This week the popular muck-raking publication Gawker closed down. I am attaching publisher Nick Denton’s eulogy, which he named “How Things Work.”
It’s not perfectly accurate to say that Gawker is gone; “Gawker” was really Gawker Media, the parent company for a handful of weblogs and subsites that covered topics including sports, the military, and technology. Univision has acquired the assets of the bankrupt parent company and will continue to operate most of the brands, but not the specific Gawker website itself.
I read Gawker while it lasted and considered it an important source of news. It would be excessive to say that Gawker was a voice of the oppressed against their oppressors; I would have described it as a voice for the aspirationally progressive and literate part of the top 5 percent against our sometimes oppressive (if frequently innovative) billionaire/centi-millionaire class and their mandarins. This voice of protest and mockery was particularly useful in the current cultural context of pervasive but relatively soft and insidious corporate control.
Gawker appears to have had two standards: “is it true?” and “is it potentially interesting?” was offended at times by their occasionally tawdry content, but allowing powerful people to determine what is tawdry and what is not seems very dangerous to me.
On Gawker’s demise: the emerging narrative is that Peter Thiel and Hulk Hogan killed Gawker, and Denton’s piece describes the role that Thiel, Hogan, and their lawsuit played. These two clowns make attractive villains, so I am happy to rage against them along with Denton and everyone else.
As an economist, however, I understand how tricky it can be to prove causation. Most of the time, when we say that “event X caused event Y,” what we really mean is that event X happened before or at the same time as Y. Because I am skeptical of every narrative, it should go without saying that I am skeptical of the “Thiel killed Gawker” narrative, even if the Denton himself highlights Thiel’s role in Gawker’s collapse.
I will maintain a stance of relative epistemological humility, and just name the sequence of events that I perceived, without making any claims of causation.
1) A long time ago, Gawker outed Silicon Valley rich guy/Trump supporter Peter Thiel. I am not very afraid of Peter Thiel.
2) Then, Gawker published a story about Hulk Hogan having sex with his friend’s wife. That post made Hogan angry enough that he filed suit against Gawker, and Thiel secretly financed Hogan’s legal expenses. I am not at all afraid of Hulk Hogan.
3) In 2015 Gawker ran an embarrassing piece about media executive David Geithner. Geithner, who has been described as “press-shy,” is the CFO of Conde Nast. The list of media brands owned by Conde Nast includes the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, CG, Vogue, and Wired. Geithner is also the younger brother of Tim Geithner, who served in senior roles the Clinton and Obama administrations and ran the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
4) The tawdry story about David Geithner enraged almost everyone I know. Personally, I wish that Gawker had not run the piece.
5) Now Gawker is gone.
6) I think it is still probably unwise to use the words “Gawker” and “Geithner” in the same sentence. Look at the coverage of Gawker’s demise and see if you agree.
Anyway, are we 100 percent sure that the lesson to draw from this whole experience is “don’t mess with Peter Thiel?” I think Peter Thiel and Hulk Hogan are ridiculous, and you can tell them that I said so. But read Denton’s piece, do a little thinking, and see what you think.
Denton’s piece is here: http://gawker.com/how-things-work-1785604699
Artwork: Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569) The Misanthrope 1568