Gawking About

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As a blogger born and bred in the roaring 2000′s, I owe a tremendous debt to Gawker Dot Com. No, not in the dollars and cents sense. Rather, in a tailwind sense. Gawker Dot Com, for me, will always stand for two principles: (1) Cynical, at times caustic, observation and (2) Fearless journalism.

What’s so remarkable about Gawker is how neither of those principles is either new or revolutionary. Allow me to elucidate.

Mark Twain was a sarcastic mofo, like, a century ago, and is still revered as perhaps the King of the American Wordsmiths. Sorry, but neither snark nor douche are copyright Gawker Dot Com. Also, journalism has always existed in various forms – thinkpieces, actual reporting, and echo chambers. Basically, in the media, you get (1) Columnists with big picture ideas but very little facts, (2) Reporters that dig deep for scoops, and (3) Outlets that have gotten access, but become beholden.

Sadly, cable news has given us all 24 hours of content and was the starting place for the internet in a sense, but many outlets have gone the way of #3. You get access to “stars” often by one way and one way only: kissing ass and publishing favorable content. Journalists then get close to the flame, but are burned by a sudden dropping of the guard. You suddenly believe uncritically what a player or player’s relative or player’s agent says, you slap the label “source” on it, you don’t double-check the facts or ask “is this source biased perchance?”, and you get a million hits.

Gawker was respected by many for not falling into the brown-nosing cycle that turns a media outlet into a thinly-veiled press kit echo chamber. Rather, to the contrary, Gawker aggressively reported and tried to find new facts and air them out. What most riled people like Peter Thiel was that Gawker generally did not care about their PR teams or their hack atttorneys – the US enjoys a First Amendment that is broader than most and free speech that just may be the envy of the world. Gawker was in the US.

Of course, Gawker often confused information with knowledge. Most importantly, Gawker valued the dissemination of information not as a weapon, but as useful in and of itself. The general impetus was that something new is newsworthy. Just like Wikileaks, this raises serious questions. First, Gawker outed the sexual orientation of a man, just like WikiLeaks recently released information on individuals in Saudi Arabia. Heterosexism and violence still exist and occur in the US, so what if Thiel had not been shielded by wealth or privilege? What if he had been assaulted? Attacked? This happens.

Coming out is also a deeply personal decision – who you come out to, when, and how. Gawker stole that very real and powerful agency from Thiel. Of course, there’s no law to shield or protect the sexual orientation of individuals in this context – that of a news organization and a private person. Rather, the First Amendment shielded Gawker in this instance. Even if outing a person could very reasonably lead to that person’s death within months or weeks, you can do that in the US.

In the same vain as the “any new news is good news” modus operandi, Gawker also uploaded a video of Hulk Hogan engaging in coitus. The Hulk has talked and written about his sex life in your typical male gaze manner, for all the world to enjoy (yuck yuck). Yet Gawker got their hands on a sex tape. Reports indicate that Hogan was more worried about his racist diatribes in another sex tape than the original. Also, Peter Thiel has been outed as the man bankrolling this and similar lawsuits.

I can’t defend the Hogan sex tape. It’s tabloid filth. It’s yellow “journalism.” But every organization makes mistakes and this was not a big one. Hulk Hogan is only worth a few million dollars, and his star was on the wain, so, in a legal sense, one could guess that he can’t possibly suffer reputation harm or emotional distress in sums more than ten million dollars. Psychiatrists are just not that expensive people.

What’s scary is that a vindictive billionaire can bankroll as a third party lawsuits that target a specific media outlet. This raises very serious question of ethics (at least philosophically): if an attorney is paid by Sam to go to trial and try for a grandslam judgment that will get eviscerated on appeal, but that attorney’s duty to the actual client Sonny would be to settle for a few million dollars because that’s a more legitimate and legally sound stance, isn’t that a conflict?

A lawyer who serves two masters and puts the bankrolling Thiel on top is arguably, some could say, more immoral than even the worst of Gawker Dot Com’s tabloid crap. But, again, there’s no flat prohibition on a third party bankrolling a lawsuit. You probably just have to sign some forms (waiver of conflict of interest), and what person like the Hulk would say no to a free lawsuit where you might win something? Even if the Hulk walks away with only five to six million at the end of the day after a decade of litigation, he’s paid nothing to get it.

What really gets my goat is that Gawker Dot Com was growing. The decision to unpublish a post outing a Conde Nast executive was a step in the right direction. Also, even Deadspin allowed Major League Soccer to post a rushed defense of the league. Gawker’s reticence to speak with subjects frustratingly made posts seem too one sided. However, the opposite was often the case: nobody wanted to speak to Gawker because subjects were afraid of saying something dumb. When you were in Gawker’s crosshairs, you were scared. You can only ask for comment so many times before you throw up your hands and run with a story.

Still, life goes on. I am elated that Univision has bought Gawker. Why? Because Univision allowed me to eviscerate the billionaire oligarchs of Mexico for Fusion. I also owe a lot of my reporting success at VICE to Gawker’s early commitment to getting out the facts and flaunting those in power if they were wrong or misleading. I am in debt. Gracias amigos y amigas.

Information is not knowledge and a sensitivity to the impact of a story were slowly seeping into Gawker’s newsroom. Like Harambe, they were growing before our very eyes. And tragically, like Harambe, they were misunderstood and taken away for the wrong reasons and at the wrong time.

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