The Stunning and Expected End of Gawker

Originally published in the Inside Daily Brief

Nick Denton’s incendiary publishing empire, Gawker Media, collapsed under the weight of his excessively cruel and cutting philosophy today, an outcome many predicted, but that Denton miraculously dodged for a decade, as subjects chose to thicken their skin rather than get into protracted and destructive litigation, until Peter Thiel anonymously bankrolled them.

Gawker’s demise is an Rorschach test for the intelligencer, with journalists, billionaires, publishers and pundits all being forced to decide which aspects of Denton’s business to focus on, reconciling the loathsome (or socially just) outing of gay men, the hilarious (or illegal) tweaking of powerful media manipulator Steve Jobs by buying a stolen iPhone and the invasion of privacy of celebrities by publishing their sex tapes.

That last one, which landed a $140m bomb on Gawker, is impossible for anyone to defend, as was the outing of closeted gay man (and a non “public figure”) being shaken down by an escort (a story Denton had taken down), except by the staunchest of free speech advocates, who fall back on the “I wouldn’t publish it, but have to defend ugly free speech to keep whistleblowers protected.”

This is the crux of the entire donnybrook: where is the line between your freedom of speech and my right to privacy. If we asked 1,000 journalist if they would publish a stolen sex tape I think we all know how they would answer that question. If you asked 1,000 civilians if stolen sex tapes should be published I think we would get a similar response.

In fact, Gawker has employed countless very talented writers, who have broken dozens of important stories, and I’m guessing most of them would never publish a sex tape.

However, just as Gawker judged their subjects on their worst moments, they to are being taken down by their worst, bone-headed decisions.

In fact, the entire downfall of Gawker revolves around the outing of a gay man by a gay journalist working for a gay publisher, at a moment in time when being gay was something that would, sadly, often result in you having dramatically less professional opportunity. A time when Tim Cook and Anderson Cooper were in the closet, and when society might not have accepted their ascension to becoming the top anchorman and CEO in the world.

Gawker’s downfall has as much (or more) to do with our society’s bigotry against gay men as it does free speech. If Peter felt safe enough to run a hedge fund as a gay man (not an easy thing to do if you want money from, say, Saudi Arabia, where being openly gay could result in imprisonment, flogging or death), or if Denton and some portion of his writers, didn’t have the goal of putting gay men for some combination of page views and, I assume, to social change, none of us would have been dragged into their all-consuming group Rorschach test.

People are not all good or all bad, and Denton and Thiel are both unique, driven individuals who I know fairly well (I’ve traded emails with both in the past month), and who I see as hurt individuals now in the final act of a brutal drama of Denton’s creation.

Nick would do things differently if he could turn back the clock, and before a jury nailed him for his mistakes, so this bankruptcy is his Penance.

Gawker was worth $300,000,000 before this and I heard Denton owned 75% of the company. My guess is the company will sell for $100M, pay off creditors for the majority of that money, leaving Denton with A whopping twenty million dollars — a fraction of the $225m he would have made.

Peter Thiel will have spent $10-20m supporting these lawsuits, and get paid back all of that from the Hulk Hogan settlement, an inconsequential amount of money for someone with billions.

The whole episode will have no impact on any other publisher you know and Peter will never launch another volley of anonymous lawsuit against a publisher again.

At the end of the day we can agree that:

  1. We all want a free, vibrant press.
  2. We don’t want billionaires suing publications into oblivion because they are personally wronged.
  3. We don’t want journalists publishing people’s sex tapes, libeling them or otherwise invading people’s privacy.
  4. We want all journalists to subscribe to basic ethical concepts(i.e. fact checking, getting comments from subjects before publishing, getting multiple sources before publishing).

There is no big lesson here for journalists or publishers outside of “don’t publish stolen sex tapes.” If you follow the basic rules of the road you will should be fine. This Whole mess is an isolated, bizarre battle of will at a moment in time that doesn’t indicate on a larger or sustained trend.

Everyone back to work.