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Gawker’s demise: Justified or an attempt to quash free speech?

by | Aug 24, 2016 | Analysis, News, Twitter

“F*** it”.

The headline donning the front page of Gawker in its last days is fitting, given how the outlet ran for nearly fourteen years. Having declared bankruptcy and been sold at auction, the website which crowd-sourced funds to purchase the Rob Ford crack video, introduced readers to the Silk Road, and outed many prominent public figures as gay, has finally (unsurprisingly) been hoist by its own petard.

A brief history of Gawker’s legal troubles

2007:Gawker published the subtly titled “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.” But as it turns out, antagonizing a billionaire has repercussions. In the years that followed, Gawker’s Silicon Valley sister outlet Valleywag published dozens of articles on Thiel and other prominent Valley figures.

2012: Gawker published the sex tape of former wrestler Hulk Hogan. Initially, Hogan’s attorney David Houston sent several cease and desist letters to Gawker, who eventually removed the video “pending litigation”. And here’s where things get weird(er): Within days, the Hulkster is outfitted with a shiny, new, much higher-profile attorney — Charles Harder — who files a lawsuit against Gawker.

Within two months of filing the lawsuit, Harder files incorporation papers to create Harder Mirell & Abrams LLP. Two months after this, a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against Gawker for unpaid interns, signs a retainer with Harder.

Hogan’s case, as well as a litany of other lawsuits against Gawker, mount for several years.

Among the plaintiffs are Meanith Huon, an attorney who claims Gawker portrayed him as a serial rapist, and Ashley Terrill, a writer — both suing for defamation of character.

2016: Judgement year

The new year brought little respite for Gawker and founder Nick Denton. Needing cash to fuel the litany of legal battles Gawker now found itself in, it sold off a minority stake in the company. Denton later stated were it not for the litigation issues, the company would be profitable.

Ultimately, a Florida jury awarded Hogan $115M, including an additional $25M in punitive damages. Forbes then reveals that Peter Thiel bankrolled Hogan’s case against Gawker, kicking off a wave of speculation as to whether he was behind all the recent attacks.

Denton, grappling with the impending demise of his company, penned an open letter to Thiel in which he raised several questions: What would your editorial strategy be? Is your goal to bankrupt, buy or wound? Thiel does not respond.

Weeks later, Gawker files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.

Several weeks after this, Denton files for personal bankruptcy, effectively ending any final hope for Gawker’s revival. On Aug. 16th, Gawker Media is sold at auction to Univision Communications for $135M.

What now?

Denton and Thiel’s actions have divided public opinion, with some viewing Thiel’s campaign as a crusade against exploitative, unethical journalism. Others see a slighted billionaire, vengeful for having been “outed”, and utilizing his massive fortune to crush free speech.

But do Thiel’s actions run counter to free-speech tenets? Has he created a blueprint for the super-rich to quash unflattering publications, or is he simply exercising his free speech to the fullest extent? In a post-Citizens United world, perhaps it is not the wealth gap that allowed Thiel to execute his plan, so much as the litigious nature of modern America.

As for public opinion, Twitter remains divided. In a sample of tweets on the issue, 46 per cent of Thiel’s mentions were positive, with tweets often citing Gawker’s morally questionable history as justification for their fate.

Meanwhile, 66 per cent of Denton’s mentions on the issue were supportive, casting Thiel as a deep-pocketed bully who can’t take a little heat.

gawker, gawker chart, gawker twitter

It’s worth noting that while Thiel generated more negative coverage overall, the degree of vitriol towards Denton was far more vicious. Here’s a tame example:

Unsurprisingly then, the story appears far from over for Gawker’s founder. The site’s downfall has brought other critics out of the woodwork, with accusations that Denton facilitated all sorts of unseemly activities and even spawning the hashtag #JailDenton.

*Update: 8/25/16*

Peter Thiel just backed a startup that helps you sue companies algorithmically

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Myles Leach
Myles has been with Agility PR Solutions since December 2015, first as a lead generation specialist and now as a data analyst with the Media Insights Group. He is the analyst for and author of reports for government departments and large oil and gas clients. Myles has a degree in International Relations from Carleton University.

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