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Thursday, August 18, 2016

Gawker Had Its Faults, But Don't Celebrate Its Demise

Not everyone was a fan of Gawker, but nobody should be celebrating its demise. And while I've previously written about the issues with how Gawker approached journalism, that by no means justifies the end of its existence.

Gawker's bankruptcy came on the heels of a successful lawsuit filed by Hulk Hogan for publication of a sex tape. The Hogan lawsuit was bankrolled by Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook. Gawker outed Thiel as being gay. In the wake of Gawker's bankruptcy, Univision bought most of its sites and staff but did not purchase the Gawker name or archived content.

Gawker had more than its fair share of stories designed merely to draw eyeballs to its website and its "everything is fair game" approach to reporting stories raised plenty of questions and criticism.

As a journalist, I find it's important to ask myself whether or not something is newsworthy before publishing it. If Peter Thiel had been running a Ponzi scheme, it's not only newsworthy but it's a journalist's duty to report it. But is it really newsworthy to out Thiel as gay, even if it is true?

It's not illegal to report something that isn't newsworthy, nor can somebody sue an outlet for libel for reporting something that's not newsworthy if the item is true. (In order for a plaintiff to succeed with a libel claim, it must prove what was reported was known to be false and that actual malice took place in reporting.) But the mindset that anything that is true must be reported is what leads people to losing respect for media outlets, especially if they believe the media outlet only cares about how many people read the content, not whether it actually serves the public good.

But for all of Gawker's faults, its demise should still concern journalists and the general public. Gawker has had more than its fair share of strong reporting, reporting that was absolutely newsworthy. For example, Gawker was vigilant in obtaining information about Hillary Clinton using a private e-mail server for classified government material -- news that even the most ardent Gawker critic would have a hard time arguing shouldn't have been reported.

It's reporting like that which gets threatened when somebody like Thiel comes along and bankrolls a lawsuit for somebody like Hogan, even if Thiel and Hogan had legitimate claims that the stories Gawker reported about them were not newsworthy and, in the case of Hogan, the information Gawker reported was illegally passed on to the outlet. But even if Gawker engaged in questionable tactics, the outlet did not deserve, for practical purposes, to be sued out of existence.

Gawker's demise could have serious ramifications for what happens when another outlet considers reporting news about a wealthy individual. While responsible outlets should discuss news received and whether or not it benefits the reader to report it, the fact so many outlets are owned by corporations who may be leery of lawsuits might result in CEOs advising journalists who work for them not to report on anything that might get an outlet sued.

It would be easy to say that journalists need to carefully consider what should and shouldn't be reported. In fact, that was good advice for Gawker and what amounted to a "no holds barred" approach to reporting on whatever a public figure or official did or was like.

But there is as much to worry about when an outlet is essentially shut down by somebody who arguably held a grudge against the outlet -- even if some of his claims against the outlet are valid. Because you never know when the next person holding a grudge tries the same tactic, when that person may not have a valid claim at all.

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