Recently, dozens of journalists in Turkey were marched off to jail for daring to challenge the Islamist authoritarian President Tayyip Erdogan. Across the world there are great journalists doing brave and exceptional things -- and who are suffering for it.
Gawker.com, which shut down this week, was not one of those places.
Gawker was not censored or silenced or, as a blog post on the site claimed recently, “murdered.” A better description was that it committed suicide.
Gawker was not all bad, and broke some important stories. However, founder Nick Denton was a narcissistic gossip peddler whose morality was so fluid that, according to former editor Max Read, even his own reporters rarely knew where the line was drawn.
Gawker’s downfall started in 2007 when it outed PayPal founder Peter Thiel, in part for apparently holding the wrong political opinions. (Thiel is a well known libertarian, and now supports Donald Trump.) It also outed a Conde Nast executive, but quickly retracted the post.
Gawker was also nakedly and unashamedly partisan. As a political blog, it ignored dirt on left-wing candidates, while going off on the slightest nugget on their perceived enemies -- once hyping a story from a “mole” here at Fox News that consisted of a photograph of a bathroom stall. Scoop! Journalism!
In 2010, when a woman complained that a video posted of her having sex in a bathroom stall was actually her being raped, Gawker’s complaints department forwarded the email to the reporter with a note: “Blah, blah, blah.” The reporter -- A.J. Daulerio -- wrote to the woman, telling her “not to make a big deal out of this.” They later removed the post, with Daulerio conceding it was “possibly rape.”
Ultimately, these bullies of journalism shot themselves in the foot in 2012 when they posted a sex tape of wrestler Hulk Hogan. When eventually told to take the post down by a judge, Gawker published a haughty piece in which it called the decision “risible and contemptuous of centuries of First Amendment jurisprudence” and declared “we won’t.”
They picked a fight, and lost in court, in a fair trial. There was no plucky underdog here, Gawker was a powerful force and offered a comprehensive legal fight. But their position was legally and morally reprehensible, and they got crushed.
Gawker lost its moral compass and its news judgment, pushed by a cultish founder who communicated to his journalists that morality was subservient to clicks and his personal whims, politics and grievances. No matter what good stuff they broke, Gawker was journalistic cancer and needed snuffing out.
It reeked of a smug atmosphere too common in journalist cadres, where reporters pat themselves on the back for doing “brave journalism” while dismissing reasonable objections as a jackboot stamping on the neck of free speech. The martyrdom complex is real at such places, and especially at Gawker.
This leaked into the courtroom, when a lawyer asked the reporter behind the Hogan “story” -- the same A.J. Daulerio from above -- for when a celebrity sex tape would not be newsworthy in Gawker’s eyes:
“If they were a child,” Daulerio said.
“Under what age?” the surprised lawyer asked.
“Four,” Daulerio responded snarkily. This tells you a lot about the atmosphere at Gawker and brings to mind this article in which it asked “when is it okay to hate a 4-year-old?”
When it emerged that the outed Thiel was funding lawsuits, including Hogan’s, a number of leftist journalists painted him as a vengeful billionaire using money to crush “free speech.”
“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,” Gawker claimed, in an argument echoed by many in the left-wing journalistic world.
Yet this is not accurate. First of all, if Thiel had been after a conservative outlet, he wouldn’t be a “vengeful billionaire” but an “LGBTQ justice activist” and there’d have been a Hollywood movie made about him by the end of the week (“‘Powerful’ says the New York Times,” “‘A triumph’ says the Washington Post.”)
But big money didn’t close Gawker -- its reputation did. When Univision bought out Gawker, it chose to keep sister websites such as Kotaku and Jezebel. But it chose to let Gawker.com die. This is because Gawker had become toxic. That is Gawker’s fault, not Thiel’s.
Univision made the call that while there was value in the other members of the Gawker family, the father site was an unemployed, abusive drunk who would be better off being left behind in the move.
Gawker’s defenders on the left are trying to breeze past the site’s outrageous conduct, and use a connective argument on press freedom by appropriating Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous poem: “First they came for Gawker and I did not speak out….”
The analogy doesn’t work. Gawker was not a victim of a censoring government department, it was not a victim of an unfair smear campaign or even the spite of a billionaire -- ultimately it was a victim of its own arrogance, its own cruelty and its own amoral ethical code.
Journalists should heed the warnings of Gawker, and be sure not to make the same mistakes. More importantly, it would be a grave injustice to canonize this grubby website as a martyr and to wrongly put it in the same bracket as those Turkish journalists fighting for liberty and accountability in their country right now.