Press freedom, Hulk Hogan, and Gawker on the canvas

Jun 15, 2016
freedom of speech
abuse of power
Press freedom and the downfall of Gawker Media: A clash between Peter Thiel and a controversial tabloid leads to legal battles, privacy concerns, and threats to freedom of speech in the digital age.
Little has been discussed about the subject here, but last week, an event in the American media delved into some of America's deepest beliefs: technology, capitalism, freedom of speech, privacy, abuse of power, trash icons: the likely downfall of one of America's most talked-about media start-ups is a colossus of reflections.
Quick scene: enter Peter Thiel. The stereotype of the successful American entrepreneur: dual nationality (German/American), creator of a highly disruptive tool (PayPal) that leaves the creature to manage a growing fortune and invest in probable digital successes. Part of the stereotype ends there. Thiel is not the "left-wing" visionary like most of his peers (note: the American "left" is a center-right anywhere else). He is a conservative Republican who donated money to Donald Trump's campaign, the 666 of world politics. Moreover, despite being gay (as we will see, the information about his sexuality here is relevant and not just sexism), he is not an activist and until 2007, was not even out. To top off the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, Thiel has dedicated his last years to trying to destroy Gawker Media, for whom he harbors infinite hatred (which we will address below).
Gawker: a white digital fly. In a world of loss, layoffs, and journalistic impoverishment, Nick Denton's company has laid back over the last decade by launching several sites like Deadspin (sports), Jezebel (feminism), Gizmodo (gadgets) and Valleywag (Silicon Valley), among others, on its Kinja blog platform, which reached traffic growth rates of almost 40% per year. Despite having a strong tabloid element, Denton's team (which had more than 130 full-time employees) made relevant stories that served the public interest, unmasking celebrity hypocrisies and the like. But it wasn't just that: just as it did with Peter Thiel, the Gawker group's flagship brand stepped into the mud and trafficked in nebulous areas where the public interest was just the interest of the public (which is not the same thing).

PayPal is a rock

Things got small for Gawker in a plot typical of a Globo novel. After entering the dispute with Gawker with a very expensive legal team, Hulk Hogan (a trash character from American w.a.s.p. culture - something that in Brazil would be a mix of José Aldo with Xuxa) won the stop on appeal and is expected to receive from Gawker Media a settlement of $140 million, an amount that liquidates the company with all its assets (and still leaves a debt of $40 mi). The shocking revelation was that Hogan's legal team was financed by Thiel, the nemesis of the company he describes as "the Al Qaeda of journalism," in an act of pure vendetta.
And it doesn't stop there: other actions by third parties against the publication also have the "finger of death" of the creator of PayPal. Nick Denton said he won't back down and spent all the freedom of speech discourse against Thiel, but the situation is so cliché of a movie that it even gave rise to hear the phantom laugh of the supervillain Thiel, with an eyepatch and drinking a dry martini while looking at a polluted megalopolis from his glass-top office in a skyscraper at night.
What's the hassle here? Many. You have all the character stereotypes here and the script variation depends on your outlook. Gawker Media can be from the independent media company that fights against the system to destroy the villain or the sordid tabloid that mines dirty traffic by slandering fair people. Thiel can be the visionary entrepreneur who dedicates his resources to attack the brown press or the head of a villain corporation that buys everything and everyone to destroy the hero. The narratives are numerous, but unfortunately, the episode is bad in almost everything.
The British Nick Denton gave his company a tabloid character. Frequently, Gawker's publications went beyond the account and even when they were worth the joke, it happened that the agenda was prejudiced, gratuitous and/or of dubious taste. This character made the agenda of the story about Thiel's sexuality come to the fore and be published. Thiel has little of the positive stereotype of an entrepreneur besides having created a giant like PayPal. He has controversial opinions - considers Edward Snowden a "traitor-hero", supports the radical wing of the Republican Party and argues that "competition is for losers, business is monopoly", something paradoxical for someone who built on top of capitalism in its maximum state. A fight between him and Denton should have been a toast to the discussion of the first amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech, but it turned into a clash between a brown journalism publisher and a millionaire attacking freedom of speech driven by a blind thirst for revenge.
Hogan goes almost unnoticed in the episode. Despite the lawsuit that killed Gawker being about a video of him having sex with a friend's wife, he is irrelevant and must be thanking the heavens that Peter Thiel made possible the lawsuit that should give him a millionaire settlement. His collaboration is symbolic, lending his figure to an episode that is almost a porn script for being so bad. The episode is a blow to freedom of speech because the amount awarded by the judge is completely disproportionate and sets a dangerous precedent, especially before a campaign where one of the candidates (guess which one) announces that he wants to review the freedom of speech guaranteed by the American constitution. The founders of the US did not imagine they would open space for such a low duel when they formulated the American magna carta. This sad, useless dispute, however, may leave the door open for more serious aggressions against society.
The pig twists its tail a lot from the moment the joy of the decision is about the text that basically influenced all the texts of the western democracies. As much as a heavy indemnity can be given to curb excesses (because the article revealing Thiel's sexuality was not the only Gawker offense to privacy), it is unreasonable to allow it to simply make a publication unfeasible as a whole. The incident is particularly harmful because Denton's business model was one of the few successes born in digital, even though it was based on questionable journalism.
What happens now? Thiel will continue to run over Denton and will certainly be seen with more rigorous scrutiny from the media, which will love to publish something that can create a problem for those who threaten journalists. In a scenario with more and more billionaires, with less and less sustainable journalism and with a deluded neo-fascist running for the White House, the tech drama is much less funny than it should be.
The content of this post is based on the research of Fabricio Calado.

© Cassiano Gobbet 2023 - 2024