Within the past week or so, it’s been revealed that billionaires are involved with the lawsuit between Gawker and Hulk Hogan (real name Terry Bollea). Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal, has been helping fund Hogan’s fight against Gawker.
In 2013 Gawker published a clip of a 2006 sex tape between Hogan and the wife of Todd “Bubba the Love Sponge” Clem, one of Hogan’s close friends. Clem secretly filmed an approved encounter between the two. The act of filming was an alleged violation of Florida law. Gawker says it received a DVD-R of the footage from an “anonymous source” who “wanted no payment.” An unidentified source told one media outlet that a disgruntled ex-employee of Todd Clem sent in the DVD.
After the Gawker article went live, they refused to take it down, despite a request from Hogan’s lawyer. He sued. In March 2016 a Florida jury awarded him $140 million for invasion of privacy. Currently, Gawker is appealing the lawsuit for their own reasons.
In May 2016 it was revealed that Peter Thiel is helping to fund Hogan’s legal defense. Thiel was outed as a gay man by Gawker in 2007; the article author later claimed it was “homophobic” for Thiel to stay in the closet. Thiel was understandably upset and Gawker continued to fire insults at him for it. And now, in 2016, he’s getting revenge on the media company through the Hulk Hogan lawsuit.
There are conflicting opinions. Is this good or bad?
the fight continues
The most recent development was for Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, to proclaim support for Gawker’s appeal of the $140 million judgment for Hogan. Omidyar owns a media company himself and has been asking other media organizations to support Gawker “[in] keeping with our mission to the protect the First Amendment… this is about press freedom, on principles upon which our company was founded, and about which we care deeply.”
“Omidyar has decided to merge his brand with images of Hulk Hogan’s penis, sexual abuse, clickbait, porn, and the lowest standard of ethical behavior the media has ever known.” – Scott Adams
Yes, this case raises some questions about first amendment rights. Perhaps it shouldn’t be possible for a Silicon Valley billionaire to fund a lawsuit that could collapse a media empire. The billionaires of this world could easily damage media organizations by bringing vendetta-fueling lawsuits against them. A lot of news outlets are wringing their hands over this situation, wondering if they’ll be under attack next. Which is a valid concern, but Gawker seems to have violated privacy laws here, and certainly should face some consequences for breaking the law. Gawker wouldn’t have been sued if they didn’t publish a sex tape without the consent of the involved parties. Therefore, an ethical media organization shouldn’t worry about potentially being sued.
Journalist David Auerbach said in a tweet that “Billionaires take out targets all the time. For the media to raise a fuss over THIS billionaire and THIS target (of all things) looks bad.”
“If you share Thiel’s agenda, then this is great news, because his vendetta… will serve to silence voices that fail to satisfy his version of worthwhile speech and press.” – Scott Greenfield, legal analyst
It’s understandable for the media to be concerned about something which may affect them in the future. But this is Gawker Media. They have a poor reputation for a reason.
Thiel mentions that “freedom of the press does not mean freedom to publish sex tapes without consent.” This isn’t the first time Gawker has published footage of people having sex. In 2010 they published a video of a woman having sex in a bar bathroom stall. When she asked that the video be taken down, Gawker’s complaint department forwarded the message to other employees with the note “blah, blah, blah.” Eventually, the company did take down the video, saying it was “bad judgment” on their part. However, the video had already spread to other sites by that time, and the damage was done.
Gawker is a poster child for unethical journalism
During the courtroom proceedings for Hogan, a former editor for Gawker said a celebrity sex tape is always newsworthy, unless it involves a child under the age of 4. Gawker’s response was to claim that this was a sarcastic remark. This seems unlikely, given Gawker’s culture of flippancy and gleefully publishing invasions of privacy. In the courtroom there were various other statements and admitted wrongdoings, combined with the fact that Gawker obviously didn’t care if their articles harmed anyone. This is a company that felt above the law and assumed a snarky attitude would save them.
“Nick Denton’s media empire is an intellectual online fraternity that invites people to their parties only to make them buy the booze.” – Sarah Grieco, Columbia Journalism Review
One of the bigger controversies about Gawker’s policies revolved around yet another lawsuit against them. In 2013 a group of unpaid interns launched legal action against the company, claiming they were entitled to back pay under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. Gawker’s response was to send signed affidavits saying it was fair to expect interns to work for free, and in some cases, not even get college credit for their work. This followed 4+ Gawker articles slamming other companies for having unpaid interships.
More things Gawker has been responsible for:
- Accusing an actor of rape “for clicks and giggles” and harassing him for years through articles
- An editor who tweeted “Bring Back Bullying” and “…nerds should be constantly shamed and degraded into submission” during National Anti-Bullying Month
- Having employees as part of a secret group for colluding with other media outlets to push certain narratives, akin to the 2010 JournoList scandal
- The Conde Nast scandal where some Gawker writers resigned over the executive decision to remove their article
- Calling for the arrest of people who dissent on the topic of climate change, saying “First Amendment rights have never been absolute”
- Sensationalist claims based on “anonymous comments”
- Violating FTC rules on disclosure of affiliate links
- Its founder claiming “…every infringement of privacy is sort of liberating. Afterward, you have less to lose; you’re a freer person.”
- Alleged internal problems with diversity and acknowledging its female employees
- Leaking nude pictures and sex tapes while attacking others for doing the same thing
- Articles joking about domestic violence and abuse
- Doxxing every legal gun owner in NYC while insulting them, including a woman hiding from a stalker
What’s the answer?
Well, Gawker lost their case. They don’t have much of a legal leg to stand on. While there are concerns about First Amendment rights, we don’t know if they’ll play out in court yet. Personally I think this case involves the obscenity restriction on free speech, so I don’t think Gawker will be able to use the First Amendment as a defense. Publishing sexual material on their website is not a protected right.
Peter Thiel said “It’s not for me to decide what happens to Gawker. If America rallies around Gawker and decides we want more people to be outed and more sex tapes to be posted without consent, then they will find a way to save Gawker, and I can’t stop it.” Some people might disagree with him, although Gawker Media is already gaining support, for example Pierre Omidyar. A legal battle between billionaire investors could last for years.
“Nick Denton’s [Gawker’s] fearless leader. There’s a bunch of talented kids that work for him. It would be great if they ‘did a 180’ and just did great stories and good things.” – Terry Bollea
I’m not a fan of Gawker, but if they have enough moral support, their fans will rally around them to prevent them from crumbling into irrelevant dust. There’s also the chance they can reform into an ethical journalistic outlet with quality reporting, instead of dealing in sleaze.