August 19, 2016
RIP Gawker.com, 2002—next week
by Ian Dreiblatt
It may have been inevitable, but the news hit hard: yesterday, in a short, direct statement, Gawker.com—flagship of the Gawker Media empire—announced that it’s shutting down next week.
The announcement comes on the heels of Wednesday’s news that Jezebel, Jalopnik, Deadspin, Gizmodo, Kotaku, LifeHacker, and io9—that is, all of Gawker’s sites except its namesake—would be sold to Univision for $135 million, in a deal that is expected to be inked on Monday. Reporting for Forbes, Ryan Mac and Matt Drange explain that Univision was one of only two bidders in a court-supervised auction, the other being publishing company Ziff Davis. While Ziff’s $131 million bid would have provisionally kept a spot for Gawker CEO Nick Denton at the company, the Univision deal does not, and Denton, who filed for personal bankruptcy earlier this month, will be out of a job. Gawker’s statement suggested the company’s eleven other full-time employees would be re-assigned, either to the seven Gawker blogs being purchased by Univision or elsewhere at the company.
Gawker has been in financial trouble since March 18, when wrestler Hulk Hogan prevailed in a $140 million Florida court battle against it, alleging invasion of privacy, infringement of personality rights, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The charges arise from the site’s ebulliently strident publication of (and subsequent refusal to take down) video footage that showed Hogan in ununseeable flagrante with a Tampa resident named Heather Clem. (Clem was at the time married to one of Hogan’s friends, a human being who is for some reason named Bubba the Love Sponge.) On June 10, the company announced it would file for bankruptcy and put itself up for sale after a series of failed appeals, in what the New York Times’ Sydney Ember called “an acknowledgment that its future as an independent news organization was in doubt.”
This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. As Peter Sterne reported for Politico after the initial March verdict, as recently as last October, Gawker Media president and general counsel Heather Dietrick had explained to staffers about the then-upcoming trial, “It’s probably difficult to win the case entirely, outright, knowing the jury that we’re facing, but it’s possible. More likely than not, we end up with a really small judgment that we can easily carry and we appeal that.”
When Gawker initially lost the case, executive editor John Cook wrote:
We publish all manner of stories here. Some are serious, some are frivolous, some are dumb. I am not going to make a case that the future of the Republic rises or falls on the ability of the general public to watch a video of Hulk Hogan fucking his friends’s ex-wife. But the Constitution does unambiguously accord us the right to publish true things about public figures. And [Judge Pamela] Campbell’s order requiring us to take down not only a very brief, highly edited video excerpt from a 30-minute Hulk Hogan fucking session but also a lengthy written account from someone who had watched the entirety of that fucking session, is risible and contemptuous of centuries of First Amendment jurisprudence.
As became clear this past May, Hogan has not been without powerful allies in his struggle against Gawker: the lawsuit was funded, to the tune of more than $10 million, by Donald Trump-loving tech billionaire Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, board member at Facebook, and subject of a 2007 Gawker piece by Owen Thomas entitled Peter Thiel is Totally Gay, People. Thomas, who is gay, does not treat the news as salacious in itself, focusing instead on how homophobia among venture capitalists has likely been an incentive for Thiel to keep his sexual orientation secret.
It’s clear that Thiel was not amused. Calling the incident a “violat[ion of] my privacy” in a New York Times op-ed this week, Thiel—who describes 2007 as “a different time”—decries the “cruelty and recklessness [that] were intrinsic parts of Gawker’s business model.” He continues:
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. 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.
“It’s not for me to draw the line” is a stunning sentiment to hear expressed from someone who has just led a $10 million crusade against a media outlet for publishing sensitive information. Thiel here commits a serious fallacy, asserting that, somehow, the First Amendment is “undermined” when it is invoked too robustly. In fact, the First Amendment exists to protect the media from restrictive action of exactly the kind Peter Thiel has used his huge wealth to spur: the silencing of potentially deplorable public speech.
Gawker has played a prominent role in shaping the tone and demonstrating the potential of the internet commentariat from whose infancy it emerged. It has broken news (plenty of news (much of it important in people’s lives)), taught the world to laugh, and published lots of worthwhile stuff. It has helped launch careers worth watching, like those of Emily Gould, Choire Sicha, and the soon-to-be-everywhere (if we’re lucky) Ashley Feinberg, among others. It has been a training ground for journalists, a think-tank of snark, and a world-class celebrity penis panopticon. It has been a hilarious, smart, weird part of the internet for much of the time the internet has been a thing, and it will be missed.
Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.