The news and gossip site Gawker has been shut down. But on its last day of existence, writer Tom Scocca made clear that he didn’t really understand how and why it had happened.
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 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.”
And in so writing, Scocca demonstrated that he — and quite likely most of his erstwhile co-workers — never understood the Spider-Man Axiom of Investigative Reporting: With great power comes great responsibility.
When you undertake to publish negative information about someone, both law and ethics dictate that a number of conditions apply: That the material be true. That it be of legitimate public interest. That the benefit to the public outweigh the harm caused by publishing it. And on and on. And Scocca needs to get over himself, because the fact of the matter is that Gawker, for all its legitimate iconoclasm, flouted those principles repeatedly.
That doesn’t mean that Silicon Valley billionaires with grudges should be allowed to bankrupt news organizations at will. They shouldn’t. And pretty much every state in the union could use stronger anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) protections to ensure that true but unflattering information about individuals and organizations that control significant parts of our society can be published without legal or financial penalty.
But news outlets, I would argue, have an obligation to publish damaging information for the benefit of the public, not for the public’s titillation alone. That’s where Gawker screwed up, and not just in the case of the Hulk Hogan sex tape. Yeah, that was the wrong hill to die on, but Gawker had published many other stories into which Peter Thiel could just as easily have gotten involved, with the same result.
Scocca wrote, “Lawsuits and settlements happen to everyone, and everyone carries insurance to handle them.” Well, no, lawsuits and settlements do NOT happen to everyone. Plenty of investigative reporters complete full and rewarding careers without ever having been sued, not because they were timid but because their reporting was so goddamned bulletproof that no plaintiff’s attorney would be so foolish as to even take the case. In a 25-year journalism career I was threatened with lawsuits over at least a half a dozen stories, but I was never sued, and I’m far from atypical.
As I noted a few days ago on Facebook, I need a word that means I am appalled by what Peter Thiel did in funding the Hogan lawsuit against Gawker, without supporting everything that Gawker ever has done. I said there’s probably no such word in English, that it probably exists in German but has something like 17 syllables.
Gawker as an institution deliberately blurred the lines between news and gossip and made a lot of money doing so for a long time. But in the end, both law and karma bit it in the ass. (FWIW, invasion of privacy for publication of true but unflattering information hasn’t been a tort claim in North Carolina since the Great Depression, according to my last conversation on the subject with the News & Record’s Smith Moore lawyers more than a decade ago.)
I’m under no illusions. I know goddamned well that, emboldened by the outcome of the Gawker case, Thiel, or someone like him, not only can but will go after some other news outlet that has published nothing but legitimate news and will try to bankrupt it. That very thing happened recently with Mother Jones magazine, which won a lawsuit it had virtually no chance of losing but at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But investigative reporting can be a devastating weapon that can ruin people’s lives. It must be used carefully, ethically, and always with the public good in mind. To do otherwise is bullying or worse, and makes it harder for those involved in legitimate, ethical investigative reporting to do their jobs.
I’m sorry Gawker is gone, and I don’t for one second underestimate the threat that Peter Thiel and billionaires like him pose to free and independent discourse, and thus to self-government, in this country. But when you go after a target, your heart needs to be pure and your skirts clean. Gawker thought that sentiment too precious, and Gawker will cease to exist after today in significant part because it thought that way.