Thiel vs Gawker: Why a Defensive Media is the Real Threat to Free Speech

This essay was published on Quillette on June 1 2016. Read the original article here.

In March this year, Terry Bollea (Hulk Hogan), was awarded $140 million in damages in an invasion of privacy lawsuit against Gawker Media.

Gawker Media is an online media company owned by Nick Denton, based in New York City and incorporated in the Cayman Islands. It is the parent company of several different blogs including the infamous pop-feminist rag Jezebel and the much maligned Valleywag and Kotaku.

Gawker Media has tormented both powerful and not so powerful people for some time now. In 2015, The Daily Beast reported that the online magazine belligerently hounded actor James Franco for years even going so far as to accuse him of being a “gay rapist”.

Less than a year ago, Gawker ran a bizarre expose about a thwarted tryst between an unknown business executive and a male escort. It turned out that the escort had attempted to blackmail the executive. When that failed, he went to Gawker, and Gawker ran the story.

In Hulk Hogan’s court case, details emerged of Gawker’s editor-in-chief Albert J Daulerio mocking a college girl who had begged the company’s editors to remove a video of her being sexually assaulted in a bathroom stall. A deposition of Daulerio was also shown at the trial. Daulerio gave the following testimony:

“Can you imagine a situation where a celebrity sex tape would not be newsworthy?” (asked Douglas E. Mirell, a lawyer).

“If they were a child,” Daulerio replied.

“Under what age?” asked Mirell.

“Four.”

***

It was also revealed last week that PayPal Founder and Venture Capitalist, Peter Thiel, was bank-rolling Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker the entire time it was running. This was hitherto unknown, even to Nick Denton, who responded to the news by penning a desperate open letter to the billionaire begging him to stop.

Thiel has every reason to disdain the company – its subsidiary Valleywag invaded his own privacy in 2007. But revenge was not the primary reason why Thiel funded the lawsuit. In an interview with the New York Times, he said that he helped Terry Bollea (Hogan) so that it would serve as a deterrent to other rogue media companies:

It’s less about revenge and more specifically about deterrence…I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest.

When the news of Thiel’s involvement broke, Twitter erupted in celebration with #ThankYouPeter briefly trending. In contraposition with the public, however, was the reaction of the media. Never has the disconnect between journalists and ordinary readers been so starkly illustrated, with the same limp and homogenized arguments being published in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Guardian and even The New Yorker. Each masthead argued the same thing: that Gawker was distasteful – yes – but that a billionaire funding a lawsuit against a media company was “worrisome”, and that the funding of this lawsuit would set a “dangerous precedent”.

Rubbish.

Much of the commentary focuses on a hypothetical chill to free speech that the lawsuit might inflict. But this analysis omits a crucial fact. It was Gawker, not Hulk Hogan or Peter Thiel, which struck fear into the hearts and minds of people for years. It was Gawker staff who trawled social media for everyday targets to mock and ridicule. It was Gawker’s CEO Nick Denton who was aware that a trans woman committed suicide after being outed, but ordered his staff to continue outing anyway.

At Gawker’s peak, you could be a regular person, tweet something stupid, and your whole life could blow up. Just ask Justine Sacco, who described “crying her weight in tears” after a badly judged tweet was picked up and published by Valleywag, spearheading a particularly vicious episode of mob justice.

Freedom of speech is not something that belongs to multi-million dollar media companies with offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands. It should belong to everyone. It should have belonged to Justine Sacco.

And while it is certainly nice that columnists at Slate and The Guardian have suddenly discovered that free speech is an important thing, it might also behoove them to remember that free expression is not only threatened by legal actions or government censorship. Historically and traditionally, free speech is most often suppressed by social norms.

Freedom to make observations about the world and articulate them has always been stifled by oppressive conformity. Whether one is living in 17th Century Italy and fails to declare that the world is flat; or whether one lives in 19th Century Germany and says “God is dead,” there will always be things one cannot say.

Ideally, a free press works to expand these boundaries and gently break down taboos through the piecemeal discovery and exploration of truth. Gawker and friends, on the other hand, did the exact opposite. Denton built a business model out of punishing and policing people for not adhering to social norms. And he even invaded people’s private lives to do so.

***

The lengths to which some writers have gone to defend Gawker’s behaviour casts doubt of whether the industry is capable of recognising unethical or illegal actions in its own ranks.

Will Oremus at Slate wrote that Thiel’s (perfectly legal) funding of Hogan’s lawsuit was itself “proof” that Valleywag was needed. In the same article he wrote that the tactics of Gawker were not actually bullying because “they always saw themselves as punching up”.

In an appalling screed, Marina Hyde of The Guardian wrote that the outing of gay men was a matter of “ethical opinion,” and that Valleywag — while distasteful — provided “much needed irreverence”.

Read enough of these flaccid excuses for bullying from media types and one comes away feeling vaguely sick. The real threat to freedom of expression is not a lawsuit funded by Peter Thiel. It is a vampiric industry that is ready to suck the blood of the public in an effort to cope with its economic stresses.

The media’s response to the Thiel vs Gawker affair has been to make much of Thiel. But the paramount issue is the conduct of the media itself. Journalism fails as a profession when it cannot adequately police itself. Thiel vs Gawker demonstrates the blindness of the press to the unseemly excesses of those within their ranks. The public are disgusted by Gawker, as they were disgusted by The News of the World phone-hacking scandal of the mid 2000s.

Columnists may strike an imperious posture if they wish, and attack Silicon Valley out of resentment. But that won’t do anything to restore the integrity of their profession. If journalism fails to open up its own industry to the same kind of scrutiny that it demands of others, it will not be digital disruption which causes its demise. It will be its own hypocrisy.

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