The Biggest Media Stories of 2016, From Fake News to Gawker’s Fall

This is the first story in a two-part series about the complications of Facebook's unique media impact. Facebook has titanic media power. The only thing that matches that influence may be the company's denial it exists. The US election crystallized the stakes. There are a myriad of reasons behind the voting decisions of millions of people, and the world's biggest social network says its role is getting overblown. "The idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way, I think is a pretty crazy idea," Mark Zuckerberg said last month.

This was the year that the media itself became the story.

In 2016 more than at any other time in recent memory, goings-on in the media world were the subject of water cooler conversation, for better (the great reporting done by many news outlets) and for worse (the epidemic of “fake news” and the demise of several online media companies and beloved websites).

The Race for the White House

Much of the year’s biggest media news was connected to the year’s biggest story in general, the presidential election. While the consensus among voters was that journalists were biased against eventual President-elect Donald Trump, there was still great, hard hitting analysis of both candidates before and after the election. Here are just a few of the best stories:

  • David Fahrenthold’s shoe-leather reporting about the Trump Foundation’s philanthropy (or lack thereof) in The Washington Post (which is also the new home of former New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan).
  • CBS News (and soon New York Times) reporter Sopan Deb’s Twitter catalog of Trump interview transcripts and fact checks.
  • New York Times analysis of the $2 billion worth of free media given to Trump throughout the campaign.
  • Edward-Isaac Dovere’s maddening Politico account of how Hillary Clinton prized data over on the ground intel, which may have cost her the election.
  • Lauren Duca’s passionate post-election op-ed in Teen Vogue about how “Donald Trump is gaslighting America.”
  • An astute election postmortem from the Observer’s Will Bredderman, in which he asked “What the hell just happened?”

This was also an election in which journalists had to worry about their own safety, both online and in person—many Jewish reporters were harassed by anti-Semitic Twitter trolls throughout the presidential campaign, and in March then-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski (who later became a CNN contributor until Trump won the election) was charged with battery against Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields (the charges were dropped, and Fields moved to The Huffington Post).

But of course, the biggest journalistic factor in the presidential election (which some analysts believe helped Trump win the race) wasn’t even journalism at all: it was fake news. The spread of stories about Clinton running a child sex ring out of a pizzeria or paid protesters at Trump rallies led some voters to have a skewed view of the candidates—it also renewed scrutiny of Facebook, which this year had to deal with both the fake news problem and the revelation that the site’s curators suppressed conservative news.

The fake news epidemic almost led to tragedy when a man fired an assault rifle inside the restaurant at the center of the alleged Clinton sex ring. Several companies unveiled Chrome extensions meant to stop the spread of these false articles, but thus far they have had little effect.

Hulk Smash (Gawker)

Another of 2016’s big media stories, however, could have a chilling effect on coverage of public figures. One of our reporters journeyed to Miami in March to see wrestler Hulk Hogan face off with attorneys for Gawker. Hogan sued the website for $100 million over a 2012 post featuring an edited video of the wrestler having sex with the ex-wife of his former friend, radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem. The sex tape was allegedly filmed without Hogan’s knowledge. It sounded like something out of Playboy (except Playboy doesn’t feature nudes anymore).

Hulk Hogan, with help from Peter Thiel, won his lawsuit against Gawker.
Hulk Hogan, with help from Peter Thiel, won his lawsuit against Gawker. Tampa Bay Times/Pool

The trial was filled with tawdry details about the size of Hogan’s penis. It also featured a crash course in New York media and Poynter-style testimony from a Florida journalism professor who claimed Gawker’s actions violated journalistic ethics.

These tactics worked: Hogan won the case and was awarded $115 million—Gawker founder Nick Denton and former editor in chief A.J. Daulerio were both found liable, and the company was forced to pay $50 million bond.  Denton wrote in a blog post that “emotion was permitted to trump the law.”

But the story was far from over—in May news broke that tech billionaire Peter Thiel had bankrolled Hogan’s lawsuit because of his decade-long desire to bring Gawker down after the site outed him in 2007. Despite numerous attempts to defend itself, Gawker Media was forced to file for bankruptcy, and most of the company’s online holdings were sold to Univision. Gawker and Hogan eventually settled for $31 million—a First Amendment lawyer called Thiel’s successful attempt to litigate Gawker into bankruptcy “deeply troubling.”

Major Layoffs…

While the demise of Gawker was 2016’s most publicized media shutdown, it was by no means the only one— the website and TV channel Al Jazeera America went off the air at the end of April due to low ratings and personnel controversies, though its digital journalism lives on through a portfolio site. And anyone who loved humor and feminism was sad on July 1, when the satirical site The Toast stopped publishing regularly.

There were also major layoffs at the New York Daily NewsInternational Business TimesAssociated Press and Vice.

But Some Good News Too

Not everything in the media was bad this year, however: businessman Michael Ferro attempted to make newspapers profitable by turning Tribune Publishing into an online media company called tronc—media watchdogs applauded his vision, even if the introductory video was very hard to watch. Other legacy media companies also branched successfully into new subject areas—New York magazine launched an online tech vertical called Select All, which got a lot of buzz this week for its look at the year in memes (Harambe and Beyonce and Chewbacca Mom, oh my!)

Will these new ventures succeed or fail? Will billionaires feel more emboldened to clamp down on unflattering stories after the Gawker verdict? And how will reporters grapple with a Trump White House? We’ll be shining a media Spotlight (this year’s Best Picture winner) on these stories and more throughout 2017.

Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.

The Biggest Media Stories of 2016, From Fake News to Gawker’s Fall