By Taylor Smith
You’ve probably read that Gawker Media is putting itself up for sale after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and Ziff Davis is the current frontrunner to take over the corporation. The valuation will take a hit, as founder Nick Denton wrote, but Gawker.com as we know it, along with all of its saucy sister sites, will probably survive. But the questions raised by this whirlwind controversy linger.
While there were concerns surrounding the dangerous precedent a ruling in Hogan’s favor could set, a ruling in a lower court — the case, officially called Bollea v. Gawker, was heard in the Circuit Court of the Sixth Judicial Circuit of Florida — does not set binding legal precedent. As long as Gawker’s appeal is still pending, any future implications are hypothetical. In the meantime, there is still plenty for readers to chew on.
Gawker’s editorial future, of most concern to readers, remains hazy. Despite continuous coverage of their own lawsuit this time, they have backed down in the face of controversy before: after the infamously retracted post outing a Condé Nast executive, Denton held a meeting announcing his aim to pivot to “20 percent nicer” content. But he appears confident in the stability of Gawker’s brand under Ziff Davis, (and has reason to: chances are good that Denton will net tens of millions of dollars from the sale to Ziff) and the terms of his bankruptcy filing allow him to pull out of the sale should an appeals victory drastically change their financial circumstances.
Should Denton — who’s reportedly arranged to stay on as a consultant should Ziff Davis win the auction as expected — be proven right about Gawker’s value, one questions looms for media junkies: Should we still read Gawker?
At the center of this question are issues of free press and privacy. Bollea v. Gawker provides imperfect examples for championing either issue; it remains to be seen if the sex tape (the privacy issue) was newsworthy (the legal standard).
Over the years I’ve followed a number of Gawker blogs with some regularity, from Jezebel to Deadspin to its flagship publication, cringing as they continued to waver between noble muckraking and extremely poor taste in their truth-telling mission, occasionally veering off into the realm of the indisputably terrible. Despite my guilty fondness for their no holds-barred attitude, getting down to brass tacks, I had to agree with the grounds for Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit and thought it right that he won (though certainly not that he won that much).
Regardless of your thoughts on the Hulk’s exploits and, um, worldview, a washed-up WWE star’s sex tape was not exactly newsworthy and its publication was certainly not necessary. That said, publishing it wasn’t quite illegal, either: Hogan’s candid public persona would suggest that the release of his tape to be both inoffensive to him and of some legitimate public interest, and therefore protected under the First Amendment. Throw in the surprising reveal that the suit was bankrolled by Peter Thiel, the tech billionaire with his own vendetta, and the Hulk’s case raises more than a few red flags in terms of free press.
But unfortunately, as the New York Times’ Katie Benner discussed in her recent appearance on This Week in Startups, it is precisely these murky, no-winner cases that we must use to fight for free press. Debates surrounding First Amendment freedoms typically devolve into defenses of silly and even base forms of speech. Citing a recent speech delivered by Bezos, Benner said that in order to keep our democracy functioning, “We have to protect ugly speech, not beautiful speech.” In other words, we have to protect the Gawkers of the world to preserve the New York Times.
The challenge for readers is just what form that defense should take. Gawker media has come to represent one of the strongest interpretations of editorial freedom for the slightly left of center; however, the careless way in which this freedom is often handled makes it a tough pill to swallow, and calls into question one’s own personal morals as a reader and a consumer of media — do you want your traffic and your dollars benefitting random takedowns and the outing of figures both public and relatively private?
Hoping thoughts from other young media consumers would help enlighten me, I took to wandering through lower Manhattan and spamming my friends and coworkers. And… no one really cared. Or rather, no one really knew enough to care. Most twenty-somethings I spoke with read Gawker infrequently if at all, and were largely unfamiliar with Bollea v. Gawker and Peter Thiel’s vendetta. And yet across the board, when I asked people if their own perception of a media’s company’s ethics affected their willingness to read its content, the answer was a resounding yes — a trend that reaffirmed to me the significance of these events. And instinctually, their answers feel right to me. But should they? Should I feel guilty for being entertained by the questionable ramblings of a site that I believe takes freedom of the press too far, or should I purge it from my information diet in the name of principle?
The problem is, boycotting in general is a slippery slope — if you dig hard enough, you’ll find dirt on any corporation. It’s especially easier said than done, and especially risky, with media. No company is perfect, and even bastions of old media have their fair share of PR snafus. Media is designed to inform, yes, but also to provoke thought and argument. With one pointless, baffling post about a wrestler’s sex tape, Gawker achieved that and then some.
In general, I find the notion that someone loud, brash, and often offensive can be pardoned by the fact that they “make you think” elicits an eye roll, but I think the argument holds some water here. Gawker may be problematic, but whether they’re attacking big names or blundering themselves, they produce media that makes you think about media — an important part of consumption that’s often overlooked, but should not be eliminated in the face of opposition from excessive money and ego. For that, I’m glad it exists and is poised to continue. And for that, I suppose I’ll keep reading.
Editor’s Note: On August 16, 2016, Gawker Media was sold to Univision. The company’s flagship site, Gawker.com, ended operations on August 22.
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