From The Editor: Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker: whoever wins, we lose
Columns / November 10, 2017
I spoke on a panel about media censorship that included a screening of Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, a film which, in part, examines Hulk Hogan’s secretly-funded court case against Gawker for releasing his sex tape.
The event was presented by KDocs, Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s documentary festival, and contemplating the importance of journalism in North America so carefully left one prevailing thought in my mind: Gawker’s work did not deserve to be called newsworthy.
For those of you unfamiliar with the outlet, Gawker was a sensationalist online publication that became known for getting dirt on America’s A-list celebrities, one of which was Terry Gene Bollea, also known as wrestler and TV personality Hulk Hogan. Even Gawker’s arguably serious stories suffered from a cloyingly obvious bias towards “gotcha” journalism and, at best, could be accepted as well-written blog posts. At worst, they trafficked in baseless cyberbullying.
In an industry full of senior journalists working themselves to the bone just to keep their newsrooms running, Gawker was an immature high school freshman spreading rumours about all the kids they didn’t like. Then, when it came back to haunt them, they had the gall to sit in front of a camera and say that Bollea and Peter Thiel—the billionaire co-founder of Paypal who donated millions to support Bollea’s lawsuit—were attacking the entirety of the free press by taking them to court.
There is, however, truth to the argument that Thiel supported the Gawker lawsuit in order to get back at reporters who published content he didn’t like. With no one save for Bollea and his legal counsel knowing, Thiel effectively weaponized his personal fortune, contributing $10 million to win the case and bankrupted the publication. The documentary Nobody Speak argues that he did so to get back at the writers who publicly speculated on his sexuality—and, in Thiel’s eyes, wrongfully humiliated him—years prior. That is what’s still dangerous about the Gawker/Bollea case today.
By acting out his own vendetta against one trashy online publication, Thiel told the world that, with enough money and willpower, anyone can take journalists down. That should make everyone uneasy.
With Trump instilling fear and distrust of the media in the American people through his “fake news” rhetoric, we are at risk of being dismantled by corrupt powers now more than ever. Rich white men like Trump have an arsenal of weapons to use against the free press, and thanks to Thiel’s role in ending Gawker, they now know that they don’t even need to have a good reason to sue the people telling the public truths that they don’t like. All they need is a lot of money.
Too many bad people have that in spades, and too few good journalists have the resources they need to defend their work and contributions to democracy.
Dressing something as ugly as Gawker up with pretty words about the bravery of unabashed journalism doesn’t make it any less of a gossip rag, and the writers who speak so proudly about their work with the publication ought to admit that they deserved to be sued for bullying a flawed celebrity for the sake of getting online views. What they did not deserve was to be bankrupted in a fight that, from the beginning, unfairly targeted the free press.