I’ve been following the messy Hulk-Hogan-vs-Gawker-is-really-Peter-Thiel-vs-Gawker saga since it started, my allegiances shifting like an ill-fitting toupee from moment to moment.
At times I felt infuriated and exasperated by more evidence of just how far the tentacles of “big money” stretch; how strong its chokehold on life. The idealist in me railed against the abuse of power on both sides–an uber-rich man using his financial advantage to wipe out a weaker, less moneyed adversary through Svengali machinations. And my inner Pollyanna judged an outlet that played on our collective interest in the salacious and furtive for clicks.
At other times, I felt a grudging respect for the ninja, chess move stealth of Thiel’s actions; a get-your-money happiness for Hulk Hogan’s $140 million payday settlement; and a firm head nod to a publication that seemed to say “Fuck it.” and “Fuck you.” to publishing’s status quo of massaging relationships with the powerful, either directly or through their publicists, targeting only subjects already vulnerable for their declining or compromised influence.
The jaded pragmatist that lives alongside my interior idealist sees Gawker as a participant in America’s market-demand economy and a victim of it’s mo’ money, mo’ lawyers, mo’ time to lock you up in litigation and bleed you dry set-up.
Gawker founder Nick Denton saw a hole in the market i.e. there wasn’t notable gossipy coverage of the rising class of technology elite, and he filled it. When that gossip covered Thiel, the latter used his mo’ money to fix his problem with the former. It was a risk Gawker took when it decided not to do as is done i.e. the breaks.
If Thiel’s money had not been involved, would(n’t) the Hulk have been a victim of Gawker’s advantage over him via corporate legal liability insurance—whether through an army of lawyers or rounds of appeals? Wasn’t Gawker partially banking on this advantage when they ran the story in the first place? Gawker’s Tom Socca wrote:
It is true that Gawker was always a publication that took risks. It had bad manners and sometimes bad judgment. Occasionally, it published things that it would regret—just as, for instance, the New York Times has published things that it regrets.
But every publication gives itself room to make mistakes, and is prepared to absorb the damage when it does make a mistake… Lawsuits and settlements happen to everyone, and everyone carries insurance to handle them. In Gawker’s wildest, most buccaneering years, it never came close to paying a million dollars for crossing a line.
At still other times, I thought merely about money and its influence. Isn’t that what money is for? Is that what money is for?
My inner contemplations aside, this case and its outcome has made me question what free press is, and should be, in the internet age; and it’s made me wary of how money’s impact on verdicts, and the tech sector’s increasing power will intersect with the press moving forward.
Hogan brought his case against Gawker, and won, on the grounds of invasion of privacy, infringement of personality rights, and intentional infliction of distress. The thing is, aren’t these grounds the cylinders that power the engines of tabloid and investigative journalism?
In an age when anyone can invade a person’s privacy simply by entering the right combination of search terms on Google or subscribing to services that gather public record information that, when compiled, amount to all of your business; when the right combination of exposed search results and known news can impact your ability to control the commercialization of aspects of your identity i.e. what you’re projecting on Instagram; when intentionally inflicting distress is par for the course to clicks and advertising revenue, where do we draw the legal line between a free press and an individual’s right to privacy and to control their own public narrative? Do we need to redefine what “press” is?
What laws need to be introduced and implemented to better protect against the financial bias embedded in our justice system so that a powerful publication can’t just publish anything about anyone–and a powerful individual can’t just take out an outlet because it does not like that a truth about them has been exposed? On an existential tip, why, as consumers of content, and human beings, do we desire to see what’s behind someone’s closed door, yet hide / manipulate the image of what’s behind our own?
Technology has made it easier for us to craft enviable, picture-perfect stories about our lives, just as it has enabled the exposure of the story behind the stories we post on social media. It has also empowered algorithm authors to determine what stories we even see, and enabled hackers to give stories unprecedented context. It’s also created a class with substantial coin and the abilities of algorithm authors and hackers, to influence what becomes press.
Every generation gives rise to elites that control the media or shape public discourse, joining or displacing those already doing so. What can we do to change this calculus between power and the press? How do we correct for it?