OpinionatedDavid: Gawker Deserved What It Got, But What About The Next Guy?

Right, what’s new in the world of geek news this week?

The new Deus Ex is out. Looks pretty good, and I was a big fan of Human Revolution, but unfortunately there’s no way I’ll be able to pick it up for a while.

We’re still talking about No Man’s Sky, right? That’s not played out yet? Maybe not, but it still feels like the major talking points have been covered pretty succinctly already. Trying to build an entire universe out of procedural generation leads a random directionless experience? Wow, who knew…

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Oh hey, Marvel just cast a mixed-race actress to play MJ in Spider-man: Homecoming. I’m sure that hasn’t caused any undue wailing and gnashing of teeth at all? I mean it’s been six years since Thor, so we’ve all learned our… our… oh good Lord please don’t make me have to touch this one with a ten foot pole! Seriously, anyone in the space who wants to grab some headlines in the next week, you’re more than welcome. Do something crazy. Take one for the team. Hey, M. Knight! You want to announce you’re making a The Last Airbender sequel? Well I never thought I’d say this, but… you’re up buddy!

Please, someone do something that allows me to go another week without losing any more faith in my nerdy brethren. In the meantime, if I’m going to be in a bad mood about something, then it had best be something that matters!

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At time of writing, today is the day that the doors finally close for good at online gossip-mongers (I refuse to call what they did ‘news’) Gawker.com. The battle to save the financially beleaguered website was short and unsuccessful, after losing their highly public lawsuit with former wrestler Hulk Hogan (whose case was bankrolled by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Theil); and, as usual for anything occurring in the online media space, its demise has divided opinion on strict, diametrically opposed lines with no appreciation for nuance of thought. If you are celebrating or mocking the death of Gawker, then you are a fascist who hates freedom of the press. If you think this case sets worrying legal precedent for freedom of the press, then you are a tabloid-consuming monster who thinks Gawker did nothing wrong when it published Hogan’s sex-tape or outed Theil’s homosexuality. Surely this is just another day in social media ‘discourse’? Perhaps, but interestingly this divide doesn’t seem to be drawn along the usual lines of the Kotaku Left or the Breitbart Right. It’s a complex case that has made some strange bedfellows. So, while talking about it may stretch the bounds of my usual purview in these columns, it is a relevant topic of discussion to anyone who does or wants to make a living expressing opinions on the internet.

Let me say this right up front without any beating around the bush: Gawker was awful. They’d been awful for a long time before they became a primary target for people like Peter Theil. I’d call them the ‘TMZ of the internet’, but honestly, some of the behaviour that Gawker displayed in its pursuit of a headline makes rags like TMZ look positively ethical. In my opinion, the worst enemies of journalistic freedom in societies that have it in the first place are unscrupulous pot-stirrers whose entire careers are built around making a mockery of the concept, and it’s about time more of them were made examples of. The people who worked at Gawker do not deserve to be called ‘journalists’.

‘Journalists’ do not pay drug dealers to obtain footage of politicians smoking crack. People currently aspiring and taking their first steps to become journalists (of which I know many) all deserve better than to be associated with these mercenary caterers to our most sensationalist impulses. Honestly, the site of Hulk Hogan’s naked body is one of the least damaging assaults on our collective soul that Gawker’s staff made part of their day job, and anyone leaving the site today with Gawker as a line on their resume deserves to see the resume rejected by every other outlet in the industry.

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Am I being clear enough yet? So long and screw you, Gawker. I have no sympathy, for you or anyone who ever took your pay cheques. Your hand-wringing in your last hours doesn’t wash. You are not a victim of suppression of the free press. You were a parasite; nay, a malignant tumour on the face of a free press…

And yet, what has happened to Gawker does set worrying precedent for an industry filled, mostly, with people more deserving of my sympathy. Just because their bankruptcy and subsequent closure is richly deserved, does not mean that the way it has been done is just.

While it’s not really the point, it would be remiss of me not to express a certain amount of distaste for the portrayal of Hogan and Theil as heroes by people who have wanted to see Gawker die for a long time. Hulk Hogan is a washed-up racist, and that’s about where my interest in him ends, but Theil’s involvement is far more interesting.

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Depending of the degree to which you despise his opponent, Theil’s financial backing of Hogan’s lawsuit is either a charitable act of a concerned citizen, or a petty pursuit of vengeance by a man with an axe to grind. Even if you believe that the bad blood on his part is completely understandable (and I do) you should disabuse yourself of the notion that Peter Theil is just out to see justice done. Where was he for Jennifer Lawrence, or the countless other people, famous or otherwise, who have had naked images of themselves stolen and published without their consent, by outlets great and small? Where even is his comment on the wider trend? Where was Theil yesterday, when hackers took control of comedian and actress Leslie Jones’ website, flooding it with racist and misogynist abuse as well as publishing what seemed to be private, explicit images of her? I’m not saying he should have been compelled to in order to have any right to involve himself in Hogan’s case, but neither can I believe that the man really cares about any wrong that has been done to anybody but himself.

If that wasn’t enough, Theil’s most recent ‘investment’ is in a company called Legalist, a company whose mission statement has been described (not at all sinisterly) as “trial by algorithm”. Basically, Legalist gathers and disseminates data from civil lawsuits; and then, when their algorithm concludes that there is an above 50% chance of either winning or settling for a profit, Legalist will fund a portion of your case in exchange for a cut of the damages received.

That’s right. Peter Theil wants to make gambling on your lawsuit into a legitimate business. That is something he thinks is a good idea.

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But whatever, if you don’t care about Theil and Hogan being potentially just as bad as Gawker, that’s fair enough. What’s more concerning, for me at least, is they have essentially just proved that someone with enough money can legally, though the courts no less, hound a journalistic outlet they don’t like to bankruptcy. Now, in case it bears repeating, I don’t consider what Gawker did to be legitimate journalism, but the fact remains if I was a journalist, I’d be feeling far more precarious in my position today because of what Theil has proven. It’s not a problem for big outlets. Rupert Murdoch can afford his own army of lawyers, and if he loses, there are unlikely to be any sort of damages that he can’t pay. For smaller, independent outlets though, the ones who actually need ironclad protection under the law, it is now going to become very difficult to write anything unflattering about someone with far more money than them. Even in a case that is less financially lopsided, when an outside benefactor intervenes in your case to settle their own score, then that case essentially becomes more about them than whatever is actually on the table, and I don’t know what else you call that but a sham trial. If we need more ironclad checks against abuses of power by elements of the free press, then they need to be better than this. They need to work for everyone, not just the exceedingly rich.

Gawker is a bad hill to die on if you want to defend freedom of the press. My hope is that the same thing doesn’t have to happen to someone better before we ask ourselves if this is the kind of justice we want.

…That was this week’s OpinionatedDavid article!!! Check back at 6pm his evening for a brand new VuePoint!!!

 

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