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<nettime> Gawker > Tom Scocca > Gawker Was Murdered by Gaslight

< http://gawker.com/gawker-was-murdered-by-gaslight-1785456581 >

Gawker Was Murdered by Gaslight

Tom Scocca

Filed to: true things on the internet

A lie with a billion dollars behind it is stronger than the truth.
Peter Thiel has shut down Gawker.com.

This is the final act in what Thiel wished to present, and
succeeded in presenting, as a simple and ancient morality play, a
story of hubris meeting its punishment. The premise behind that
morality play was, as Thiel wrote in [38]space given him by the
New York Times last week, that "cruelty and recklessness were
intrinsic parts of Gawker's business model." The $140 million
judgment that his lawyers secured for Hulk Hogan against Gawker
Media, sending the company into a bankruptcy from which its
flagship site would not emerge, was a matter of "proving that
there are consequences for violating privacy."

The Times didn't really need to give Thiel the space in the
opinion section to tell his story of the wages of recklessness.
You could get it directly from the Times' own reporters in the
news pages. "Gawker's take-no-prisoners approach has...been to its
detriment," the [39]business section reported. Gawker was, the
Styles section wrote, "a place where too many of the articles
published were [40]not only mean but inconsequential."

The message is that Gawker had this coming, that the site was --
to some degree, depending on how sympathetic the writer is trying
to pose as being -- responsible for its own downfall. By now it is
conventional wisdom. That conventional wisdom is false.

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
[41]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 [42]callously
crossing the line, and it ended up [43]settling a defamation

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 [44]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

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 [45]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.

Read wrote:

	We hadn't exposed any great hypocrisy; instead, we'd taken a bit
	of gossip and brought the full bludgeoning of moral urgency and
	ideological commitments to bear on it.

	Whatever we'd hoped to accomplish with that story, we instead
	reaffirmed the world's understanding of what we were: needlessly
	cruel. Within a week of publication, Nick was promising in
	interviews a "20 percent nicer" version of Gawker.

That's not false, on its own terms. When it gets to "the world's
understanding of what we were," though, it slides into the
shadows. The world's understanding was inescapably shaped by the
fact that we had a $100 million lawsuit closing in on us. The
Daily Dot,[46] in a roundup of Gawker's various misdeeds, wrote:

	Unlike the most recent case of Gawker's editorial staff ignoring
	their better judgement, many of these incidents surrounding the
	site rest on the belief that celebrities can hold no reasonable
	expectation of privacy -- an argument the site's lawyers are
	fighting for in court against a lawsuit levied by Hulk Hogan over
	a sex tape. The $100 million lawsuit is the most serious challenge
	faced by Gawker yet and, as Denton explained, might have helped
	cement his decision to remove the story

Elsewhere, the same piece argued:

	[L]arge chunks of Internet culture need to be cleansed of their
	filthier, less morally sound components if they can hope to
	survive at all. Gawker is no different.

Somehow, it had become the case that the world was discussing
whether a perennially profitable and growing publication could
"hope to survive at all." In one span of a little more than a
year, not very long ago, the New York Times mistakenly
[47]accepted (and [48]cheered for) a failed Venezuelan coup,
printed [49]falsehoods that helped carry the case for invading
Iraq, and saw its [50]top editors resign after a humiliating
plagiarism scandal. No one suggested the paper had signed its own
death warrant.

That the New York Times has the right to exist, to rise above its
failings, is taken for granted. No one would mistake the Times for
Gawker. At the party this month marking the end of Nick Denton's
ownership of Gawker -- and, though we did not quite know it then,
the end of Gawker.com -- a reporter for the Times, the one who
would file the story calling our work "mean" and
"inconsequential," dug into me. Why, he wanted to know, did it
seem that no one at Gawker was willing to admit any fault?

This was a stupid question, and I tried to tell him so as nicely
as I could. The fact of Thiel's campaign against Gawker made the
question stupid on two different levels. One of those levels was
simply practical: What the Hogan trial had demonstrated, and what
the other Thiel-backed lawsuits were affirming, was that Gawker's
culture of open dispute and self-criticism had become too
dangerous. Hostile lawyers were being paid to look for any
negative remark any of us might make, to read it into the record
against us.

But it was also stupid in its broad themes. The reason why nobody
at Gawker was counting up our sins as our doom descended was that
we had realized, belatedly, that the sins and the doom were
unconnected. We had reckoned deeply with our regrets and our
contradictions, and nothing about them began to add up to $140

Still, the Times reporter asked, what were my own regrets? I told
him, finally, that I had worked at Gawker Media for five years,
and that all I could say was that nothing in that time was as
shameful to me as a story the Times had put on its front page the
month before, [51]slanting the results of a study to argue that
police weren't really disproportionately killing black people. I
would have been ashamed, I said, if we had run that.

For any number of reasons, that quote didn't make it into the
story. The story was, by its own lights, a melancholy and nuanced
one, a portrait of the end of an era. It surveyed the history of
the company and the achievements of the people who've left it; it
concluded with a glimpse of tears in Nick Denton's eyes.

Again, none of that is why Gawker.com is shutting down tomorrow.
Here is the transcript that explains exactly why it is shutting
down. It is from a June 10 hearing in the Pinellas County Circuit
Court, in which Judge Pamela Campbell, speaking to Gawker's lawyer
Michael Berry, ordered Hogan be granted immediate access to the
company's assets:

	THE COURT: I'm signing the order today.

	MR. BERRY: Okay. Well, then what I'd like to do, Your Honor, is
	request a temporary stay to allow us to seek review of that order
	from the [District Court of Appeal]. We would ask for a temporary
	stay for a week so that we can file a motion with the DCA by
	Monday morning  --  by Monday, and provide plaintiff time to
	respond. We will ask for this order to be stayed from  --  for
	seven days from the entry of it.

	THE COURT: That will be denied.

	MR. BERRY: Can we ask for until 5:00 p.m. on Monday?

	THE COURT: No. Denied.

	MR. BERRY: To the end of the day today?


	MR. BERRY: Two hours?

	THE COURT: I mean, really, we're way beyond all that.


MR. BERRY: I just ask on behalf of the DCA to provide them the
courtesy that we are going to be moving for a stay for them and
would like time for the judges there to be able to rule on a
request for a stay.

THE COURT: Okay. Denied. I have denied the request.

At this point we had moved past anything having to do with what
Gawker did or what it was. We were past the spectacle of the Hogan
trial, a trial supposedly about an act of publication, in which
the judge had refused to allow the published material to be
considered in open court.

Gawker was simply a civil defendant, facing a judgment too large
to pay, after a plaintiff had structured the case so that
insurance would not help cover the damages. The company was asking
only to survive long enough to put the judgment before a higher
court, on appeal. This is, supposedly, how the system works.

Instead, there would be no chance to appeal before the company was
destroyed. Here was money talking, and nothing but money. The only
law was the judge.

It's a hard story for journalists to tell. Journalists are,
despite their political reputation, fundamentally conservative.
The only way to keep explaining what's happening in the world, day
after day, is to rely on some basic frames. Cause and effect have
to unfold within stable institutions, according to accepted rules.

A story that falls outside the everyday frames -- The mayor is a
crackhead who leaves a trail of violence where he goes, say, or
This beloved entertainer is accused of being a serial rapist --
requires a radical shift of perspective. Possibly the best and
truest part of the movie Spotlight was how much of the Boston
Globe's investigation into the Catholic Church's secret sexual
abuse came out of the Globe's own morgue. The paper had already
written the story, piece by piece. It just hadn't read it.

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.

Tom Scocca
scocca {AT} gawker.com
Executive features editor of Gawker Media


  38. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/16/opinion/peter-thiel-the-online-privacy-debate-wont-end-with-gawker.html

  39. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/17/business/media/gawker-sale.html

  40. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/14/fashion/gawker-last-party-bankruptcy-nick-denton.html

  41. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/26/world/from-the-editors-the-times-and-iraq.html

  42. http://gawker.com/5994999/is-the-new-york-post-edited-by-a-bigoted-drunk-who-fucks-pigs

  43. http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/new-york-post-settles-lawsuit-bag-men-cover-article-1.1960843

  44. http://gawker.com/335894/peter-thiel-is-totally-gay-people

  45. http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/08/did-i-kill-gawker.html

  46. http://www.dailydot.com/via/gawker-media-outing-company-ethics/

  47. http://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/13/world/uprising-venezuela-government-venezuela-s-chief-forced-resign-civilian-installed.html

  48. http://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/13/opinion/hugo-chavez-departs.html

  49. http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/08/world/threats-responses-iraqis-us-says-hussein-intensifies-quest-for-bomb-parts.html?pagewanted=all

  50. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/05/national/executive-editor-of-the-times-and-top-deputy-step-down-2003060591023622762.html

  51. http://newsdiffs.org/diff/1202848/1202959/www.nytimes.com/2016/07/12/upshot/surprising-new-evidence-shows-bias-in-police-use-of-force-but-not-in-shootings.html

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