Defending Gawker

What do you say about milk-curdling success? Dilbert-creator Scott Adams liked one of the tweets (posted by another team member) on our Frak That Twitter today. I am less enthused and disagree with Scott’s blog post spotlighting similar topic: Billionaire backing third-party lawsuit against a news organization; Peter Thiel’s previously secret assault on Gawker Media.

“Gawker’s business model is built around destroying the lives of innocent people to attract clicks”, Scott Adams writes. “How awful is Gawker? Imagine if revenge porn and cancer decided to get married and have an ugly baby with fangs. That would be Gawker. Pure evil…I see Thiel’s campaign against Gawker as a public service, and a valuable one”. I couldn’t disagree more

Old Media Reborn
Mr. Adams’ generalizations about Gawker are sweeping mischaracterizations. Publisher Nick Denton’s type of pitbull journalism plays a vital role serving the public interest. The news org should not be defined by a few incidents, but rather the bulk of its reporting. Arguably, the editorial style is aggressive, and click-seeking, but produces loads of original content.

In my book Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers, I write:

Gawker Media is more about style than substance and making news bits more interesting (and well-sourced) compared to competitors. Think originality…I am reluctant to acknowledge that Gawker produces some swathy, original content—like admitting to eating chocolate fetishes. But the headlines and snarky synopses even make the aggregated stuff original.

To understand Gawker, and its standards (yes, they exist), take a look “How to Read Gawker in 2015” by former editor Max Read—and my commentary about it. That’s a fair characterization of the editorial philosophy.

Here’s another, and it’s a defense deflating the “pure evil” narrative. In an op-ed, published today in the New York Times, Stephen Marche writes to headline “Gawker Smeared Me, and Yet I Stand With It“:

I believe that Gawker serves an essential function in a celebrity-obsessed culture, and if it were to disappear the world would be poorer and the cause of journalistic truth would be damaged. In its struggle against the billionaire Peter Thiel—who, it turns out, secretly funded Hulk Hogan’s privacy lawsuit against the website, resulting in a $140 million jury award—Gawker deserves more support than it is getting.

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.

Yes! I couldn’t agree more. There is something very old media about new media Gawker, which makes the public’s right to know a core editorial ethic. It’s one of the many reasons I have long defended Denton’s media group and regularly read stories across the websites.

Did you know, the stories are published Creative Commons? Think about the positive editorial ethical implications compared to most other media sites.

Assaulting Free Speech
Peter Thiel is the villain here. If there is “pure evil” to be found, his litigation financing Hulk Hogan is it. In a brilliant, current, and historical, analysis for WiredDavey Alba and Jennifer Chausses put litigation finance in context of the Hulk Hogan suit, which Gawker lost, with Thiel’s $10 million ante. They write:

Regardless of how you feel about Gawker, Hogan, or Thiel, this financial arrangement sets a dangerous precedent for anyone running a business—especially a media business. Litigation finance is a booming industry, and Thiel’s success likely makes the entire media industry vulnerable to professional litigation financiers willing to fund other vendettas.

Fuck yeah! Litigation finance, in this case exacting revenge through a third party, is Thiel’s weapon of choice. Scott Adams is wrong when saying “Peter Thiel put his reputation on the line to destroy Gawker”. He did no such thing. It was clandestine funding to which he only admitted after it was uncovered and reported.

Peter Thiel’s lawsuit funding is hugely brand damaging, contrary to Scott Adam’s assertions. The broad media response alone is rightly negative, and don’t expect Thiel to get much sympathy or consideration from journalists covering his endeavors in the future. How he is reported about affects brand image. Thiel is champion of nothing.

Meanwhile, Scott slams another billionaire, Pierre Omidyar, arguing his brand is sure to be damaged. But, I wonder: What’s the backstory? Which I don’t have time to investigate this afternoon. Omidyar and Thiel are cofounders of eBay and PayPal, respectively. The relationship between the two companies has been contentious (separate, joined, separate again). What does the one man know about the other that we should? I wonder. There’s more between them than Gawker.

Photo Credit: Antonio Tajuelo