Gawker’s Season of Fear and Loathing
It would be going too far to declare Gawker Media’s Nick Denton the most hated man in America.
But this week at least—after a Florida jury awarded an eye-popping $140.1 million in damages to Hulk Hogan (real name: Terry Bollea) over Gawker.com’s October 2012 publication of a grainy sex video excerpt starring the pro-wrestling legend—Denton and his gossip site are winning no popularity contests.
Gawker’s lawyers predict that a lengthy appeals process on strong First Amendment precedents will ultimately overturn the shocking verdict in the two-week trial over Bollea’s 3½–year-old invasion-of-privacy lawsuit.
But, for now, Denton’s online media company is potentially at risk.
What’s more, as a result of the costly litigation, among other corporate pratfalls over the past year, plus some conspicuously painful soul-searching, Gawker is in retreat from its once-uncompromising devotion to the pitiless values of “true and interesting,” as Denton enumerated them, regardless of how cruel or pointless.
“Look, I won’t pretend it’s been easy,” Denton instant-messaged The Daily Beast in the aftermath of the verdict. “This trial was hard on everyone, including Hulk Hogan. Our organizations have both been stripped bare: He’s been revealed as a publicity-monger; and some of our writers have come across as callous in their search for the real story.”
Longtime Gawker writer and editor Tom Scocca said the company’s flagship gossip site—one of seven Gawker Media outlets, including the sports-geared Deadspin and the women-oriented Jezebel, that attract a total of around 100 million unique monthly visitors—is the go-to venue where the traditional boundaries of good taste and decorum are regularly breached.
“Gawker is not afraid of saying something that’s true, where the so-called respectable media would consider it too nasty,” Scocca explained, citing his February 2014 essay on Bill Cosby’s hidden record of sexual predation.
At the time, two years ago, the comedian and sitcom star was still a beloved pop-culture icon, and Scocca’s piece—which inspired standup comic Hannibal Buress to mention Cosby’s predatory behavior in his act, which ultimately led to Cosby’s downfall—was the very first crack in the showbiz legend’s wholesome façade.
“At some point,” Scocca said, “somebody started comparing Gawker to the Jack Nicholson character in A Few Good Men, screaming, ‘You need me on that wall!’ ”
Gawker Media’s recently adopted editorial code, formulated last fall, after more than 100 journalists in the 300-employee company voted to unionize with the Writers Guild of America, sounds positively lofty compared to the down-and dirty gossip site that Denton founded in 2004.
“Our reporting is guided by a desire to help our readers understand their world, whether the subject matter is trivial or meaningful,” it says in part. “We reject balance as a virtue but embrace fairness, and endeavor to recognize the humanity of those we cover. We aim to write honestly, transparently, and unsentimentally, but also decently. Honest reporting can be painful to subjects, and both they and our other readers are entitled to a reasonable explanation as to the purpose and point of a story.”
Denton, for his part, messaged: “We always put the story first, and I take responsibility for that. Though I absolutely stand behind the newsworthiness of [then-Gawker Editor in Chief] A.J. Daulerio’s 2012 story [in which the 1 minute 40 second video snippet of Hogan/Bollea’s bedroom antics accompanied Daulerio’s derisive commentary], it’s definitely been cause for some contemplation. Unfortunately, an adversarial court system does not allow for much public contemplation.”
The trauma of the jury’s verdict is only the latest development in the enterprise’s continuing evolution from what frequent Gawker target Michael Wolff calls “an example of publishing without filters” that allows rage-filled, underpaid bloggers to mount “gratuitous and ad hominem attacks” on their betters, to a profitable, corporatized media outlet that Denton has vowed will be “20 percent nicer.”
The 62-year-old Wolff—whom Gawker has regularly mocked as a “Twitter personality” and “lazy gadfly” while chronicling his quarrelsome divorce from his longtime wife and happy romance with a much younger woman under the headline “Awful Michael Wolff’s Awful Girlfriend Is Pregnant” —has openly rooted for the pro-wrestler’s victory in his USA Today columns.
That is slightly ironic, considering that Wolff, no fan of this reporter, once boasted that years ago, when his then-7-year-old son went on a playdate with one of Steven Rattner’s kids at the Manhattan financier’s baronial Fifth Avenue apartment, he pumped the boy for lurid details of their Champagne-and-caviar lifestyle—which he then published. A rather Gawker-like thing to do.
Last July, Gawker was the object of near-universal scorn after posting a story about a virtually unknown media executive who—though heterosexually married with children—allegedly tried to arrange a homosexual tryst with a male escort. The article named the executive but protected the identity of the escort, who some said was using the gossip site to facilitate an extortion attempt.
Denton, who is gay, ultimately removed the story from the site after taking a vote among his senior management team. He explained in an anguished blog post: “I was ashamed to have my name and Gawker’s associated with a story on the private life of a closeted gay man who some felt had done nothing to warrant the attention.”
Max Read, at the time of the controversy Gawker’s editor in chief (and a former Daily Beast staff video editor), and Tommy Craggs, then the company’s editorial director, resigned over the decision to delete the escort story—which put Gawker’s editorial side in the untenable position, they argued, of caving to the demands of the business side. Other writers and editors followed them out the door.
A source familiar with the situation said Gawker ultimately paid the subject of the offending article a tidy undisclosed sum in order to avoid another lawsuit; Gawker Media President and General Counsel Heather Dietrick declined to confirm or deny such a settlement.
“Gawker has always been driven by the ever-changing whims of Nick Denton,” said Leah Beckmann, who took over from Read as an interim editor and left the company in November.
Read, now a staffer at New York magazine, didn’t respond to a request for comment on Gawker’s reaction to the Hogan verdict, although he did write about how unnerving it was to have had his lame jokes with coworkers about the lawsuit—made more than three years ago on the company’s internal chat platform—become evidence in a celebrity trial that was live-streamed to the world.
And Craggs, who writes for Slate, emailed: “While I rarely pass up a chance to trip over my own dick in an interview, I just can’t this time. Sorry.”
Dietrick, who joined Gawker Media from Hearst after the Bollea/Hogan litigation was already in progress, suggested that it’s a different company from 2012, operating in a different media ecosystem, and that Gawker is being sued for something—a sex video—that it would probably not publish today.
“We’re always responsive to our readers,” she said. “That was a post at the time that millions of people clicked on. It was lawful then and it’s lawful now. It was newsworthy then and newsworthy now. But I think that was a different time in the era of celebrity sex tapes”—whose sell-by date, Dietrick indicated, has expired in the popular culture.
She added: “I think the company realizes that it is a big force in media. It’s no longer a small player, and so it remembers to pick its targets.”
Still, one of Bollea’s high-priced lawyers, Charles Harder, recently filed a $10 million federal lawsuit against Gawker on behalf of a client, West Palm Beach, Florida, freelance writer Ashley Terrill, who claims Gawker writer Sam Biddle “published a false and highly defamatory hit-piece about Terrill” while violating a confidentiality agreement.
“That’s a completely frivolous case, and it’s confounding that he would have filed that,” Dietrick said. “The statements that are at issue are not defamatory, and it’s not the case that our writer promised confidentiality and didn’t keep that promise. That will all be revealed.”
Longtime Gawker editor John Cook, who replaced Craggs as editorial director, argued that the unpretty picture of Gawker that emerged at the trial (and in Wolff’s periodic columns inveighing against the site) is an unfair caricature.
“If you’re looking at a narrative of Gawker maturing or getting its wings clipped or getting put back on its heels and having the fear of God put into it, I would encourage you to go back and remember some of the big stories that we had even back in 2010 and 2011,” Cook said.
“We have always done good stuff. When people say, ‘I hope Gawker changes its ways, I hope Gawker goes out of business,’ or that Gawker had a brief moment where it made sense but it’s no longer relevant because it can’t do posts that get the eyeballs, I understand the motivation there. But the fact is, if you lose that spirited irreverence, you risk losing stuff that, at least at the time, everybody saw value in.”
Cook cited multiple examples of strong Gawker journalism that more conventional media organizations had no choice but to follow and credit.
“We’ve earned a good deal of the schadenfreude,” he wrote in a followup email, “but anyone praying for our demise is cheering for Manti Teo’s fraud to persist, for Rob Ford]s freedom to smoke crack while Toronto’s papers fretted about whether to report it, for ViolentAcrez to continue to harass women in anonymity, for GOP congressmen to peddle family values while they troll Craigslist for hookups, for the NFL to shrug off its domestic-abuse problem in secret, and for Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson to remain unaccountable to the young women he allegedly abused. We do good shit.”
Recently, Gawker—freshly reconfigured a site for political gossip and news—created a Twitter bot, @ilduce2016, solely for the purpose of tweeting quotes from World War II fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini at Donald Trump as if they were nuggets of wisdom from Trump himself—with the hope that the Republican frontrunner would be fooled into retweeting them.
Success arrived on the morning of Feb. 28, when Trump approvingly retweeted a Mussolini quote, “It is better to live one day as a lion than to live 100 years as a sheep,” and was forced to explain himself on Meet the Press.
As for the jury’s $140 million award, Cook said: “It’s an extraordinary number. It will not be paid. It won’t be paid because it’s going to get overturned. It’s very clear that the trial went off the rails.”
A hearing set for May 25 in the St. Petersburg, Florida, trial court, meanwhile, will take up the matter of whether Gawker Media will be required to post all or part of a $50 million bond—the beginning of possibly yearlong and probably convoluted appeals process.
Whatever the legal outcome, however, the court of public opinion has already weighed in.
Denton’s dueling television appearances against Bollea/Hogan in recent days, especially on ABC’s Good Morning America and the network’s female-friendly daytime show The View, have not exactly rendered him warm, cuddly, and sympathetic. Urbane and sardonic, the 49-year-old English-accented Oxford grad was no match on the Oprah Scale for the 62-year-old reality-television performer.
On Wednesday’s The View, Hogan/Bollea wore his heart on his sleeve along with his ever-present crucifix and bandana. He bragged about his attendance at a “predominantly Afro-American church” and the “Afro-American minister” who officiated at his latest marriage; acknowledged his stupidity, as he described it, in having sex on multiple occasions with his best friend’s wife and being caught on video using the n-word to describe his daughter’s black boyfriend; begged forgiveness for his sins; and otherwise portrayed himself—vulnerably, likably—as the victim of unscrupulous users, valiantly fighting back in the name of justice for all.
He even cannily added to his performance repertoire the role of journalism advocate, opining about Gawker: “Nick Denton’s their 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.”
The studio audience loved him.
On Thursday, by contrast, the ladies of The View responded coolly to Denton’s calm, almost bloodless, defense of the First Amendment and the Hogan video, even as he acknowledged: “Look, it’s not to everybody’s taste, I’ll be the first to accept that. To some extent, it’s not even to my taste.”
Denton wisely didn’t try to justify A.J. Daulerio’s now-infamous quip in a deposition shown at the trial concerning sex tapes and 4-year-olds. “It was stupid. It was inappropriate to the circumstances. And we paid a heavy price for it in court,” Denton said.
But that didn’t stop Joy Behar from going on the attack: “But you’re blaming the victim. He’s doing what he’s doing. You’re exploiting it, and the jury basically said you were wrong. They’re saying, ‘Don’t do this anymore. We’re gonna sue your ass and charge you $140 million!’ ”
The audience erupted in cheers.
A couple of hours earlier, it couldn’t have been pleasant as Denton sat waiting to be interviewed live on the set of GMA and watching a lead-in piece in which the six jurors from the Pinellas County Circuit Court urged Gawker to reform itself.
“Put yourself in their shoes if you have the ability to do that,” exhorted juror Kevin Kennedy, referring to Gawker’s targets. “I don’t even know if they have the heart to be able to do that… They have no heart, no soul. It’s all about the almighty dollar to them, and it’s sick.”
Still, Tom Scocca and others told The Daily Beast that they were much reassured after Monday’s verdict when Dietrick presided over an all-hands meeting in Gawker Media’s plush new headquarters in Manhattan’s Flatiron neighborhood.
Dietrick outlined a detailed and encouraging appraisal of the company’s position that posting the Hogan video nearly four years ago met well-established constitutional standards of First Amendment protection—an argument affirmed early on by the state appeals and federal courts, well before Pinellas County Circuit Court Judge Pamela A.M. Campbell took the unusual step of placing the lawsuit on the trial docket anyway.
“Over the course of five years at Gawker Media, I’ve been to plenty of all-hands meetings where people were freaking out and losing their shit,” Scocca said. “And this was not one of them.