Gawker’s Era Is Over. Thank God. Let’s Hope Breitbart Is Next.
Last week, in response to the news that Gawker.com would cease publication forever after its parent company, Gawker Media, sold itself to the highest bidder (Univision) at a bankruptcy auction precipitated by its loss to Hulk Hogan in a Florida court, Jeff Bercovici, sent out a rather strange tweet. Bercovici, who has done wonderful work at Forbes and Playboy and is now an editor at Inc., lamented that: “The most depressing thing about Gawker shutdown is how unlikely the void they leave is to be filled.”
It’s a resurgent sentiment in media these days, one that has risen almost in lockstep with Gawker’s declining fortunes. What these nostalgic elegies would have you believe is that Gawker was a brave and fearless haven for original, investigative reporting — that the site may have been controversial and unorthodox but it was pure and earnest and good. The problem is that this is a self-serving and utterly unsupportable lie.
Yes, Gawker broke a number of important stories in its 14 years of existence. It would be absurd to deny that they had. We can even credit them for publishing truths others would not risk saying (the same could also be said at times of the National Enquirer). But certainly no one can pretend that was what the Gawker was best known for or that those brave, important stories amounted to an even measureable fraction of the tens of thousands of articles published over more than a decade by its horde of writers.
No, the void that Gawker filled in our media system was not one of independent journalism but of recklessness, immaturity and self-assured superiority. As the Columbia Journalism Review explained in late 2014, “it’s no secret that Gawker is the bully of the internet. It regularly takes down “weaker” competitors — the textbook definition of bullying. In the high school hallway that is the New York media scene, Gawker Media is the Biff Tannen-type, shoving whoever they want into a locker.”
I would argue that it’s far more than the New York media scene in which Gawker has viciously thrown its weight around, often with the express purpose of hurting or belittling other people. Take this post, where a Gawker writer mercilessly mocks a four year old because they didn’t like his author father. Or the time when they hijacked a Coke advertising campaign to feature quotes from Hitler. Or the other time where they submitted an extract from Hitler’s Mein Kampf to a Jason Whitlock’s Fox Sports blog about journalism. Or its “500 days” series — literally five hundred posts — mocking reality star Kristin Cavallari. Or its habit of combing through hacked emails, celebrity nude photos and its shaming of Justine Sacco. Want a more recent example? Just last Friday, Deadspin spent time making fun of a Olympic racewalk athlete for appearing to have “poop problems” during his race which was funny
right up until the athlete collapsed onto the pavement.
Why anyone would feel this is a role worth filling in society is beyond me. What’s more surprising to me about the revisionist history now being spun as the site closes down is that someone has long matched Gawker fearless troll for fearless troll, but to decidedly less begrudging respect from the journalistic community.
I’m talking about Breitbart News. One was formed in 2007. The other in 2003. One covers politics. The other gossip. They are two media empires founded by two iconoclasts. Both reached millions of people at their heights, both have been connected to lawsuits with potentially massive cultural and legal implications. They are two sites whose publishing philosophy can be boiled down to “We don’t give a fuck” and who reshaped the discourse in their respective fields accordingly.
These two sites, with two very different ideologies, two relatively distinct beats, and two radically different readerships, are driven by the exact same destructive ethos. Naturally, they both look down on each other. They see their rival as a source of true cultural evil. They view the other as the photo negative of themselves, not the photocopy they actually are. They are incapable of understanding that they both make the world a worse place for the same reasons.
Depending on where you fall on the political spectrum, you might already disagree with me. Plenty of people on the right have celebrated the recent fall of Gawker without acknowledging that that they had their own rabid dog to put down (like Gawker apologists, they point to the few important stories Breitbart journalists have broken). And plenty of journalists who are now expressing faux-solidarity and misguided support for Gawker have cheered legal action against Breitbart while simultaneously wailing against its cultural impact.
To an impartial observer it should be self-evident that both sites share a sensibility of depravity and anger. They operate with the utter conviction that everything they do is right and that because they occasionally moonlight as investigative reporters there should never be any consequences for their behavior.
Both sites are staffed with disaffected, anti-social writers who fundamentally lack empathy. This is not just a result of their hiring process, but a trait fused into the DNA of the outlets by their unusual founders. Breitbart was the provocateur, desperate for attention at all costs — convinced of conspiracy theories and malevolence around every corner, but never able to spot his own. Nick Denton is a self-described “extremist” when it comes to transparency, convinced that everyone else is a tyrant and a hypocrite and needs to be taken down a notch — everyone but him. Both hired writers and editors, young and old, who were willing to take up this mantle. Willing to toil away at some perverse mission, rewarded with relative autonomy to bully and intimidate others as they saw fit.
Breitbart writes a piece that shamelessly tries to get Tom Nichols, a college professor at the U.S. Naval War College, fired for his political views. Gawker outs a married man for trying to possibly hire a gay prostitute. Breitbart calls Bill Kristol a “Renegade Jew.” Gawker posts the video of a potential rape and refuses to take it down until overwhelmed by moral opprobrium.
It goes on and on.
One of the most common criticisms of Gawker and Breitbart is that they are like Heath Ledger’s character in the movie Batman. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” is the line they most often quote.
I actually think that’s the wrong movie to draw from. The right movie is Tombstone. There is a scene in which Wyatt Earp is getting ready to face off with the gunslinger Johnny Ringo. “What makes a man like Ringo do the things he does?” Wyatt asks Doc Holliday. Holliday, near death, is lying in bed. He says, “A man like Ringo’s got a great big hole, right in the middle of himself. And he can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain to ever fill it.”
They go on:
Wyatt: What does he want?Doc: Revenge.Wyatt: For what?Doc: Bein’ born.
That’s an apt summary of the mentality of the broken and jaded generation of writers who make up sites like Gawker and Breitbart. It’s that attitude that turns people into terrorists, into petty tyrants, bullies and, starting around the turn of this millennium, it began to manifest itself in a breed of an online writer who took pleasure in taking down others — in calling bullshit on everything and everyone (but themselves). Early on in this trend, some described it as the “rage of the creative underclass” but that falsely slandered an entire profession. In the way that studies have found that there is a certain percentage of psychopaths in every army, the media profession was infiltrated by a small group of cruel and avaricious individuals who clumped together at a few outlets.
Gawker and Breitbart are two. You can see that anger — that desire for revenge for being born — in a few key exchanges and events in the companies’ histories.
You see it in Gawker’s self-appointed role of outing gay people — and celebrating the bankruptcies and financial pains of other companies (because that could never happen to them, right?). You see it in the remarks of a writer like Sam Biddle, of Valleywag, who tweeted that the GamerGate movement was “reaffirming what we’ve known to be true for decades: nerds should be constantly shamed and degraded into submission.” You see it in Denton’s wistful and Trump-like reminiscence on Facebook about an earlier time when “writers could get away with more pungent language
when the internet felt like a place you could say what you really thought.” (That is when he could be as offensive and cruel as his heart desired). You see it in former editor Max Read’s explanation of the exhilaration he felt publishing Gawker’s most controversial stories, that he “liked being the villain, the critic, the bomb-thrower.”.
You see it in A.J. Daulerio’s deposition in Gawker’s trial with Hulk Hogan. In the deposition — taped before the trial — Gawker’s former editor is asked whether it was correct to say that he never considered the person on the other end of his story. His answer? “Correct.” Asked “Had you known that Hulk Hogan would be emotionally distressed by this publication, you would have still published it, correct?” His reply? “Sure, yes.” Asked whether he even cared when writing it if it was actually Hogan in the video, his reply? No, he did not. Then asked whether there were any sex tapes he would not consider newsworthy or publishable, he replied only “if it were a child.” Under what age? “4.”
You see the same nasty glee in Milo Yiannopoulos, Breitbart’s technology editor, who was recently banned from Twitter after the harassment of Leslie Jones, the star of the recent Ghostbusters reboot. You can see the same attitude in Andrew Breitbart’s response after viciously smearing Shirley Sherrod. Initially, Breitbart posted a selected video excerpt of a speech that portrayed Shirley as racist towards white people when in fact, her entire speech had the opposite meaning. Forced to correct the piece by overwhelming public backlash, he simply posted this at the top of the piece:
Correction: While Ms. Sherrod made the remarks captured in the first video featured in this post while she held a federally appointed position, the story she tells refers to actions she took before she held that federal position.
I know that Breitbart is no longer with us and speaking ill of the dead is frowned upon, but fuck that guy. Seriously, it takes a special kind of person to get caught lying on a national scale by the entire media system and then, when forced to correct their mistake, does so spitting through clenched teeth. True to form, when Andrew was sued by Sherrod and others afterwards, he responded with a press release: “Andrew Breitbart on Pigford Lawsuit: ‘Bring It On’”
Max Read and Andrew Breitbart probably wouldn’t agree on much but when it came to the former’s decision to resign in protest when Gawker made the unprecedented step to retract a story which needlessly shamed and exposed the gay fling of a married man with children, Andrew Breitbart would have certainly understood. Two sides of same broken coin.
Of course, these are cherry picked examples. But the examples Gawker’s founder has held up on his legacy public relations tour — the exposure of Toronto’s former mayor for smoking crack or exposing airbrushing on the cover of Redbook magazine or asking questions about Hillary’s email server — are cherry picked too. The vast majority of their work, like Breitbart’s, has been garden-variety garbage. Taking the time to dissect every needlessly harsh word, every post that subtly mocked or undermined, every sarcastic, holier-than-thou comment, every unfair assumption or speculation, would fill thousands of pages. I think it would also distract from the cunning logic behind the operations which have reached billions of people over the years.
Both Brietbart and Gawker have long understood the core economic reality of the online media system and been ruthless about exploiting it to their advantage and profited immensely from it. When Gawker says that rumors help get to the truth, they mean that they can force people’s hands — smoke the truth out through coverage (Indeed, they were able to help reveal that Peter Thiel was funding the lawsuit against the company by “speculating” that a tech-billionaire was behind it. Lo and behold, Forbes “broke” the news shortly thereafter). Gawker’s own editors have argued against using “truth” as a standard for the viral stories they raked in millions of views for publishing — saying that if they only published true articles, traffic would go down.
Breitbart, for its part, openly embraced partisanship at levels that even Fox News would turn away from. They also embraced undesirable readers that the rest of the media avoided — for ethical and branding reasons. As Breitbart’s former spokesperson Kurt Bardella explained to the Huffington Post, “There are a lot more racist and ignorant people in America that are now on the Internet. I’m not saying all people from a certain ideology are racist or ignorant. What I’m saying is that if you’re racist or ignorant you are probably a Breitbart reader.” Starting with its founder, Breitbart also saw the value in floating extreme or ridiculous stories through the media chain — making them real by nature of the pile-on coverage (even though they often turned out to be false). As Andrew Breitbart explained before his death, “Feeding the media is like training a dog. You can’t throw an entire steak at a dog to train it to sit. You have to give it little bits of steak over and over again until it learns.”
All this is gross, obviously, and has had a massive impact on our culture. Many people, especially journalists, would agree that the conduct listed above is deplorable, but would say in the next breath that it shouldn’t be illegal. I agree with them. Being an asshole isn’t illegal, nor should it be. (God knows, I’ve worked for some and probably been one myself far too many times.)
It’s worth pointing out for the thousandth time: It wasn’t attitude that Gawker was sued for nor what drove them into bankruptcy.
Just as Breitbart was free to troll and disrupt our political system as much as he wanted, it wasn’t until he libeled and slandered Shirley Sherrod, that he and the site were sued. Breitbart was welcome to fund a kook like James O’Keefe all he liked — the problem is when he illegally videotaped and smeared an ACORN employee. It’s when they crossed that line that their fate became imperiled.
After the news of Gawker’s closing, Sam Stein tweeted, “If an eccentric liberal billionaire engineered the bankruptcy of Breitbart, [he’d] be sad too.” Except that misses the point. All that Thiel or any billionaire is able to engineer is a shot before a judge and jury. Gawker ended up in court because they crossed a legal line by publishing a surreptitiously recorded sex tape — revenge porn — and they lost because a jury and judge decided against them.
Gawker’s only argument against any of the mortal legal judgments levied against them boils down to this: Hulk Hogan cheated by not spending his own money and screwed them by rejecting their offers to settle. Which is preposterous. Given that Hogan won, why should he have settled? If Sherrod had had an airtight case and the chance to go in for the kill against Breitbart for his video thanks to the financial support of a sympathetic benefactor, should she have not gone for it? Please.
They would both be exercising their right to pursue redress in a court of law for injury sustained at the hands of another; just as Peter Thiel exercised his free speech rights through his pocketbook; just as you have the right to donate to the ACLU; just as Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, has the right to pick up some of Gawker’s legal bills.
One could reasonably argue that the use of the American judicial process in this manner is an alarming precedent. I don’t know enough to have a reasoned opinion about whether that’s the case (I suspect it’s not). But I know enough about the media to reasonably argue that the hole (the “void”, as Jeff Bercovici worriedly called it), left behind by the death of Gawker is a fiction. Because the vast majority of us don’t have that void. The dark hole inside us that can never be filled by enough smug superiority, recklessness, snark, gossip, bitterness, rage and resentment?
It’s not there. Nor should it be.
We should be so lucky that no one takes their spot in the trenches and mans the machine gun of malevolence and misanthropy. We should be so lucky if Breitbart screws up someday and destroys itself. The world would be better for it.