Gawker, Trump and Checks & Balances

The death of localized, sometimes-too-aggressive media

Ranjan here. Can and I both have a number of pet theories. One of my long-running ideas is that if Gawker was still around, Trump would not have won. Yeah, it's out there, but here goes.

Being a trader in NYC during the 2000s was full of the attendant douchebaggery. Knowing every off-menu item at Nobu. Lots of bottle service. Talking about how expensive your watch was. I could go on and on, but lots of sudden money invariably contributes to a douchesuite of entitlement, arrogance and invincibility. 

But within that unshakeable confidence, there was one thing that instilled a hint of fear among younger finance guys who went out a lot in NYC: Gawker.

Being far away from the media world, none of us quite understood "what" exactly it was, but with Gawker (along with Dealbreaker, and the entire world of gossip-y, local blog sites) lurking, there was always an inkling of fear that if you did something really stupid, you'd get publicly shamed.

There were two big ones I'll never forget. The first was the Models & Bottles guy, A.J in October 2006.

All the poor kid did was let himself get taped in some stupid club promo video. He talked about how Thursday nights were for going “top down, models and bottles" (but no one would ever drive themselves to a club in NYC!). He was “an analyst at a large investment bank”. 

The thing about trading floor "viral content" is, because everyone was sitting so close to each other, digital virality had a very strong analog element to it. Someone at the end of the row would stand up and shout "did you see the models and bottles guy?" and you'd shout to them to send you the link on Bloomberg Instant Messenger. You could watch information physically spread, a slow stream of laughter turning into a flood, flowing down your row of seats.

Gawker was relentless (as seen in "Our Continuing Coverage of AJ: Day Seven"). In the video, the guy really did come off as an idiot, but man, do I feel bad for him. I would guess whoever produced that video was more to blame. I'm not sure what happened to A.J., and hopefully he ended up okay.

The other was Aleksey Veyner’s Impossible is Nothing video resume. This was a sort of coming out party for the symbiosis of the blog culture and YouTube (this one was picked up by a blog called IvyGate). Some Yale kid sent a "video resume" to UBS. As someone who's professional life is focused on getting the corporate world to be a bit more original on the content front, I should probably applaud the originality.

It’s rough. He records himself bench-pressing a self-reported 495 pounds and serving a tennis ball at a self-reported 140 mph. He said he studied in Tibet under the Dalai Lama. Just the entire thing is perfect cringe fodder. It even went " mainstream" as the NYT Dealbook interviewed him.

I felt bad for both of these guys, yet I watched and laughed. But this is the thing in the mid-2000s; all of us had a little voice in our heads saying "Don't end up on Gawker." Human Resources at a bank would actually tell you in trainings, always think about your actions in the context of ending up on the cover of the WSJ in a negative light (stipple hedcut and all). That kept you in check during the workday, but the moment you walked out the door, Gawker and gang kept you in line.

And, I think that was a good thing.

CHECKS AND BALANCES

Last week, I wrote about the lack of accountability that defines the current decade. The fear that Gawker, Dealbreaker and the others put it in young finance dudes was one small check on unabated douchebaggery. Those sites did push the line of decency. There were people who got very unfairly burned. There was a lot wrong with the model. But it was something.

It also represented a vision of what the media ecosystem could look like. It’s not a coincidence that the above two things happened in October of 2006. YouTube had become a real thing. But, YouTube played the role of video hosting and embedding service (kind of like today’s Vimeo) . In a way, it gave independent media an edge. While the big news companies were still working with ugly, heavy and slow video infrastructure, YouTube gave the indies an agile way to start playing with video.

BUBBA THE LOVE SPONGE

The way Gawker went down could be the most Gawker thing possible. While the business-school sounding duopolization of digital ad revenue was the nail in the coffin for most independent media, Gawker would not go down that easily.

Most of our readers are probably acquainted with the story, but for a quick summary, Hulk Hogan had sex with the wife of his shock jock friend, who goes by the name Bubba the Love Sponge. It was done at the request of Bubba the Love Sponge, who secretly videotaped it. Years later, a rival shock jock broke into Bubba the Love Sponge's home, stole the tape and leaked it to Gawker. They posted it and Hogan sued for invasion of privacy.

Of course, that was not enough. Peter Thiel had been secretly bankrolling an effort to bankrupt Gawker for years, seeking out potential lawsuits as attack channels. The Hogan sex tape was to become "the case”. The lawyer Charles Harder, who also has represented Harvey Weinstein, and now represents Donald Trump, aggressively led the case which did, in fact, bankrupt Gawker.

Still with me?

Gawker founder, Nick Denton suspected there was a more powerful force than Hogan behind the case. There was, as Peter Thiel, came out as the mastermind in an interview with the NYTimes. It was a decade-long revenge plot after Gawker had outed Thiel years before.

In classic Silicon Valley doublespeak, Thiel, who made a half-billion dollars and is still on the board of Facebook, the company that has eviscerated the concept of personal privacy, wanted to destroy Gawker for encroaching upon his privacy. The guy who literally wrote a book encouraging you to build a monopoly declared the need to end bullyish practices. 

It worked. In the lawsuit that was originally filed in July 2015, finally ended them in June 2016, neutering them during that entire period.


WHERE DO WE GO NOW

I've been thinking about what the death of Gawker meant for our information environment for a while, but the effective death of Deadspin this week really put it into overdrive.

One of my good friends, who I would generously call, a late-adopter, messaged me how pissed he was about this. He quipped "one by one, the rotation of websites I check every morning has died off. Where am I supposed to go now?" 

My first reaction was, "you still go to a rotation of websites?" while my second reaction was "READ NEWSLETTERS DAMMIT", but it was a stark reminder.

All of those websites are gone.

That mid-2000s consumption mode of having a rotation of major media websites, indie publications, aggregators, and social networking sites is long gone. Now you just open one of a few apps.

I had taken issue with Matt Stoller's recent NYT op-ed, “Tech Companies Are Destroying Democracy and the Free Presswhich argues that Google and Facebook's duopolization of the digital advertising market has been instrumental in killing off local journalism. There’s still lives a bit of a neoliberal in me that reacted, "no one is entitled to that market".

But I think he's right. It's the centralization of the ad market, along with the centralization of all our information distribution channels that are the genesis of so many of our problems. It's the lack of competition and numerous players. It's the lack of the small-to-mid-market. It’s having aggressive voices, close to home, calling out stupidity.

The NYTimes, WSJ, WaPo and other big players are still doing incredibly important work. But the fact that they have "New York", "Wall Street" and "Washington" in their names is why they will never be fully trusted by many. It's the reason why simpy calling them "fake news" thing is so effective. The journalists are so far removed from so much of the country that many people simply discount them. “Local News” has become some weird patchwork of ad-plastered syndication that feels more Taboola than truth-to-power.

The rise of Big Tech was nearly unchecked in the early 2010s. While Big Media was barely registering the story, the smaller players like TechCrunch were cheerleaders selling industry event tickets. There was no check. Now that the industry receives, what would still be considered kid glove coverage compared to finance, energy, government and most other big industry, the participants are so unexposed to genuine accountability that they view basic critical coverage as an attack.

That lack of close-to-home accountability is where corruption thrives. It's where misinformation blossoms. It's where all sense of personal responsibility disappears. And the destruction of a business model that supported this type of work is gone. So I guess I do agree with Matt Stoller.

YES MARK, TRUTH-SEEKING IS MESSY

Mark Zuckerberg is currently on this kick where he likes to talk about the messiness of freedom of speech, but he's missing a major part of this. Gawker was a messy thing. Aggressive, muckraking, truth-telling can often be a very messy thing.

The Models and Bottles and Nothing is Impossible guys got hit hard, but that kind of media-shaming is now everywhere. Except, unlike having at least some blogger-journalist to blame, there is no one, just an algorithm. Before, there were real, human journalists who bore at least some semblance of accountability. Certainly enough accountability that they could be sued into oblivion. That's gone.

If some random individual posted the Hogan video to Facebook or YouTube, would that be free speech?

If someone had just outed Peter Thiel via a Facebook post, would it be okay?

Zuck & Co tell us that free speech is messy. Yes, it is, but he misses the part where holding power to account can also be messy. Gawker could often go too far. We’re repeatedly told that the transgressions are of Big Tech are simply the “price of innovation”, but having a robust, regional and sometimes-too-aggressive press is the price of truth, and we’re currently not collectively paying for that. It was killed on multiple fronts.

The business model that funded small-to-mid-sized consumer-focused publications has been decimated. Instead of the douchebag class being afraid, Peter Thiel made sure the writers are afraid. Aggressive, localized journalism is gone. The blogs are gone.

That's why WeWork can get to where it got. That's why our leaders can simply lie. That's why corruption can exist at every level of our society. And that's why I think the death of Gawker is why Donald Trump won.

…I mean seriously, just look at the timeline! In July 2015, the lawsuit is filed and Gawker is neutered through the entire rise of Trump.


Note #1: In 2013, Aleksey Veyner died at the age of 29, of what I can find, still unknown causes. I'm not sure what to say about this but figure it should be mentioned.

Note #2: In 2008 I emailed Gabe Snyder, then editor of Gawker about the term douchebags, which he posted. That was one of the moments that got me obsessed with digital media and made me want to leave finance. Thanks Gabe.

Note #3: In a nod to Andrew Granato’s Abandoned Internet Margins guest post, when you try to go to the original IvyGate post on Aleksey Veyner:

Note #4: As I see newsletters like Heated and Popular Information gain traction on Substack, it’s the fist tinge of hope I’ve felt in a long time.