Douchebag

Gawker is Satan’s urinal

Six-minute read

The story had a compelling hook. A Harvard Business School professor got in an email battle over the price of food with the owner of a Chinese restaurant. Powerful professor picks on struggling small business owner! It’s on!

The story quickly went viral. Soon, reporters were flooding the zone with red meat for the torches and pitchforks outrage. Find out how much the professor paid for his house! Reporters ordered food from the restaurant and tweeted photos of it. The reporter who wrote the original story sold T-shirts making fun of the professor.

But even as the viral attention was rolling in, the story blew up in their face. The reporter wrote a followup claiming the professor sent a racist email to the restaurateur. The story was easily refuted within minutes of publication.

Just another scandal for Gawker. It was kind of known for them. Except it wasn’t Gawker. It was a venerable news organization, The Boston Globe, whose reporting was soon to be lionized in the Oscar-winning Spotlight.

But, it could not be more removed from the events of Spotlight. The HBS story was cast as a powerful professor picking on the little guy. But it had metastasized into a powerful media organization doing the same – piling onto some otherwise anonymous schlump who had no capacity or means to fight back. And then it called him a racist.

Even as it unfolded, the incident felt like the picked-over, bleached bones of what Gawker brought to the world. Implicit in the newsroom revolt that followed was the question of why a respected news org would be embracing Gawker’s brand of clapped-out snark-for-snark’s sake.

Even as Gawker tumbles ass over teakettle off the national stage, it seems no one in the news business wants to call a spade a spade. No one wants to admit Gawker was master of its own undoing. Or that it precipitated a race to the bottom. Quite the opposite.

Phillip Bump, in an appreciation of Gawker for the Washington Post, writes “you should be aware that much of what you’ve read on the web to this point has been shaped by the style and brashness of Gawker.”

The site itself – that is, Gawker.com, not one of the eventual spin-offs like Deadspin or Jezebel – was ostentatiously unconcerned about making people angry. If something was interesting to its writers or something was a secret and they discovered it: fair game in their eyes, if not everyone else’s.

It’s hard to find an unkind word about Gawker in the stories of its demise or on Twitter. Eric Wemple, media critic for the Post tweeted “Sure, Gawker wrote a lot of garbage but it was punctuated by world-changing and often doc-based scoops.”

Trevor Tim, columnist for The Guardian, weighed in with “But Gawker was never Bad. They made some shitty mistakes. A lot of news orgs do. The media landscape will be poorer now that they’re gone.”

This is another time the press in an unreliable narrator to an important story. They have a vested interest for their own industry. And I suspect that to a certain extent, mainstream journalists view Gawker like the “monsters from the Id” creature from Forbidden Planet.

They want to be openly biased. They want to call Republicans assholes. They want to be the cool kid by saying mean things and telling gossipy secrets. Gawker did it for them.

Their secret admiration means they can’t see that someone might not see Gawker as brave truth-tellers with the occasional oopsie of a wrecked life as the price of doing business.

Rather, Gawker is Satan’s urinal. Actually, that’s not quite right. More properly it’s Satan’s entire bathroom after a plate of bad oysters.

Yes, its style and tone influenced dozens – hundreds even, of websites. Its snarky, hits-at-any-cost DNA deeply infected the insanity that overran Boston.com in 2014. The scandal left Boston.com a hollowed-out shell of itself. People have fled or been laid off. The Globe’s billionaire owner’s wife is now running it because, hey, why not?2

Yes, Gawker was often in the national discourse. But, as noted philosopher of our times Ian Malcolm said, they “were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” For Gawker, it was always about whether they could.

This fact was on display at what was basically the beginning of the end for Gawker, in which it used a blackmailer as a source and outed an otherwise unknown and married Conde Nast executive.

Which is why I don’t get the defense of Gawker by mainstream reporters. Gawker stood for steadfastly for freedom of the press, but it was in the same way someone running around a mall indiscriminately shooting people stands steadfastly for the Second Amendment. It was brave and fearless in the same way a suicide bomber detonating himself is.

Instead of fighting off the Gawker pathogen that infected the journalism industry, the media is mourning it. It laments the “chilling effect” of a vindictive billionaire suing a publication he doesn’t like out of existence.

What many in the press consider to be a chilling effect, most people would consider “exercising caution and thought about what you publish.” What some in the press see as abuse of power by Peter Thiel, others might see as a reversal of unchecked power the press has long enjoyed.

And that’s what Gawker always was. It had power. Its targets did not.

So it did what it wanted. It went places people with more ethics didn’t go. It normalized abnormality. It wasn’t fearless. It simply had no conscience. It was just a bully.

In journalism school, we often heard “If you don’t want to see it in print, don’t do it.” Likewise, if you don’t want your news org to be sued out of existence, don’t out gay people for sport. Don’t run stolen sex tapes, especially of people being raped.

Don’t thumb your nose at decency while nihilistically shouting freedom. Don’t abuse people on the way up. You might find you have no friends in the way down.

Just don’t do these things, and your news org will be fine.

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Note I worked for The Boston Globe and for its Boston.com subsidiary for a little more than two years.

  1. I was on vacation at the time and would sit by the pool every night, tropical breezes swaying the palm trees, and read about how my employer had once again driven the ship at flank speed into an iceberg.
  2. I suppose it’s an outrage that someone with no journalism background is now in charge. But under the leadership of journalism experts, Boston.com has seen its readership plummet, had more editors and general managers than Spinal Tap had drummers and sold out its integrity. I fail to see what additional damage she could do.