Respectability is overrated. Or so said Gawker, the influential, controversial, and luridly entertaining news and gossip site that was forced to close in 2016. Covering stories that other media outlets wouldn’t touch, Gawker made the powerful squirm, anticipated #MeToo, and started an extraordinary wave of labor organizing in digital media, all while embracing a critical, idiomatic voice and ignoring conventions that are drilled into journalism students like me.
Take the Gawker Stalker, one of Gawker’s most infamous features, which allowed readers to submit celebrity sightings in Manhattan, which would then be vetted and posted on Gawker in near-real time. Most Gawker Stalker posts were innocuous, if intrusive, like this one from 248 Mercer Street at 7:20 p.m. on May 17, 2009: “I spied Ryan Gosling sitting in a dark corner of Think Coffee, reading something in a binder with a look of deep concentration. He was sporting darker facial hair. When I sat down near him (before I realized it was Mr. Gosling) he seemed to get annoyed and left.”
In 2007, two years before that report of a Gosling café visit, Gawker coeditor-in-chief Emily Gould sat down with Jimmy Kimmel in a CNN studio. She appeared alongside an agent and an attorney who both represented clients in the entertainment industry, and she had been told ahead of time that she would be talking about “celebrities and the media.” However, Kimmel wanted to talk only about the Gawker Stalker, which had covered him a few months prior in a post titled “Daily Gawker Stalker: When Isn’t Jimmy Kimmel Visibly Intoxicated?” Kimmel called the feature “slanderous” and “libelous” and said that he was “far from intoxicated” during the incident described in the Gawker post. Predictably, Gould’s fellow panelists echoed his scorn, and one even said that a celebrity will inevitably be maimed or murdered due to Gawker’s “putting somebody out there, and for putting them at risk.” (This never happened.)
Gould pushed back, saying that readers didn’t really expect 100 percent of Gawker Stalker postings to be accurate, since everyone knew posts were user-submitted. She called it “citizen journalism,” but Kimmel wasn’t having it. “You’re throwing rocks at people,” he said. Gould replied, “Aren’t they kind of protected by piles of money from those rocks?”
Gould’s justification—that pushing journalistic and privacy norms is okay as long as you’re punching up—reflects a populist indignation that seems to have motivated much of Gawker’s staff over the site’s 14-year life. Nick Denton, a scruffy British libertarian who quit the Financial Times in 2002 to found Gawker in his SoHo apartment, was known to encourage this type of reporting, even if his political views differed from those of Gawker’s primarily left-leaning staff. “Mockery, of course, is the cheapest and most available tool that the powerless have against the powerful,” he would write in the site’s final post.
This ethos often came out when Gawker writers would casually, mostly harmlessly invade the privacy of celebs like Gosling and Kimmel. But Gawker could also be gratuitously cruel, like when they needlessly outed a Condé Nast executive as gay. (In a rare case of editorial intervention, Nick Denton later deleted that story.)
Gawker’s most important stories, however, were the ones that anticipated #MeToo. In 2015, over two years before the New York Times and the New Yorker’s Pulitzer-winning reporting on Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sex crimes, Gawker reported on the influential producer’s habit of coaxing young actresses into private “casting couch” sessions and implored readers to “Tell Us What You Know About Harvey Weinstein’s ‘Open Secret.’” In 2014, as NBC was developing a new show starring Bill Cosby, Gawker asked, “Who Wants to Remember Bill Cosby’s Multiple Sex-Assault Accusations?” (NBC cancelled the show later that year.) In 2015, two years before Kevin Spacey was shunned by the movie industry following several accusations of sexual harassment and assault, Gawker reported, “Spacey may be one of the most aggressive and boundary-challenged players in Hollywood.” In 2012, Gawker ran a blind item asking, “Which Beloved Comedian Likes to Force Female Comics to Watch Him Jerk Off?” Three years later, Gawker revealed they had been talking about Louis C. K., which still put the site two years ahead of the New York Times. And so on, with Bryan Singer, Jeffrey Epstein, Woody Allen, and others. (If Michael Bloomberg runs for president this year, expect the Gawker piece on his gratuitous public sexism to resurface.)
Gawker made the powerful squirm, anticipated #MeToo, and started an extraordinary wave of labor organizing in digital media.
The Gawker versions of these #MeToo stories were less detailed than their later, mainstream counterparts, because Gawker’s reporting methods often relied on gossip, reader emails, and the site’s comment section, which certainly wouldn’t pass fact-checkers at the New York Times or the New Yorker, for good reason. Yet Gawker’s reporting on these stories ended up being credible and correct, years before many other people seemed to notice or care. Media critic David Folkenflik aptly labeled Gawker’s style “twilight news”—“news that’s perhaps not ready for prime time, news that may rely on anonymous sources, news that may not even identify by name the person they’re reporting on but stuff that’s disturbing and often of public interest.”
Gawker writers were so successful at reporting “twilight news” not because they were outsiders to the news media, but because they were so firmly enmeshed in it. The site initially focused on New York media gossip, and Nick Denton was known to tell his writers that “the version of a story journalists would tell each other over drinks was always more interesting than whatever was actually in the paper.” As Gawker grew, the flagship site widened its focus to include celebrities and politics. It also added spin-offs and additional verticals, like feminist-centric Jezebel, sports-centric Deadspin, celeb-centric Defamer, and Silicon Valley-centric Valleywag.
Valleywag treated techies and venture capitalists like Gawker’s main site treated movie stars, an idea that was far more unusual in the aughts than it is now that Elon Musk is dating Grimes. This approach would lead, indirectly, to the destruction of Gawker, which Ryan Holiday chronicles in Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue, a book as long-winded as its title.
The story of Gawker’s slow death could easily stand alone, yet Holiday devotes much of Conspiracy to referencing “great men” like Machiavelli, Napoleon, Clausewitz, Lucretius, and Pericles. These passages feel strained and out of place in a book about blog posts and lawsuits, but they do flatter guys who are really into Jordan Peterson. Here’s how Holiday starts chapter 1 (following a two-part introduction that incorporates both Machiavelli and The Great Gatsby):
“The beginnings of all things are small,” Cicero reminds us. What becomes powerful or significant often begins inauspiciously, and so, too, do the causes that eventually pit powerful forces against one another.
The conflict at the heart of this story is no different. Its genesis is a largely obvious, mostly unremarkable blog post—not even four hundred words long—that outed a little-known technology investor as homosexual.
It would be tempting to spend the rest of this piece talking about how dudes like Holiday, Peterson, and David Brooks mine the “great man” canon to pad their mediocre writing, but back to Gawker. The Valleywag post in question, titled “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people,” outed a cofounder of PayPal, an early investor in Facebook, and a generally influential figure in Silicon Valley. “The clubby ranks of VCs [venture capitalists] are mostly straight, white and male. They instinctively prefer entrepreneurs who remind them of themselves,” it read. “That’s why I think it’s important to say this: Peter Thiel, the smartest VC in the world, is gay. More power to him.”
Thiel admits to Holiday in Conspiracy that his family and friends already knew about his sexuality by the time Valleywag outed him, but the article made him embarrassed and angry, understandably so. In an attempt to understand why Gawker sites wrote about him, Thiel met with a few current and former Gawker staffers. But they continued writing about him, covering his manipulation of the tax code, donations to anti-immigrant groups, and fantasies of hypercapitalist island nations. Frustrated, Thiel went public. “Valleywag is the Silicon Valley equivalent of Al Qaeda,” he told a VC trade publication in 2009. “I think they should be described as terrorists, not as writers or reporters.” He started referring to Gawker as the “MBTO”: the Manhattan-Based Terrorist Organization.
In 2011, Thiel was approached by Oxford law student Aron D’Souza. (Holiday refers to D’Souza only as “Mr. A” in Conspiracy, but BuzzFeed News reported his real name.) Thiel himself didn’t have a strong defamation case against Gawker, but D’Souza proposed a novel strategy: covertly funding lawsuits of other people who might. Thiel approved, and D’Souza met with several law firms, asking if they would take on lawsuits against a media outlet on behalf of an anonymous group of wealthy individuals. As far as we know, though, Thiel was D’Souza’s only funder. After a number of rejections, D’Souza eventually recruited Charles Harder, a celebrity lawyer who has since represented Donald Trump in his legal dispute with Stormy Daniels. To protect his anonymity, Thiel used D’Souza as an intermediary; Harder didn’t know where his funding was coming from and apparently didn’t care.
Then, in 2012, Gawker published a video of retired pro wrestler Hulk Hogan having sex with his friend’s wife, which had been surreptitiously recorded by Hogan’s friend and released without Hogan’s consent. When Gawker ignored Hogan’s complaints and refused to take down the video, Harder offered Hogan free legal representation. Hogan agreed, and Harder filed a lawsuit on his behalf for invasion of privacy.
Gawker had defeated countless defamation suits in the past, so Harder, D’Souza, and Thiel were skeptical that the Hogan suit alone could generate a large enough settlement to destroy the site. Therefore, Harder explored other options. He interviewed former unpaid Gawker interns for a potential class action case and eventually came to represent several other plaintiffs in suits against Gawker, though it’s unclear if the funding for these also came from Thiel.
But the Hogan case ended up being enough. In March 2016, in front of a jury in Hogan’s home county in Florida, Harder used a billionaire’s money to paint Denton and the Gawker staff as heartless coastal elites and Hogan as the aggrieved hometown hero. The jury decided to award Hogan $140 million in damages for invasion of privacy, and Gawker declared bankruptcy. In a later settlement, Gawker paid Hogan $31 million.
Following Gawker’s bankruptcy, media conglomerate Univision bought Gawker Media Group and hired 95 percent of its staff, including most of the teams of Jezebel, Deadspin, and the like. But Denton left, and Univision closed Gawker’s eponymous site—it was too much of a liability.
Thiel intended for his involvement in the lawsuit to remain secret forever, even from Harder and Hogan. After all, the optics of B-list millionaire Hulk Hogan seeking a settlement from a news outlet that wronged him was far more palatable than a billionaire venture capitalist spending nearly a decade plotting to take down journalists he considered “terrorists.”
But two months after the ruling in Florida, Forbes revealed Thiel to be Hogan’s funder. In response, Thiel tried to paint himself as the vanquisher of a singularly evil and invasive news outlet, not as an enemy of journalists in general. “Since sensitive information can sometimes be publicly relevant, exercising judgment is always part of the journalist’s profession,” Thiel wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “It’s not for me to draw the line,” he continued, despite having just drawn the line by destroying Gawker. (A month before publishing that op-ed, Thiel took the stage at the Republican National Convention to endorse Donald Trump, who has turned hatred of journalists into a mainstream Republican policy position.)
In Conspiracy’s conclusion, Holiday is overly deferential to Thiel. After comparing the venture capitalist to Hamlet, Holiday writes, “We live in a world where only people like Peter Thiel can pull something so intentional and long-term off—and it’s not because, as Gawker has tried to make it seem, he’s rich. It’s because he’s one of the few who believes it can be done.” This is utterly unconvincing, given that Thiel says he spent $10 million to destroy Gawker, an unnoticeable sum for a billionaire like him but a fortune for almost anyone in journalism, an industry struggling to adapt to changes wrought in large part by Silicon Valley. Few journalists can afford to “believe it can be done” when the whims of tech executives can destroy entire newsrooms.
It’s darkly fitting that, after having been destroyed by one anti-union mogul, Gawker is about to be relaunched by another.
Take the ill-fated “pivot to video,” which began around 2015, when Facebook executives shared allegedly bogus statistics that showed inflated video views and exaggerated potential advertising revenue. In response, many newsrooms laid off staff writers and editors in favor of video producers. When the revenue Facebook had promised failed to come in, those same newsrooms laid off or significantly reduced their video teams.
While Gawker never really pivoted to video, its staff was well aware of the increasing precariousness of digital journalism jobs. That’s why they formed a union, securing a $50,000 base salary for every employee in 2016, which any New York media proletarian knows is a big deal. While some legacy outlets like the New York Times have long been union organizations, Gawker was the first digital newsroom to unionize. Others like Slate, VICE, Vox, HuffPost, and most recently BuzzFeed News have since followed their example.
It is, then, darkly fitting that, after having been destroyed by one anti-union mogul, Gawker is about to be relaunched by another. Bryan Goldberg, owner of Bustle Media Group, bought Gawker’s domain and archives at auction last summer and plans to relaunch the site in the first half of this year. Relatively little is known about Gawker 2.0’s editorial vision, beyond the hiring of a couple of writers in January who quit two weeks later. However, BMG’s labor record is highly questionable.
This November, Mic, a unionized, social-justice-focused news site, fired nearly every one of its employees after facing financial trouble related to pivoting heavily to video. As staffers cleaned out their desks, Bryan Goldberg announced he had purchased Mic and planned to rebuild the newsroom to cover the 2020 presidential election. Given Goldberg’s plans to relaunch Mic, BMG could have easily retained at least some of the site’s staff. The timing of the layoffs and sale has, therefore, been interpreted as a union-busting maneuver. BMG seemed to be using a similar strategy in 2017, when it acquired nonunionized lifestyle site Elite Daily, which fired half of its staff immediately before its acquisition and then allegedly offered laid-off employees new jobs as independent contractors with lower pay and no benefits.
When Goldberg announced his plans to relaunch Gawker, he said, “We won’t recreate Gawker exactly as it was, but we will build upon Gawker’s legacy and triumphs—and learn from its missteps.” Yet Gawker’s most memorable and important stories, particularly those that predicted #MeToo, were also some of its riskiest. If Gawker’s new writers are working for low wages on precarious, nonunion contracts, they may be too scared to publish such stories, lest they upset a fussy boss like Goldberg or a vengeful billionaire like Thiel.
“The best thing the staff of New Gawker can do to honor the legacy of Old Gawker would be to form a union and demand complete editorial independence as soon as possible,” former Gawker writer Brendan O’Connor told The Guardian when asked about Goldberg’s plans. “Without that, the site will remain a shell of its former self; with it, something new and good may actually emerge.” Staying true to Gawker’s voice, O’Connor added, on the idea of Gawker 2.0, “It’s stupid and I hate it.”
This article was commissioned by Ben Platt.