Gawker Media, which runs the cheeky gossip-and-news site by the same name as well as several other online publications, recently suffered a devastating loss in court that could spell its demise.
A Florida jury awarded $140 million to professional wrestler Hulk Hogan (Terry Bollea), who sued Gawker for invasion of privacy after it posted a video of him having sex with a woman. Now, new reports have revealed a fascinating wrinkle to the case: Hogan’s lawsuit was bankrolled by maverick venture capitalist and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who had been on a quest to take down Gawker ever since one of its blogs outed him as gay. Is this a threat to freedom of the press or legitimate civic activism against a media company that tramples journalistic ethics?
After the revelation of Thiel’s involvement, major media from The New York Times to the New Yorker sounded the alarm about the dangerous precedent this could set: Anyone with deep pockets and a grudge, they warned, could wreak havoc on any journalistic enterprise. In a Times Op-Ed, novelist Stephen Marche, himself a target of frequent attacks by Gawker, argues that such “gutter press” can play an essential role in challenging the powerful, including celebrities and tycoons like Thiel.
Likewise, Slate’s Will Oremus writes that Valleywag, the tech-focused Gawker site that outed Thiel, saw its coverage of the industry as “punching up” against the elites.
On the other hand, fellow Slate columnist David Auerbach tweeted that in the eyes of many, “Gawker did not practice journalism as much as in bullying and fear.”
A look at Gawker’s tawdry record supports this claim. Last year, Gawker caused an uproar when it ran an article claiming that Condé Nast executive David Geithner, a married father of three, had tried to arrange a tryst with a male escort. Geithner is not a public figure (his brother, Timothy Geithner, is the former U.S. treasury secretary), and the “scoop” was particularly sleazy because its source, the escort, had tried to blackmail Geithner with threats of selling the story.
After the Geithner scandal, The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern chronicled Gawker’s vile campaign of gossip and innuendo fanning baseless rumors that actor James Franco was a gay rapist who had violently assaulted an ex-boyfriend.
Another time, Gawker’s sports blog posted a video of a drunken pair having sex in the bathroom of a sports bar. When the woman in the video begged the site to take it down, the blogger refused (until he decided that she may have been the victim of a sexual assault).
This is hardly “punching up.” Yet, for many in the left-of-center media, Gawker was “our S.O.B.” because it cloaked its yellow journalism in progressive ideas, directing nasty, often fact-free attacks at perceived racists, misogynists and other bigots. Now, the news that Gawker is the target of a vendetta by Thiel, a believer in laissez-faire capitalism — and a Donald Trump delegate — has again caused many liberals to rally to Gawker’s defense.
Meanwhile, Thiel says he sees his crusade against Gawker as a public service to deter gross invasions of privacy. As legal experts note, outside financing of lawsuits by organizations or individuals sympathetic to their purpose is a long-accepted practice. Yes, billionaires with vendettas could have a chilling effect on the press, tying up media outlets in meritless but expensive litigation. But mechanisms to penalize frivolous lawsuits already exist.
It remains to be seen whether the verdict against Gawker will stand. But one thing is already clear: Gawker reminds us that the press, a necessary weapon against the abuses of the powerful, can itself become an abuser.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.