September 5, 2016

MOSKOWITZ | How Free is our Press?

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Photo Courtesy of Gawker

On August 22nd, Gawker, a blog that had over 800 million page views in the last year, and posted more than 200,000 articles in its lifetime, was destroyed. Some in the media have argued argue that this came about because of Gawker’s own sins and that Gawker’s posting of “non-journalistic” material such as sex tapes and its public outing of powerful people led to its downfall. Yet I believe the truth is much more complicated and sinister. Gawker was destroyed because a billionaire wanted it destroyed. It was destroyed because an avid Trump supporter and tech billionaire decided that the website had done him too much harm and so he bankrolled a number of lawsuits which eventually made the website impossible to operate. All it took was one individual, with enough money and knowledge of the legal system, and a longstanding independent media company, who routinely challenged the press and other powerful individuals, was no more.

I had visited Gawker a number of times over the past couple years. While it certainly has not been the majority of my media consumption, the site offers a very different dynamic from what you will find at most major news websites. Gawker’s writers had a large amount of freedom to publish stories about what they wanted, but the sites statistics show that much of their content covered politics and the media. The site rarely hides behind the imagined facade of “journalistic balance.”  In fact, over the past year, they had a habit of annoyingly poking fun of nearly everything Trump ever did, until it seemed as if their main page resembled a swamp of Trump antics, while other content sunk to the bottom. Gawker also partially relied on tips from its readers and did not have as much of a dependency on the “access and connections” that major new media outlets see as necessary parts of doing business. Yet Gawker published some important stories such as exposing how Facebook’s news and trending section works and told stories about higher education’s reliance on adjunct faculty, transactional journalism in Washington, gender imbalance in political campaign hiring, and Bill Cosby’s sexual assault allegations.

Gawker started off as a gossip site about New York city elite, and later merged with its spin-off Valleywag, a site that centered around the details of businessmen who lived in Silicon Valley. In 2007, Valleywag published an article entitled, “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.” While the article was certainly praising Thiel, it was not journalism and publicly outed Thiel as gay to many people who did not know his personal situation (Gawker argued that this was “known” in the Valley). This was a morally indefensible action and any journalism that looks at someone’s sexual orientation over the content of their actions is illegitimate and damaging. Real journalism considers the effects of the publication of its piece on the subject and the lack of empathy or care displayed here was obvious. However, it is important to remember that Thiel is not entirely an “ordinary person” and is a tech billionaire, making money from investments in Facebook and PayPal and that he holds extreme libertarian views, spoke in favor of Trump at the RNC convention and does not believe that women should have been given the right to vote. In this way, he had the resources and power to go after Gawker for his personal harm. He undertook his revenge by paying for legal representation for a number of lawsuits including one from Hulk Hogan, the professional wrestler, in order explicitly put Gawker out of business. The main legal action centered around Gawker’s publishing of a sex tape that involved Hogan. Publishing a sex tape is pretty clearly not journalism as well, and this revealing of personal and private materiel does not constitute ethical practices. However, through pretty shaky legal maneuvering, Hogan was awarded an 140 million dollar verdict from Gawker, more than 140 times the amount of the average wrongful death award, which seems utterly outrageous. The judge did not grant a stay on the payments of the award until the appeal could be heard, and therefore Gawker, who could not possibly pay such an amount, had its assets sold at auction to Univision and the website was destroyed.  

I have heard many Cornell students, in classes and political discussions, assert that the United States is a champion of freedom of the press. While this is certainly true compared to many countries where journalists are violently attacked or censored for their content, the truth is that global organizations rank the United States 41st in the world in press freedom. We also now live in a country, where if you have enough money, you can tear apart a media company. It is true that Gawker in itself is probably not that important and there are other websites who produce similar content, if not to the same level of journalistic independence. However, the threat of having an individual be able to totally dismantle a media company, especially in the current polarized political climate, is extraordinarily dangerous to the ability the publish content. It puts a “chilling effect” on journalists who may want to question the action of billionaires who have the resources to put their whole company out of business.

It is important to remember that even though Gawker made some large mistakes, they did not “deserve” to be run out of business. All media institutions make mistakes and admit them, and as Gawker’s staff pointed out, the New York Times supported Bush’s administrations factitious reasons for the Iraq War, Reuters manipulated photographs during the Israeli-Lebanon conflict, and Fox News hired talent who were paid corporate promoters, among many more examples, but these did not result in the closure of those enterprises, even as the effects of the report were extraordinarily more damaging than Gawker’s stories. It remains that any company could be targeted in this way, especially independent media companies. Gawker, unlike most media companies, is independent, which allows it to be more free from monetary influences, but puts them at a severe resource disadvantage to fight off a lawsuit. In this way, companies such as Gawker who try to challenge powerful individuals cannot continue to exist if billionaires have the ability to be granted awards that put independent media companies out of business. Even more, Donald Trump has pledged to “open up” the libel laws so as further lawsuits of a more damaging kind can occur. So in answering the question of “how free is our press?”, we need to consider the dangerous precedent that Gawker’s story puts forward.

A truly “free press” cannot operate if journalistic organizations can be effectively censored from those who have great resources. There are more certainly more wealthy people similar to Peter Thiel’s who also have the drive and ability to attack media sources on a political basis. Since all media companies make mistakes, there are bound to be examples where legal actions could occur against the many smaller, especially progressive, independent media agencies that attempt to give voice to the concerns of those who do not have a voice in “mainstream media.”  In this sense, if we want free-thinking independent journalism that will take risks and seeks to challenge established systems and hierarchies, then a legal and social change to how we approach media must occur.