagues. The Gawker domain is also being left behind in bankruptcy. This is the last post.
Peter Thiel has achieved his objectives. His proxy, Terry Bollea, also known as Hulk Hogan, has a claim on the company and my personal assets after winning a $140 million trial court judgment in his Florida privacy case. Even if that decision is reversed or reduced on appeal, it is too late for Gawker itself. Its former editor, who wrote the story about Hogan, has a $230 million hold on his checking account. The flagship site, a magnet for most of the lawsuits marshaled by Peter Thiel’s lawyer, has for most media companies become simply too dangerous to own.
Peter Thiel has gotten away with what would otherwise be viewed as an act of petty revenge by reframing the debate on his terms. Having spent years on a secret scheme to punish Gawker’s parent company and writers for all manner of stories, Thiel has now cast himself as a billionaire privacy advocate, helping others whose intimate lives have been exposed by the press. It is canny positioning against a site that touted the salutary effects of gossip and an organization that practiced radical transparency.
As former Gawker developer Dustin Curtis says, “Though I find the result abhorrent, this is one of the most beautiful checkmates of all time by Peter Thiel.”
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. Gawker will be missed. But in dramatic terms, it is a fitting conclusion to this experiment in what happens when you let journalists say what they really think.
The rest of the staff and the rest of the brands—Gizmodo, Lifehacker, Jezebel, Kotaku, Jalopnik and Deadspin—are in the shelter of a Hispanic media company pursuing the broader multicultural and millennial audience. They are planning their next offsite meeting for Miami; I am relieved they are all safe.
The sacrifice: Gawker has been left behind. The battered flagship—the tattered black pirate flag of H.L. Mencken still flapping—lingers on the web like a ghost ship, the crew evacuated.
How did we get here?
Many liberals and journalists are alarmed by the ease with which a rich and powerful man—a Trump supporter—can use the legal system to destroy an outlet that criticized him and his friends. To my mind, Gawker’s ultimate fate was predestined.
Gawker was not the first blog launched by the company. That was Gizmodo, the technology news site that is the company’s largest property. Gawker was an outlier in what became a collection of bloggy lifestyle magazines covering reader interests like video games, sports, and cars.
But Gawker was the one with the most powerful personality, the most extreme expression of the rebellious writer’s id. It absorbed the century-old tabloid cynicism about human nature, reinforced by instant data about what people actually wanted to read. As a group of journalists who had grown up on the web, it also subscribed to the internet’s most radical ideology, that information wants to be free, and that the truth shall set us free. This was a potent but dangerous combination.
Gawker’s remit was eventually so broad, news and gossip, that subject matter proved no barrier. And Gawker’s web-literate journalists picked up more story ideas from anonymous email tips, obscure web forums or hacker data dumps than they did from interviews or parties. They scorned access. To get an article massaged or fixed, there was nobody behind the scenes to call. Gawker was an island, one publicist said, uncompromised and uncompromising.
Over time, Gawker did develop a layer of editorial management, and adopted the structure of a more recognizable news organization. But the goal remained to reduce the friction between the thought and the page. At the peak of our confidence, we saw ourselves as the freest writers on the internet, beholden to no one but our readers. Gawker was an experiment in journalism free of commercial pressures and the need for respectability, constrained only by law.
Because Gawker covered the media from the perspective of a smart outsider, calling out the absurdities of the industry, journalists were soon obsessed. Never underestimate the power of narcissism. In 2003, it did not take long for Elizabeth Spiers to be profiled or for Kurt Andersen, the former editor of Spy magazine, a publication that had inspired her, to turn up at Gawker parties. We called the company Gawker Media Group, to spread the fame to other properties.
To staff the site, we looked for raw writing talent rather than credentials. As Adrian Chen wrote in the New Yorker, Gawker was the best place to become a journalist. Its alumni are everywhere in digital media. Richard Lawson, now at Vanity Fair, had been a secret commenter. Alex Pareene, who brought a sense of the absurd to a presidential campaign that demanded it for sanity’s sake, had started at the company as a 19-year-old dropout from NYU. The embrace of unusual writers led one veteran to describe Gawker as the “island of the misfit toys”. We took that as a compliment.
The young writers shared their generation’s skepticism. According to a Harvard Institute of Politics survey, only one in ten 18-34 year-olds trust the media. The alt right movement, suspicious of the illusion presented by media, refers to the “red pill” that you can take to reveal the reality beneath. Gawker’s politics were progressive, but it shared the belief that the real world was staged. Gawker writers, plugged into the journalists’ gossip networks, looked for the story behind the story, the version that was shared over a drink but less frequently published.
The voice was new, too. Elizabeth Spiers’ items would not have been out of place in the newspaper or magazine diary, except she introduced italicized side-remarks that made the stories seem more intimate, an article annotated by a friend. By the time of Choire Sicha, Gawker had established a whole new news style, which took as much from blogs and messaging as it did from print media. Writers like Richard Lawson, Caity Weaver, and Ashley Feinberg seemed to express themselves in an fresh but coded language new to professional media. As Sydney Ember wrote in the Times, it was “a wry, conversational and brash form of web journalism that would influence publications across the internet.”
The defining tone of a Gawker story was as often rude as wry. When it became powerful enough to merit the New York magazine cover treatment, the package was called “Gawker and The Age of Insolence,” and illustrated with a keyboard of epithets popularized by the blog. Gawker made douche cross over as a word. And that made it easy to accuse Gawker of being unique in another way—uniquely snarky.
One profile of Gawker before the Hogan verdict was titled: Snark on Trial. We argued that snark was simply the word smarmy people used to dismiss criticism. But Peter Thiel could still get nods when he told the Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin: “I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest.” In his op-ed in the same paper some months later, he referred to Gawker’s “nasty articles that attacked and mocked people.” Mockery, of course, is the cheapest and most available tool that the powerless have against the powerful; it has historically been the one thing that they can’t silence.
Tabloid and gossip journalism long predate Gawker, but the site was unique in its scope. TMZ, for instance, focuses its investigative energy on B-list celebrities; and is careful to maintain good relations with Hollywood lawyers and power players. But Gawker writers were not so discriminating. It was a matter of pride that Gawker ran stories that could not be published elsewhere.
They took on all subjects with equal vigor, often taking particular pride in undermining the behind-the-scenes players who had become accustomed to operating the celebrity machinery in anonymity. My friendship with Brian Williams went cold after Gawker published a private email I had forwarded as a tip, in a demonstration by Gawker’s editor that even the publisher’s chatty correspondence was fair game. The celebrities, the politicians, the capitalists, the publicists, the journalists—Gawker viewed them all as subjects, and cultivated none as allies.
The original focus was the executives and editors at the media companies in New York. Valleywag, later merged into Gawker, expanded the scope to include Silicon Valley moguls and venture capitalists, the coming power. And, especially after Gawker went national in 2008 and sought a broader audience, the site also sought to break, rather than just blog, stories about entertainment celebrities and politicians. The site was defined by the sheer range of enemies it had made.
For her farewell post when Gawker still obsessed over Manhattan media, Jessica Coen scorched the publicist Joe Dolce. J.K. Trotter showed which journalists were allowing Hillary Clinton’s spokesman to insert adjectives into their work. Roger Ailes of Fox News hired private investigators to trail John Cook and Hamilton Nolan, after a series of Gawker investigations into the right-wing news network, its on-air talent, and its boss. A misjudged story about a media executive’s secret sex life just last year, a throwback to an earlier web era, set off a swirl of industry outrage.
Then there were celebrities. Tom Scocca’s essay on Bill Cosby prompted a belated evaluation of sexual allegations against the sitcom star. A story about Tom Cruise’s role in the Church of Scientology brought a new audience to Gawker. It also invited more menacing legal threats than we had faced. After a tabloid story in 2009 about a hot-tub party involving two actors and a former beauty queen, we paid out a settlement. It was a warning.
As if media players and celebrities were not enough, Gawker was, by the late 2000s, poking at some truly powerful people. New York’s Vanessa Grigoriadis said Gawker expressed the rage of the creative underclass. It was unsurprising that Gawker focused on the privileges of the princelings, the younger members of America’s increasingly hereditary elite. These were the manifestations, in stories readers could understand, of the dry income inequality that had become the focus of politics and economics. After the Sony hack, Sam Biddle was less interested in the Hollywood industry games revealed by the company’s email traffic than in the deeper story about heredity power revealed by how CEO Michael Lynton got his daughter into Brown.
Gawker shed an enormous amount of light. It punctured hypocrisy and mocked the ridiculous. The site put out 200,000 posts over its life, about thousands of public figures. Some say we made the right enemies, but everybody can agree: even for journalists, we certainly made a lot of them. One was Peter Thiel.
In 2006, Gawker launched a site called Valleywag. Billionaires like Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google were regularly featured, rarely very flatteringly. While New York and Hollywood were used to gossipy journalism, Silicon Valley’s power was new.
Most of the new industrialists and investors were accustomed to deferential trade reporting that stuck close to official talking points, and to reverential magazine profiles. Many were brilliant but fragile geeks, who had grown to enjoy the adulation, and did not appreciate criticism. Information was carefully controlled through non-disclosure agreements, embargoes, and preferential access given to favored journalists. It was not just Steve Jobs that had constructed a reality distortion field around him; many Silicon Valley ventures and reputations depended on careful management of buzz. Valleywag pricked the bubble.
“On one hand the reporting was terribly caustic and brutal and on the other it was really thorough and investigative and accurate in a lot of cases,” said Brandee Barker, former head of global communications at Facebook.
In my time at the company, I started Gizmodo first, and loved Lifehacker most, but Gawker was the only site I edited. Valleywag, the Valley gossip column later merged into Gawker, was the only property on which I have ever been a reporter. It was a world I knew from living in the Bay Area from 1997 to 2002. It was there that I first collided with Peter Thiel, whom I knew through Max Levchin and other mutual friends.
The only article Peter Thiel has publicly mentioned as a personal motivation for his extraordinary campaign is one by Owen Thomas, a gay writer for Valleywag, which called for Thiel to be recognized as the world’s most successful gay venture capitalist. That Thiel had a boyfriend was already an open secret in the Valley and the San Francisco gay scene, but Thiel says he had a right to control the sequence of his coming out. That is also the most sympathetic rationale for his animus.
But Valleywag also complicated Thiel’s business ventures, which is the more powerful reason. Writers watched for every problem with Clarium Capital, Thiel’s hedge fund, which failed spectacularly. Even before that, when I was writing on Valleywag in 2006, I heard wind of a rift between Mike Moritz of Sequoia Capital and Thiel, who represented a new generation of investor. The story was self-fulfilling: Moritz disrespected Thiel’s partner in the Founder’s Fund, Sean Parker, in front of investors; and Thiel kept Moritz out of Facebook, the best investment opportunity of the decade.
Thiel fancied himself a political thinker. He worried about the weakness of libertarians among female voters, the tendency of mass democracies to constrain individual freedom, or bureaucracies that had stifled the American economy. In the running Valleywag coverage of these pronouncements, Thiel was increasingly portrayed as a crackpot libertarian. His ideas were mocked; it must have been an unpleasant reminder of campus arguments at Stanford, which had led to his first political tract, The Diversity Myth.
In 2009, Thiel said about Valleywag writers:
I think they should be described as terrorists, not as writers or reporters. I don’t understand the psychology of people who would kill themselves and blow up buildings, and I don’t understand people who would spend their lives being angry; it just seems unhealthy… [Valleywag] scares everybody. It’s bad for the Valley, which is supposed to be about people who are willing to think out loud and be different.
Some Valley venture capitalists like Marc Andreessen played the gossip game, feeding tidbits to a hungry press—myself included. Valuable sources do often get protection from otherwise incorruptible journalists. Peter Thiel would not go that far to solve his image problem. But, on the advice of Eddie Hayes, the New York lawyer and fixer, he gave money to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Gawker’s own Choire Sicha, invited to advise him on media relations, recommended he be more friendly with journalists. He took Valleywag’s Ryan Tate out for a bottle of wine and told him, “See, I do negotiate with terrorists.”
At some point, however, Thiel’s stance hardened, after a friend advised him that he was the only one who could stop Gawker. He connected with Charles Harder, a Hollywood lawyer who had learned from Marty Singer but was ready to take a more hard-knuckled approach on behalf of clients. Litigation finance, once the crime of champerty but now deregulated, provided the template for their business relationship. This was the dark money of media conflict. Thiel could fund potential lawsuits without being exposed himself. It was the same method by which Max Mosley took down Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World.
In October 2012, a promising opening appeared. Gawker published a tabloid scoop about Hulk Hogan, the Real American hero, in a tryst with his best friend’s wife. The friend, a radio shock jock called Bubba Clem, had set up the encounter, and filmed it.
Hulk Hogan had already, in many graphic interviews, been public about his sex life, and he said he couldn’t remember the specific encounter that Gawker described. The story, a commentary on the public’s fascination with celebrity sex and the mundanity of the reality, was interesting and prompted no immediate backlash. Even Hogan’s lawyers later backed off their criticism of the words. But Gawker had also published an excerpt from the video recording that was long enough to be seized on as gratuitous by Hogan’s lawyers, who made much of the fact that his erect penis was visible for a few frames.
Hogan was the most popular celebrity in Tampa. While a federal judge and a Florida appeals court panel found the story was solidly newsworthy because it touched a matter of public concern, it was always going to be a challenge to go up against Hogan against a home-town jury. When Judge Pamela Campbell allowed Hogan to pursue a privacy case in her circuit court, Thiel’s combination was ready.
The trial has been rehearsed enough. Suffice to say the jury was not shown evidence of Hogan’s true motives in filing suit, to scare leakers and journalists off another more embarrassing recording. Bubba Clem, the intimate who made the recordings, had settled with Hogan; he was permitted to avoid the stand.
But there was some karmic irony. Gawker, which had been accused of unfairly caricaturing so many others, was itself undone by a few well-chosen quotes. A journalist’s detachment from the suffering of subjects, without which no critical story would ever be published, was presented as sociopathic. And a dark joke, suitable for a Williamsburg bar but inadvisable for a deposition to be viewed by a Florida jury, left the author of the Hogan story vulnerable to being smeared as a pedophile.
In the court of media and public opinion, the trial played only marginally better. The Tampa Bay Times noted that Judge Campbell was overturned more often than any other judge in her county. There was a consensus that the $140 million verdict was absurdly high compensation for Hogan’s embarrassment. Liberal journalists were outraged when Thiel’s vendetta became public.
But even Gawker’s natural allies had no enthusiasm for a free press defense of a story about a sex tape. Journalists were aware of the public’s growing sensitivity to anything that could be characterized as revenge porn or cyber bullying. As John Herrman noted, the public climate had changed, even in the four years since the Hogan story. Privacy, especially internet privacy, had become the biggest challenge to freedom of expression. When time came to scurry under the shelter of the First Amendment, we did not have that much institutional support. You can’t easily get the privileges of the profession if you pour scorn on its luminaries.
And Gawker’s media enemies made sure that the most compromising moments from the trial got wide distribution. The New York Post, whose editor Col Allan had been called a pig-fucker by Gawker after his newspaper wrongly identified two innocent men as suspects in the Boston bombing, sent its strongest court reporter down to Florida to cover the trial in a manner as gleefully cruel as any overreach Gawker was ever accused of. “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword,” News Corporation’s Jesse Angelo told a former Gawker executive. Allan sent a note to Gawker’s tips line on the day of our bankruptcy, more than three years after the insult: “Squeal, pig fuckers, squeal.”
Some public figures came to the defense of the free press. Jeff Bezos, whose company’s working conditions had been criticized by Gawker, reminded people that it was the ugly speech that most needed protection. “The best defense against speech that you don’t like about yourself as a public figure is to develop a thick skin,” he said. “You can’t stop it.” But many subjects, especially in Silicon Valley, were delighted that Gawker was getting its comeuppance. Even after Thiel’s secret involvement was revealed, they provided moral support for his campaign.
And Now It’s Dead
The greatest compliment one could ever pay to a Gawker writer is fearlessness—the willingness to say what needed to be said irrespective of the consequences. The flip side of that fearlessness, the epithet that even our defenders throw at us, is recklessness. Gawker deliberately pushed the envelope, went further than our establishment forebears, and should be held responsible for the result. Did we invite this fate?
The stories themselves may have been fearless, but they were not reckless. The company as a whole has published nearly a million posts in its existence. Peter Thiel’s lawyers have been scouring the sites on a daily basis for at least four years for stories to sue over. There are few lawsuits but for those filed by Charles Harder, Thiel’s lawyer. He has represented both Hogan and the other two plaintiffs in suits filed against the company, not to mention the legal threats issued on behalf of clients as varied as Lena Dunham, Donald Trump’s alleged hair guru, and a sports-betting entrepreneur.
One can argue about the merits of the Hogan story, and the length of the video excerpt included. But the others are not even controversial among journalists. Of course, Shiva Ayyadurai should not be able to claim he invented email without a reminder that Ray Tomlinson did so a decade earlier. Ashley Terrill, the journalist who is suing Gawker for a behind-the-scenes look at her role in a battle over the legacy and future of the dating app Tinder, has chosen one of Gawker’s most thoroughly researched and nuanced stories to go to court over.
Indeed, Gawker’s record for accuracy is excellent. For a site as reckless as it is purported to be, there have been no Jayson Blairs, no conflict-of-interest or plagiarism scandals, no career-ending corrections. The chief rule of establishment journalism that it violated to its detriment, it seems, is the one that recommends against pissing off billionaires.
But Gawker did overextend itself, as an enterprise. We were internet exceptionalists, believing that that from blogs, forums and messaging would emerge a new world of unlimited freedom to associate and to express. We still believed we could, like the early bloggers, say everything. We believed that broader access to confidential information, to the real story, would constrain the powerful and liberate the oppressed.
And we believed that, as a business, this model could work. That being beholden only to our readers was not only an editorial value, but the key to building an audience that advertisers would want to reach in the new medium. We had no list of protected personalities or clients or brands, but we had at our peak a million people each day. The readers were there, and they were our defense against our detractors.
But the readers don’t have the power. It’s difficult to recall now, but at Gawker’s founding there was a sense that the internet was a free space, where anything can be said. An island off the mainland, where people could be themselves. Where writers could say things that would get you fired in an instant from a print publication. Where you could say what you thought without fear of being fired, or sued out of existence. But when you try to make a business out of that freedom, the system will fight you.
As our experience has shown, that freedom was illusory. The system is still there. It pushed back. The power structure remains. There are just some new people at the apex, prime among them the techlords flush with monopoly profits. They are as sensitive to criticism as any other ruling class, but with the confidence that they can transform and disrupt anything, from government to the press.
One of Gawker’s most cherished tags was “How Things Work,” a rubric that applied to posts revealing the sausage-making, the secret ways that power manifests itself. The phrase has a children’s book feel to it, bringing to mind colorful illustrations of animals in human work clothes building houses or delivering mail. Of course it also carries the morbid sense of innocence lost, and the distance between the stories we tell ourselves about the world and the way it actually works. Collapsing that distance is, in many ways, what Gawker has always been about.
And so Gawker’s demise turns out to be the ultimate Gawker story. It shows how things work.