Back in University, one of the majors I toyed with (I changed major several times) was Journalism. And I wasn’t the only person who studied and otherwise dabbled in the news biz for a while who thought about whether, if I pursued that career, I might one day be reporting news on the airwaves. I always thought it might be funny, if I were in a position to have a sign-off phrase, if I stole the phrase of the fictitious (and comedic) news anchor, Ted Baxter. Just as news legend Edward R. Murrow had always famously ended his broadcasts with, “Good night, and good luck,” Baxter signed off each night with, “Good night, and good news!”
This week we had a few sign-offs in the field of news reporting or commentary. I included at least one article about each one in yesterday’s Friday Links. I’d like to follow up on at least one of them today. We begin with a former writer for Gawker writing an op-ed of The Guardian: I was callow, it was unkind, and together we did some pretty ignoble things. So why am I sad to hear that after 14 long years, Gawkerdämmerung is nigh?
In case you don’t know: Gawker started out many years ago as a snarky/gossipy blog that covered “the scene” in New York City, which quite often involved covering other news sites and publications and the people who wrote for them. This was back when founding editor Elizabeth Spiers wrote almost all of the content and treated it almost as a personal blog. Spiers moved on and other people took over. Gawker expanded and changed, becoming, as Joshua David Stein says in the Guardian peace, “bullies.” He goes into a bit more detail, calling Gawker “a fertile ground for many things – ego, fame, alacrity, wit, a quick turn of phrase – but kindness was not one of them.”
I’m not writing to apologize for Gawker nor to say they were justified in what they did (Stein attempts to do that in his article, but I remain unconvinced). What I do strongly believe, however, is that Gawker’s death isn’t anything to cheer about, either. There are simply no heroes in the story of its demise. In 2007 they “outed” Peter Thiel. Thiel is often described as a billionaire investor (though he’s probably not as rich as he claims), but a more accurate description would be, man who got rich by mismanaging other people’s billions in a way that enriched him and impoverished them. If you want to know what kind of person he is, he’s the man who agreed to be Trump’s token gay speaker at the Republican National Convention; it’s harder to get any sleazier that being a gay spokesperson for a convention that adopted the single most hateful anti-gay political platform in the history of the U.S. He’s also one of the guys who thinks that women shouldn’t have the right to vote.
I put “outed” in quotes because Thiel wasn’t exactly closeted at the time. He wasn’t exactly out a proud, because like most homocons he held most out and proud queer people in contempt, but he had gone to no pains to hide his orientation, and was a public figure who regularly sought publicity and was often still trying to get people to invest in his managed funds. Being outed didn’t cause any measurable harm to his reputation. He was in no danger of losing his job, et cetera. Still, he was pissed off at Gawker because of the incident, and swore to destroy them.
Gawker, in just one of the many cases of bullying, published a sex video of former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan. Hogan had been a public figure, but he was generally retired. He wasn’t the public spokesman for one of those anti-gay/anti-sex organizations campaigning for laws restricting other people’s rights in the name of morality. Which wouldn’t have, IMHO, been justification to publish the video, but could have been a legitimate rationale to report on its existence. But they didn’t have such a rationale, so publishing it was just a puerile bid for clicks.
Hogan sued. And as we now know, he was able to afford to fight it out in courts, refusing all settlements, for as long as he did because Thiel was actually paying the legal bills. Thiel has since admitted that he’s funding several other lawsuits still pending. Hogan won a large settlement (and I’m glad he won; I just wish he had done so without getting involved with a sleaze like Thiel). And the settlement was so huge, that it forced Gawker Media, the parent corporation of Gawker.com, into bankruptcy. Which has left a bunch of people who work for other, less sleazy news sites that Gawker has been buying up over the years, in a position of not knowing whether they still had jobs.
And I want to be very clear here: the other news sites were not run like Gawker, and the people working for them are not complicit in any way with the sorts of sleazy stories Gawker is known for. The other sites were purchased by Gawker to shore up Gawker’s financial position, and were allowed to be run as before so they’d keep producing the cashflow needed to support the business. Which is why Univision, which won the bankruptcy auction, has announced that the other sites will be allowed to keep operating as before. Univision has absolutely no interest in the Gawker.com name or its brand of “journalism.”
It’s not just the Thiel is a sleazy hypocrite and a bully—the real shame here is that he’s used his wealth to completely shut down a news site because he didn’t like their coverage. Gawker’s owner and managing editor, Nick Denton, has been deservedly hung out on a rope of his own making. But the actual executioner, Thiel, is not on the side of justice.