Within moments of it going live, I got an email from Gawker’s founder and publisher Nick Denton asking what I meant.
For the owner of a site that regularly says horrible things about people for no reason but the fun of it, it was a rather unexpected display of sensitivity. Not sensitivity to the plight or emotional well-being of his writer of course (god forbid), but to the slight about his company. It was as if he was surprised that his little island of misfit toys might be seen as anything but a desirable place to work.
This realization has been slow in coming until now it seems, not just for him but for everyone — both for people who work there and for the public at large. Especially for the latter, if the reaction to last week’s incident in which a Gawker reporter senselessly outed a married man for possibly trying to hire a gay prostitute who then appeared to attempt to extort him. The public response was swift and decisive, characterized as much by its surprise as by its anger.
How could they do this? Who would do that to an unknown guy with three children? How is this anyone’s business?
I was not surprised. No one should have been. Because what may have seemed like a shocking new low was really just the inevitable trajectory of one of the most toxic cultures in all of media. It was the natural extension of a media empire with an editorial mission that owes far more allegiance to bullying and bitterness than it does to accuracy or ethics. This most recent scandal—which seems to have suddenly woken up the general public—is not an anomaly. It’s exactly what you get when you mix bad leadership, bad incentives, and selfish, self-loathing people.
Just look for a second at some of Gawker’s biggest stories over the years. There was the time they stole an iPhone prototype and nearly faced criminal prosecution for it. There was the time they ran private nude photos of quarterback Brett Favre to his objections and the objections of the recipient. There was the nude video of Dov Charney. There was the time they published an anonymous source’s recounting of a supposed one night stand by a female Senate candidate. There was the time they ran humiliating commentary against stolen footage of a sex tape featuring Hulk Hogan.
And then, to think, this is the same site that sanctimoniously lectures other outlets and readers for sexism, for not respecting privacy, for misogyny, for publishing leaked celebrity nudes and on and on .
This is a media company that has criticized politicians and businesses for their lack of financial transparency while it is itself registered in the Cayman Islands. This is a company that has mocked other media outlets for unpaid internships even while abusing that same practice itself. This is a company that has repeatedly raged against the inequities of New York real estate, but its new headquarters (in a building with bank offices and credit card companies and a Lululemon store) has a special entrance for its writers so they don’t have to mix with regular folk. This is a company that criticizes ethics and conflicts of interest in other industries, all while pioneering a pay-for-pageview model that adds a financial motive to every story written by every single one of their writers. This is a site that claims that all that matters is the truth — whose editors once publicly admitted that if they only published true stories, traffic would plummet. It’s a site that fearlessly exposes the crimes of minor celebrities and non-public people, but when one of its own editors was accused of domestic violence, refused to write about it with an argument that essentially boiled down to ‘But he’s our friend!’ And this is a company whose writers mocked its competitors for quietly removing silly little articles but then, when facing a shitstorm of its own creation this week, voted to ‘delete’ an article whose damage they know damn well can never be undone.
All of this and I haven’t even bothered to get into the daily pandering, trolling, snarkiness, inhumanity, shoddy sourcing, outrage porn and relentless negativity their sites all pump out each day (except Lifehacker — Lifehacker has always been good).
So you don’t get to be shocked — especially you media folks who have bookmarked it, encouraged it, linked to it, profiled it and gawked with it. This is what they do. This is who they are. It always has been.
Hypocrisy is too weak a word when it comes to Gawker. It is instead an indisputable pattern of malice and mendacity almost without parallel in the history of media. It is essentially a twelve-year spree of destruction, pain and waste. The sole purpose of the entire repugnant edifice has been to make a single owner fabulously rich and a revolving door of mediocre writers feel important and powerful.
That’s not to say that Nick is himself a mean person. We’ve met at a few parties and had lunch. He was always polite, interesting and surprisingly tolerant of my frequent criticisms and exposés of his company’s mistakes. He is married now and in what appears to be a happy, normal relationship. Removed from their articles or social media, the writers I’ve met have also been nice and sincere (especially the ex-writers). But ultimately, you have to judge people on what they do, on their impact on the world and other people, not what they say they meant or intended. A drunk driver doesn’t mean to run a stop sign and kill a family of four. Still, there are the dead bodies to reckon with.
And that’s the real problem. The fiction that these stories happen in a vacuum. That they aren’t about, that they aren’t inflicted on real people (even if those people are rich or annoying or guilty of various sins), that this is all fun time and that everyone else has to suffer but them. It’s a problem best illustrated in a stunning occasion by Nick Denton’s own former editorial director, “For someone who trades in bravado, Nick Denton is, perversely, a coward.” (Though posting that in a comments section is hardly brave, whereas Nick’s decision to allow it to stay up was.)
We’ve allowed this cowardice — which apparently rotted from the head down — to go unchallenged because the sites are occasionally funny, because we like to laugh at other people too, because we didn’t want to find ourselves in the cross hairs. It’s a weak justification.
The only solace to take here is that the deranged and dysfunctional experiment might be finally coming apart. Hulk Hogan’s $100 million lawsuit against Gawker could potentially bankrupt the company. It’s already cost it millions in legal fees. Claims from ex-employees and editors paint a picture of a site without leadership, and with such poor technical vision that it’s spent tens of millions of dollars it doesn’t have on its only moderately successful Kinja platform. Not only that, but Gawker has been surpassed in traffic by competitors like Buzzfeed, partly because its bullying tactics are increasingly falling out of favor with readers.
There is a line in Letters from a Stoic by the Roman philosopher Seneca, where Seneca urges his friend to find an upstanding moral model to base his life on. Because without such a ruler, he says, “you can’t make crooked straight.”
Perhaps that fatal flaw has been inside Gawker from the beginning. Its purpose wasn’t ethical, it wasn’t even just financial (otherwise, the business would have sold a long time ago), but it was always selfish and always self-loathing. It was about being the center of attention, commanding fear and disrupting lives.
No wonder it’s lost its bearings. No wonder Gawker crosses the line. They have no idea where it is.
Nothing makes that clearer than this most recent story. First, the writer — with seemingly little oversight — publishes a vindictive, dangerous piece without any consideration of its impact. Then, with the site reaping an immediate and by all accounts unexpected blowback, decides by committee that it should probably make the unprecedented decision to apologize and remove the article. Somehow, they think that this will placate the public — which it does not but at least takes a step in the right direction. But then, not to be outdone, the newly unionized but laughably tone deaf writers at Gawker respond by publicly questioning the ethics of deleting the story and defending the story on Gawker.com. [Edit: Then after the original publication of this piece, two of the sites’ lead editors resigned on principle in support of the post that they had greenlit.]
In other words, the site is tearing itself apart. Or maybe, a better image is that old legend about a scorpion surrounded by fire, stinging itself to death.
And that, by the way, is the only solution here. It’s not — as one idiot suggested — to attack or shame the writers. It’s not for other outlets to become more like them.
It’s to let them destroy themselves from the inside out.
Because God, I hope they do. I hope it hurts too.
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and two other books. He is an editor-at-large for the New York Observer and his monthly reading recommendations are found here. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.