In the next few weeks, in a courtroom very far from Manhattan, a somber judge will call his court to order and render judgment on a group of reporters whose almost unfathomable recklessness and self-absorption has hurt countless people over the years. If there is such thing as fairness and justice in this world, hopefully we’ll hear something like the following words come from the bench:
“I do not know how, or under what circumstances the four of you found each other, but your callous indifference and utter disregard for everything that is good and decent has rocked the very foundation upon which our society is built. I can think of nothing more fitting than for the four of you to spend a year removed from society so that you can contemplate the manner in which you have conducted yourselves.”
Of course, those are actually the words uttered by Judge Vandelay from the classic series finale of Seinfeld. But could there be a more appropriate judgment for the selfish and reckless scribblers at Gawker who now await the outcome of a $100 million dollar lawsuit? Could there be a more fitting end for these young Manhattanites than an absurd, unexpected trial that parades their endless misdeeds in front of a diverse and varied collection of victims who have rightfully pined for their downfall?
If you don’t follow media too closely, you might not know what I’m talking about. Or you might be unsure why so many people have strong feelings about a collection of websites that cover video games, celebrity gossip and feminism (or why I might have ranted about them in past columns).
Let me explain. First off, very briefly, Gawker is being sued by Terry Bollea, better known as Hulk Hogan, for publishing a sex tape (along with commentary that ruthlessly mocked him) of him sleeping with the wife of a friend in an open relationship, which was recorded without his knowledge. Gawker has tried to claim that the tape was newsworthy because Hogan is famous and has talked about his sex life in public before.
I do not pretend to be a legal scholar or to know how the court will ultimately rule. But as a media critic and a human being, I can say with confidence that this is an utterly preposterous argument. Would this mean that the stolen peephole footage of Erin Andrews in her hotel room would have been newsworthy if she’d once had a racy interview on Howard Stern or posed in provocative photographs? Or that stolen footage of Sasha Grey would be fair game because she worked in the sex industry?
Regardless of the outcome of this case, the facts of the trial have revealed without a shadow of a doubt the depravity and avarice that have long driven the Gawker and its sister sites since their creation by Nick Denton in 2003. Over the last few months, and now on videotape in front of stunned jurors and spectators, we’re finally able to see it for ourselves. What critics could only begin to try to explain to the public has finally been laid bare: the Gawker Media Empire is rotten with a deep and cancerous sociopathy…and always has been.
You don’t have to take my word for it—their own words will do. During a taped deposition prior to the trial, Gawker’s former editor A.J. Daulerio was asked whether it was correct to say that any consideration of the human being on the other end of his story never entered his mind. His reply: “Correct.” Asked, point blank by the lawyer, “Had you known that Hulk Hogan would be emotionally distressed by this publication, you would have still published it, correct?” He replied simply, “Sure, yes” and later, on the stand, claimed that caring about stuff like that was “not his job.” Asked whether he even cared when he posted it if it was actually Hogan in the blurry tape which he had blasted out to the world, Mr. Daulerio admitted that no, he did not.
If you can believe it, that’s just the mild stuff.
In another instance, when asked during the trial whether there were any celebrity sex tapes he would not consider newsworthy, Mr. Daulerio replied that he might make an exception “if it were a child.” Under what age? 4. That’s right, Gawker’s former editor claims he only draws the line at the rape of a four year old.
He was joking, he later claimed. Except in practice and in real life, Mr. Daulerio (and the Gawker legal team) apparently don’t immediately draw the line for other possible cases of rape. Because in another instance, when the video of a purported rape had been posted on the site, Gawker’s editors responded to pleas from the victim by saying “Blah, blah blah” and Mr. Daulerio refused to delete the post (until the decision was later reversed).
This really happened. An adult editor responsible for a site that draws over 37 million visitors a month considered this appropriate behavior. Asked about it under oath, when he had every incentive and motivation to present himself as positively as possible, he couldn’t even be bothered to defend himself! There are murderers and terrorists who manage to fake basic interpersonal skills under questioning better than that.
Worse, the rest of his colleagues at the site think there is so little wrong with all this that they have been posting a livestream of the trial on their site.
Then again, look at some of his peers’ infractions against human decency: Gawker has posted stolen nude photographs of female celebrities (while simultaneously running a feminist site that supposedly cares about women), published utterly untrue gossip and lies (while regularly criticizing politicians and companies who are less than honest), sheltered millions in offshore tax havens (while criticizing people who do the same), used stolen property and ill-gotten information from criminals as the basis for their reporting, and of course, regularly exploited and profited off audiences of all types as one of the internet’s foremost purveyors of outrage porn. That doesn’t even get into the fact that earlier this year, the site’s editors staged a walkout when a post that outed a gay man with a wife and children was pulled by the site’s editorial council. (The source? The prostitute who was extorting him.) They weren’t protesting that the story ran—no, they were protesting in support of the story.
How does something like this happen? How could one site become the source of so much awfulness?
First, I think it’s time we step back and realize that it’s not just Gawker that is on trial here, but all of their sensationalistic, pageview driven ilk. Gawker is the worst among many, but only by degree.
As for how this all came to be, here’s an explanation: I once heard about the violent rise and collapse of Napoleon explained as “a French Civil War directed outwards at the rest of Europe.” In many ways, this is also the story of Gawker and the rise of our parasitic media. A collection of individuals with deep dysfunction spewed out at the world with venom and hatred.
We call it “online journalism” but it’s really a collection of children pretending to be adults, thinking the rest of the world lives behind computer screens as they do, forgetting that other people are human beings with feelings, with families and issues. I spoke with an editor of another large media site last week who speculated that the root of the problem was the “pornographic stereotyping” inherent in the style of writing that Gawker has pioneered (though is no longer unique in propagating).
Not only has that style naturally attracted a certain frustration that many of us feel when we’re young, but it ossified it in the people who trafficked in it everyday. In the way that resentful young men become pick-up artists, others become gossip bloggers. And it really is a twisted game to these people.
A long time ago, a client and a friend were both subjects of some inaccurate speculation in a Gawker story. One of them emailed Mr. Daulerio to deny it and was told by a surprisingly honest Mr. Daulerio that he “could give a fuck” about the actual truth of the story—and that my client and friend were welcome to cover their asses how they liked. And then he dropped a line that now drips with irony considering how things have ended up. “I don’t know, man,“ he said, “It’s all professional wrestling.”
Doesn’t that sum it up well? Because this is not professional wrestling. These are real people they write about…even when they happen to be professional wrestlers.
Gawker is the clearest modern example of the slow rot of bad principles and bad culture. But they are not alone. Across the media, we have broken editors training broken writers until those writers become the new editors and the old ones leave to go start new sites. I wrote recently about the sub-primitization of the media system; I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that a big part of that toxicity has come from the revolving door of Gawker, with many of its former editors having gone on to form new sites and transform existing ones (and often failing to be able to work with others at those new jobs and later crawling back to Gawker).
Media, like any industry, is a product of its internal culture and incentives. As Bill Walsh once put it, the tendency for individuals is to seek lower ground, like water. Well, in the case of Gawker, that was not only tolerated, it was incentivized—fame and notoriety awaited those willing to stoop to levels where others were reticent to go.
This may feel very abstract to those of you who don’t follow media closely, so let me bring it closer to home: Imagine that you are hired to write for a website. You’re not required to have any serious expertise in the topics you write about, you’re underpaid and living in one of the most expensive cities in the world (yet the dangle of real bonus exists in the form of pageview bonuses), you’re surrounded by older, jaded writers, you churn out posts about people and topics that, at best you are disinterested in, and at worst you disdain, while being told that, in Mr. Daulerio’s words, “the whole point of publishing is to bring traffic.” Is it any surprise that over time, you’d become jaded and harsh yourself? How hard must it become to respect the humanity of others when your own humanity is exploited and suppressed? Wouldn’t you rage too?
Repeatedly through the trial and in past interviews, Gawker’s founder Nick Denton has explained his deep-seated belief in the freedom of speech, claiming to be driven not by money but by a search for the unvarnished truth. Perhaps he really believes that, but for the cynic in me it calls to mind Goethe’s dictum that “none clamor for freedom of the press except those who want to misuse it.” To be fair, Gawker has found a not insignificant amount of truth in its years of journalistic searching. The problem, fittingly enough, is that they have been the one to strip the varnish of civility and decency from those truths, precisely because that is where the money is.
Surely the last year has revealed to Mr. Denton that truth and freedom mean almost nothing inside the company he has created, and that “journalism” was the last of his writers’ considerations. How could it not be? The only thing they think of is themselves, clearly the only thing that motivates is a perverse pleasure in inflicting hurt on other people; in ‘negging’ them, in the language of their spiritual brethren in the pick-up artist community.
Which is why so much of what they have written over the years so clearly fits the malice standard of our libel laws. I believe that Donald Trump is a bigot and when he said a few weeks ago that he would “open up our libel laws” so he could go after journalists, I was appalled. The freedom of our press is sacred.
Except Gawker has repeatedly violated every one of the considerations that we’ve held to be part of the journalistic bargain. In fact, they have a lot more in common with Mr. Trump’s bullying than they do with the kind of civic right that deserves protection. He’s not totally wrong—there are horrible “journalists” out there and actions should have consequences.
Yet it’s really saying something when one finds himself rooting for a less generous interpretation of the First Amendment so that justice can be done. It’s really saying something when the state of media has gotten so awful that you find yourself rooting for a professional wrestler with children who hooked up with his friend’s wife instead of the press.
But here we are. Down in the gutter with the people who helped bring our culture there.
It’s time to finish them off. If the jury won’t do it, then audiences certainly can.
Do not let them reinvent themselves. Do not let them pivot from gossip into politics as they have attempted to do in recent months. Do not share their links or engage in their exploitation. Do not celebrate a victory in court if they get one—that will be the public’s victory and not one the exploiters who abuse that privilege.
Let them and all the sites like them collapse under the weight of their own toxicity. Let one of the worst eras in the history of media come to a close. And whatever the outcome is, when these types of writers ask to be let into the fold, ask for jobs or ask for a second chance, reply as Sherman did to a banished, dishonest reporter who asked when he would be allowed back into camp, “as a representative of the press which…makes so slight a difference between the truth and falsehood, my answer is: Never.”
Goodbye Gawker and good riddance.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that Mr. Daulerio told a potential rape victim “blah blah blah;” in fact that was an internal communication. Mr. Daulerio did tell the victim to “not make a big deal out of this.”
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.