by Ron Mwangaguhunga
The two-out-of-three-falls Gawker Media versus Hulk Hogan grudge match can at times seem more like inside baseball. There are so many meta-media sub-narratives – Tabloid! Privacy! Porn! – going on as the case unfolds that it is enough to give even the most well-grounded observer a dizzying case of cognitive vertigo. There is also the revenge element and, of course, as in all no disqualification brawls, there is ego. In 2007 the Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel was outed by Nick Denton’s flagship gossip site. Thiel was uncovered by Forbes last month as the masked moneybags behind the Hogan lawsuit. All of these testosterone subthemes, however, pale before the true issue at hand, namely: Press Censorship.
Peter Thiel is quite frankly trying to put a sleeper hold on Gawker Media because it said something about him that he didn’t like or want said publicly. The idea of a billionaire being an existential threat to media that says things that are uncomfortable should be anathema to any red-blooded lover of liberty. Having said that, one cannot fail to note that some of Gawker's posts in retrospect are truly the stuff that turns stomachs. Therein lies the dilemma that many media observers are –no pun intended– wrestling with at present. The outing of people who are not in the public eye is something that Gawker has done with particular relish in the past. Two top editors actually resigned from the company after a married Conde Nast executive was outed in one particularly nasty posting. The chattering class, to put it mildly, is not a fan of the Gawker Media ethos.
Still, some of Gawker's ardent media critics have come out to defend Gawker on the grounds that I may not like what you say, but I will defend your right to say it. “This doesn’t excuse bad work, but any media outlet that’s produced for as long as Gawker has and as much as Gawker has — and this is key: done actual reporting — has produced work it regrets,” counterargues Gawker founding editor and frequent Gawker Empire critic Elizabeth Spiers in Hitstreet. Gawker, truth be told, has had it's good moments as well as its cringing moments. The Rob Ford crack video, the first big expose of online drug marketplace Silk Road, finding Lena Dunham's unretouched Vogue photos are all examples of perfectly solid online cultural reporting done by Gawker Media’s various properties.
Some of Gawker Media’s most innovative, blameless reporting has been on the excesses of Silicon Valley, on the power structure of our technology elite. Economic inequality, as the President said in a highly regarded 2013 speech, is the “defining challenge of our time.” In this era of vast inequalities a vigilant and robust free press is our last protection against the excessive power of the wealthy. This brings us to Thiel and Hogan versus Gawker steel cage match. “As it becomes a greater part of the economy, checks and balances are needed more than ever,” writes Vivek Wadhwa on the urgency of technology culture reporting in The Washington Post. “The risk is that Thiel’s attempt to quash a reprehensible publication will only weaken what little exists,” Wadhwa concludes, ominously.
Freedom of the Press, while protected by the First Amendment, is at arguably its most fragile moment in American history. That unfortunately, is not an exaggeration. Journalism has undergone a vast disruption in the last decade and a half. Bureaus have been gutted; traditional media ad revenues have dropped dramatically. The populist GOP candidate for President regularly calls journalists names, his Democrat opponent’s campaign corrals journos in pens to avoid uncomfortable and unscripted moments. Journalism is taking fire from all ends. The powerful – the one-percent – need oversight in the form of advocacy and investigative journalism in whatever form it takes in this digital age. Tech titan and Washington Post publisher Jeff Bezos has come out against the Hogan lawsuit financed by fellow titan Thiel. "The best defense against speech that you don't like about yourself as a public figure is to develop a thick skin," he said told tech journo Walter Mossberg. "You can't stop it."
That isn’t stopping Peter Thiel from trying.
Ron Mwangaguhunga is a Brooklyn based writer focused on media, culture and politics. His work has appeared in Huffington Post, IFC and Tribeca Film Festival, Kenneth Cole AWEARNESS, NY Magazine, Paper Magazine, CBS News.com, and National Review online to name a few. He is currently the editor of the Corsair.