Thoughts on Gawker Legal Woes

My initial response to the prospect that Gawker Media might go down in flames as a result of its legal woes was somewhere between ambivalence and satisfaction.  I’m not generally sympathetic to the proposition that invasions of privacy are inherently protected by freedom of the press, particularly when the invasion involves “information” as useless to the public as a sex tape—let alone one involving a former pro wrestler.  So, if Hulk Hogan’s $140 million award from his lawsuit and another five defamation suits lined up behind that are going to send the company into bankruptcy, so be it.  Do we really need a media service whose motto declares Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news?  In conjunction with also reading this week that just 37% of America’s high school seniors are proficient in reading at grade level and 12% (ouch) are proficient in US History, it’s hard not to cheer about even a small reduction in the gibberish industry.

But then it was confirmed late last week that Silicon Valley VC Peter Thiel has been secretly bankrolling the Hogan litigation, and this revelation is generally being reported as an act of retaliation for the company’s now-defunct Valleywag having published a story in 2007 “outing” Thiel as gay.  This narrative in itself spawns a range of opinions on the matter of how angry Thiel deserves to be, why there should be any shame in being gay, and that whole tangential line of discussion.

But more to the point, and regardless of Thiel’s motives or sexual orientation, journalist Glenn Greenwald is quoted on CNN, observing the potential hazard to the free press when he says, “Petty, vindictive billionaires like Thiel literally have the power to destroy media outlets in secret.”  Greenwald and others who echo this sentiment have a point, but then so does Thiel, who says, “Gawker … built its business on humiliating people for sport. They routinely relied on an assumption that victims would be too intimidated or disgusted to even attempt redress for clear wrongs. Freedom of the press does not mean freedom to publish sex tapes without consent. I don’t think anybody but Gawker would argue otherwise.”

Certainly, it is ironic to see this particular billionaire seek to kill the kind of creature he helped spawn as an early investor in the social media site Facebook.  There has always been money in tabloid journalism, but the internet and social media have not only had a multiplying effect on that axiom, they have also played a substantial role in blurring the line between the salacious and the edifying.  As a result, it seems that some members of the public will now more aggressively pursue a “right to know,” even in circumstances when there is nothing worth knowing.  At the same time, we can’t deny that sometimes there is real news in the dirt.   It was Gawker in 2012 that outed the super-troll Michael Brutsch (aka Violentacrez) to whom Reddit had given an award for attracting a large following to his threads promoting sexual assault of teenage girls.  And the Gawker is not without some thoughtful editorials in between its grabby, tabloid reportage.

In a New York Times OpEd this past Monday, author Stephen Marche, who has been repeatedly attacked by Gawker, wrote a defense of the site called Gawker Smeared Me, And Yet I Stand With It.  His perspective is that we should not blame the media company for reflecting the world in which we live and that there is value in the reflection itself.  He writes the following:

“Gawker is new media, but it possesses an old-fashioned sensibility that dates from the 18th century. The editors and writers want power to be made uncomfortable whether or not it deserves the discomfort, and they believe that the public right to information is more important than any individual’s right to privacy. I would say, to anyone who believes that Gawker is just the gutter press, that those values are worth something even in the gutter.”

I don’t know. That seems a bit high-falutin in this context.  I think the purpose of the free press—certainly the reason it’s part of the First Amendment—is to speak truth to power, not to make the powerful uncomfortable whether they deserve it or not.  Nobody can deny that there’s money in the latter, but that doesn’t imbue the enterprise with great social value. For instance, I don’t agree with Marche when he says “no one could possibly object” if a leaked sex tape involved a congressman.  Or perhaps he’s correct to suggest that no one would object but is missing the point that we probably should object.  People need to know if an elected official has broken a public trust, and if that violation involves a sex scandal, then that’s part of the story.  But the people don’t need the video and should not confuse mere curiosity to see the video with anything so weighty as freedom of the press.

I would no more defend the distribution of Hulk Hogan’s sex tape on First Amendment grounds than I would defend the distribution of leaked nudes of Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities in 2014 that caused a similar stir.  Gawker Media deserved to be sued in this case and deserved to lose, in my opinion.  But at the same time, it’s hard to be entirely comfortable with the prospect that one man with a vendetta and a big checkbook might sue a media company out of existence.  Marche writes, “Mr. Thiel has turned Gawker into a scapegoat for the shifting world of celebrity culture that we all inhabit. He has made Gawker into a scapegoat for the world he himself is helping to create.”

But I don’t think that’s quite right either.  Yes, Thiel has personally invested in creating this world we now inhabit and so, perhaps he deserves in a karmic sense to be among its victims.  But Peter Thiel is not responsible for the editorial decisions at Gawker, and he is certainly not responsible for the fact that millions of people are actually interested in seeing Hulk Hogan’s stupid sex tape. Moreover, a fact that continues to manifest in the digital age is that just about anyone can be made “famous” through leaks, shaming, bullying, mob justice, etc. As such, it’s probably best that even the gossip-mongers keep their sense of a “right to know” in its proper perspective.

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