Gawker, one of the most iconic websites of this young internet age, will close down - because it was murdered.
The announcement today:
Yes, Gawker was sometimes quite outrageous, but it was also a symbol for the "freedom of the press", as the website had no hesitation to expose inconvenient truths, and no hesitation to publish facts or "rumours" that other websites did not dare to touch. "Gawker" was also known for biting commentary and strong opinions. It was always a breath of fresh air and a hugely popular website.
The demise of Gawker is an historical event. An inconvenient news website was deliberately targeted and killed, setting a horrific precedent.
Gawker itself published an excellent article about the background yesterday.
Gawker.com is out of business because one wealthy person maliciously set out to destroy it, spending millions of dollars in secret, and succeeded. That is the only reason.
The strange and embarrassing thing about being the target of a conspiracy, an actual conspiracy, is that it undermines one’s own understanding of the world. It is true that Gawker was always a publication that took risks. It had bad manners and sometimes bad judgment. Occasionally, it published things that it would regret—just as, for instance, the New York Times has published things that it regrets.
But every publication gives itself room to make mistakes, and is prepared to absorb the damage when it does make a mistake. The New York Post was so eager for a scoop on the Boston Marathon bombing that it put a photo of two innocent men on its front page, after law enforcement had already declared that they were not suspects. The Post was denounced, as it deserved to be, for callously crossing the line, and it ended up settling a defamation lawsuit.
Lawsuits and settlements happen to everyone, and everyone carries insurance to handle them. In Gawker’s wildest, most buccaneering years, it never came close to paying a million dollars for crossing a line.
What Thiel’s covert campaign against Gawker did was to invisibly change the terms of the risk calculation. The change begins with the post about Thiel’s sexual identity in a homophobic investor culture, the post Thiel now cites as the inspiration for his decision to destroy Gawker. It was solidly protected by media law and the First Amendment, as were the other posts that, as Thiel wrote, “attacked and mocked people”—specifically, his cohort of rising plutocrats in Silicon Valley. Hurting rich people’s feelings is, in principle, not a punishable offense.
So rather than fighting the material that he really objected to, Thiel went looking for pretexts. Over time, he came up with them. Gawker found itself attracting legal threats and lawsuits at an unprecedented rate. Among those was Hulk Hogan’s complaint against Gawker for having written about a sex video he appeared in, and for publishing brief excerpts of that video. This was the kind of case that, in the normal course of things, would have gone away. Hogan’s first two attempts to pursue it, in federal court, went nowhere, with judges ruling that the publication was newsworthy and protected.
Yet the case kept moving. Suddenly the company had exhausted the limits of its insurance and was bleeding money on legal fees. The business model on which it had thrived—writing things that people were interested in reading, and selling ads to reach those readers—was foundering due to a whole new class of expenses.
The natural conclusion, even for people on the inside, was that the company must have taken too many risks. The willingness to publish things too ugly for other outlets to touch—an account of seeing video of the mayor of Toronto smoking crack, domestic-violence accusations against Bill O’Reilly—had gone over to destructive irresponsibility, and we were being punished for it. The business side began to believe the editorial side was heedlessly dragging the company down; the editorial side began to believe the business side was fearfully prepared to undermine its integrity.
Nick Denton himself, having taunted and titillated other journalists for years with the message that Gawker would do what they wouldn’t, found that message turned back on him. He internalized what his critics and his legal bills were telling him—that the site was out of control, that it had grown too reckless and irresponsible for the power it had grown to wield. In a recurring and nigh comical routine, he took to asking his editors and writers over and over again, in slightly different ways for slightly different occasions, to name the best stories they’d done, to remind him over and over of what the mission was that he had come up with years before.
Former Gawker editor Max Read wrote an account of this era for New York magazine, where he now works. It was Read and executive editor Tommy Craggs who resigned from Gawker in the summer of last year, after the strain between the editorial and business departments—and between the two sides of Denton’s mind—broke into an open rupture over the publication of a post about a business executive’s entanglement with an escort, and over the company’s decision to remove that post.
Read’s assessment of that episode is clear-eyed and self-critical, and is probably as good a rendition of the story of that disastrous post as can be written. It does not, however, explain Gawker’s demise. Having worked closely with Craggs and Read, and having lived through the whole thing firsthand, I found Read’s history of the era unsettling: It is a thoughtful, deeply considered, and on certain levels deadly accurate portrait, but it is still inescapably a portrait drawn by gaslight.
The author concludes:
Gawker always said it was in the business of publishing true stories. Here is one last true story: You live in a country where a billionaire can put a publication out of business. A billionaire can pick off an individual writer and leave that person penniless and without legal protection.
If you want to write stories that might anger a billionaire, you need to work for another billionaire yourself, or for a billion-dollar corporation. The law will not protect you. There is no freedom in this world but power and money.
It is only a matter of time until a similar thing will happen to another inconvenient news website - there are lots of right-wing billionaires out there, after all.
Rolling Stone yesterday published an article about the "10 Most Infamous Gawker Stories."
Our old pal Sarah Palin is included in the list as well, and not only that - this sounds very familiar indeed:
Oh yes, we remember! It was not only Gawker, it was also Kathleen and myself at Palingates who in 2010 published pages from Sarah Palin's hilarious upcoming ghostwritten mess "America By Heart", and we received huge attention from the national media. The quotes from the book were just too hilarious to be ignored.
If you fancy to take a trip down memory lane, see here, here and here.
Do you remember that we were even mentioned on national television?
What happened then was not a surprise - we already "knew the drill" from the previous year (2009), when we published pages from Sarah Palin's "masterpiece of lies", her autobiography "Going Rogue": We promptly (again) received a letter from Harper Collins's General Counsel Christopher Goff, and then we immediately removed most of the pages.
Gawker however fought on and went to court, but they got out of the affair without damage in the end, gaining massive publicity. As you can see, even "Rolling Stone" still remembers the case, more than six years later!
For the old "Going Rogue" posts, see for example here, here and here.
We will miss Gawker. They were fearless, which is the most important thing of all.