The Warning Signs In Gawker’s Shutdown

Upset a rich man, get shut down. What can we take away from the Gawker episode?

ByMadhu Trehan
The Warning Signs In Gawker’s Shutdown
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On 17 January 1998, at 21:32:02 (PST), Matt Drudge posted his ticket to fame: “Newsweek kills story on White House intern”. This was the clear differential between old journalism and cyber journalism. Newsweek sat on it because they wanted to confirm with Monica Lewinsky that it was her voice on the tapes. According to the tenets of journalism, they would want to get the other side of the story, but could Newsweek reporter Michael Issikoff actually call the White House and expect ‘their side of the story’? Drudge Report didn’t wait for all that. Cyber journalism has turned the old rulebook on its head.

Yesterday, Nick Denton, founder of the media watch website Gawker, posted an obituary for his site. It’s not just a blow to American media, but a moment that demands everyone in the cyber journalism space realise the Internet is no longer the free space that it was; that it’s a place where journalists must tread with caution and legal safeguards in place.  

On the face of it, if you just go by the headlines, the common reaction to a Silicon Valley billionaire successfully closing down a media watch website like Gawker out of revenge would be – this is not good for journalism and freedom of speech.  Yet, Gawker and its owner Nick Denton has not got the support from the American media as one would expect. At best, it is divided. Why? Because it boils down to the fact that Americans are as rabid about invasion of privacy as they are about freedom of speech. 

Privacy has a whole different value in America than in India, where we take a certain amount of self-censorship for granted. In April 2012, Gawker uploaded a video of former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan (his real name is Terry Gene Bollea) having sex with his friend Bubba the Love Sponge’s (yes, that’s his name) wife. No one thought this would bring the website down.

No one other than Peter Thiel, that is. Five years ago, in December 2007, Gawker had outed Peter Thiel, venture capitalist and hedge fund manager, as gay. Thiel has co-founded PayPal, Palantir and has a 10 per cent stake in Facebook. Forbes’s Midas list of 2014 ranked him fourth with a net worth of $2.2 billion. He made a formidable enemy, as Gawker realised when he grabbed his chance to settle scores with Gawker and funded Hogan’s case against the website. In 2015, in a trial court, Hogan had asked the court to order Gawker to remove his sex tape from the website. The trial court judge refused, saying it would be “an unconstitutional prior restraint”

But Hogan and Thiel did not give up. Filing appeal after appeal, on March 18, 2016, the jury delivered a verdict in favour of Hogan and awarded him a total of $140.1 million. Gawker appealed saying they could not afford the amount and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on June 10, 2016. Univision Communications bought Gawker Media’s assets for $135 million at a bankruptcy auction on August 16.

Timothy Lee’s article in Vox shows why it’s difficult to support Gawker unconditionally.

“In court, Hogan’s lawyers sought to portray Gawker as an organization without a moral compass. It wasn’t a hard argument to make. During one deposition, Hogan’s lawyers asked a former Gawker editor if there were any situation in which a celebrity sex tape would not be newsworthy.

“If they were a child,” replied the editor, Albert Daulerio.

“Under what age?” the lawyer asked.

“Four,” Daulerio replied sarcastically.

As a result, arguments about media freedom fell on deaf ears in the jury box. Jurors didn’t buy arguments that the First Amendment protected Gawker’s right to humiliate random celebrities by publishing videos of their most intimate moments. … But the threat to freedom of the press is obvious. Any news organization doing its job is going to make some enemies. If a wealthy third party is willing to bankroll lawsuits by anyone with a grudge, and defending each case costs millions of dollars, the organization could get driven out of business even if it wins every single lawsuit.”

As Justin Peters wrote in Slate, Thiel’s decision to go after Gawker is worrying for independent media.

“But it takes a special kind of vindictiveness to devise a long-term scheme to punish a news outlet, pursue the scheme in secret through the courts, and then appear proud of one’s actions once exposed. Thiel’s lawsuit-funding will have a chilling effect on journalists and journalism, not least by asserting the power of the richest and least accountable among us to define what constitutes acceptable discourse and to punish those who violate these arbitrary standards. That’s something none of us should tolerate.”

There is no doubt that it is just plain creepy that a billionaire can go after and close down a website because of personal hurt. The setting of precedence must unnerve journalists. Why is the media divided on this issue and why has Gawker not received unequivocal support from its own tribe?

Because there’s still a tussle about one central question: Is Gawker journalism? Can headlines such as: “We Refuse to Admit Lady Gaga Has a Vagina” qualify as journalism in public interest? Although there were more than enough political stories on Gawker that would be considered journalism, there was an unequivocal bias towards clickbait and sex sensationalism. Ironically, one story that Gawker did take down was on a married man with three children – Condé Nast’s financial officer David Geithner, who arranged a gay liaison with a male porn star. The meeting never took place after the CFO realised he was getting involved with a man who knew of him and was asking for strings to be pulled in a court case he was fighting. Denton pulled off the story when advertisers threatened to withdraw advertising.

How much is the public entitled to know? In India, we have had fewer sex scandals than the United Kingdom and America. Abhishek Singhvi survived his tryst with his precarious destiny with a woman whose life remains destroyed. Indian journalists have known throughout history the sexual shenanigans of those in power, but rarely has it been written about. Those who do expose it, get more shame and are called sleaze bags than those they are trying to shame. Atal Bihari Vajpayee set the tone early in the game when he said to a journalist, “Ask me anything about my politics but I will not answer anything about my private life”.

Fair enough. If a politician is not sleeping with a Pakistani spy why, indeed, should we care? As we all know, an important Congress leader openly enjoys a relationship with a former Pakistani journalist, but it’s not been treated as a scandal.

A billionaire shutting down a website in a move triggered by vendetta sends shivers down journalists’ spines. Billionaires if not millionaires own most large news organisations in India. The richest man in India owns all of Network 18, all its publications, channels and affiliates. Mukesh Ambani also has substantial shares in competing news outfits.

If a journalist wants to put bread on his table and support their family in India, they know a large dose of self-censorship is required. Stories that may damage the corporate class and business interests will not be entertained. The nexus amongst corporates-business-news organisations is deeply entrenched. An omertà and status quo is maintained. The reading and watching public has yet to catch on to the healthy scepticism they must now inculcate in their absorption of news. Fans of Arnab Goswami (and, I do believe Arnab deserves a fan following even though I disagree sometimes with what he does) seem to be oblivious to the fact that Goswami works for an organisation that is proud to have invented Paid News. Vineet Jain has blithely said, “I’m not in the business of news. I’m in the business of advertising”. Well, please excuse us Vineet, for news getting in the way of your business.

This only increases the importance of the public becoming discerning and supporting independent media outfits. Ramnath Goenka was able to fight Indira Gandhi’s government because along with a determined belief in the freedom of the press, he had deep pockets. Today, a small news outfit can be obliterated by a more powerful entity. This is more difficult if the public at large supports the news outfit. Gawker‘s downfall was that it did not have the full support of the media or the public. It did not garner respect in traditional journalistic circles, but had the support of web journalists. With the Internet giving writers the freedom to insert salacious gossip without the usual checks and controls, those who value old style good journalism find it difficult to support Gawker

In India, going after journalists who were and are not favourably inclined to the government in power or a business house, has always been executed subtly, without leaving any footprints. The journalist is fired and the owner smiles helplessly. In 2002, Punjab Kesri fired Virender Kapoor at the behest of Amar Singh, who also filed a criminal case of defamation against the publisher and journalist. Rather naïvely, I intervened to get Kapoor reinstated and told Kapoor, Amar Singh doesn’t want an apology and he just wants you to have tea with him. Kapoor told me to tell Amar Singh to go fly a kite, in Hindi swear words. While the public at large calls journalists “presstitutes” with impunity, the stories of journalists such as Virender Kapoor fighting back rarely see the light of exposure. 

The fault lines for Gawker‘s case was divided between the complete freedom of the media to report versus an individual’s right to privacy. In this case, the American court has shown it values the individual’s privacy more. The question to answer is that whilst believing in freedom of expression, should journalists also be respectful of the individual’s right to not expose his private life, specially if he is not holding any public office? Where is the Lakshman rekha drawn between freedom of the media and publishing a personal story that destroys someone’s life and is of only prurient value to the public?  

Is Gawker’s case a warning to journalists worldwide and should we be scared? I do not believe so. Bona fide news organisations do have enough editors who will raise moral, ethical questions and ask for sources about every story that passes their desk. But, sadly, this case also points out that the power of money can bring a website to its knees.

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