As if the $115-million judgment awarded to Hulk Hogan by a Florida jury on Friday wasn’t bad enough for Gawker, that same jury doled out an additional $25 million in punitive damages on Monday. (One warning sign: On learning that former editor A.J. Daulerio has negative net-worth due to student debt, the jury asked Judge Pamela Campbell if it could award community service instead of monetary damages.) It’s not all bad, though: After the worse-than-worst-case result, Gawker’s friends, enemies, and frenemies in media are standing behind it. Even if they’re holding their noses while doing so.
In fact, if there was a bright spot for Gawker on Friday, it was the sheer size of the award. “The damages were so high that it kinda came out the other side,” one staffer said. In other words, the figure was so insanely high that not even Gawker’s legion of enemies could take comfort in schadenfreude. In terms of the reaction from its media peers, the staffer continued, “something like $10 million would have been much worse.”
It makes sense. Gawker Media itself will likely be fine. The blog network, being sued by wrestler Hulk Hogan over a 2012 post on its flagship site featuring a short excerpt from a sex tape, recently took on outside investment in part to help it weather the expected adverse judgment. So long as the company can win a stay and avoid posting a $50-million bond, it will be able to operate as normal during an appeals process it’s confident it will win.
For that matter, free speech will probably be fine, too. Some critics have warned that a ruling against Gawker in the case could have a dangerous effect on press freedoms, and on journalists’ abilities to report on public figures and matters of public concern. For now, journalists can breathe easy: For one thing, Florida jury trials don’t set precedent. For another, the appellate court is expected to rule in Gawker’s way. (And that doesn’t even cover the unique qualities of the lawsuit: As Poynter points out, most media companies are not particularly interested in posting dubiously acquired celebrity sex tapes, so the specificity of the case reins in its effect.)
But the minds of Gawker’s peers are having to tough out some very conflicting feelings. On the one hand, over its 13-year existence, Gawker has built up a formidable collection of enemies (mostly former targets), nearly all of whom are devoted readers of the site. On the other, nothing scratches a good journalist’s moral-righteousness itch better than a first-amendment case. So a two-week free-speech trial, casting Gawker in the worst possible light, streamed live to hundreds of bored journalists, culminating in a mindboggling judgment against an independent publishing company, has meant a lot of very delicate needle-threading.
“I think everyone would have been happier if, instead of fining Gawker $115 million, the court had sentenced A.J. Daulerio to hard labor as Hulk Hogan’s butler,” one magazine writer said. Others were more blunt: “May they burn it to the ground and salt the earth so nothing else may grow in that accursed place,” a longtime web writer texted. “No, I don’t know,” he followed up later. “I feel bad for everyone.”
Most media insiders we contacted declined to comment at all. “I don’t want to pile on,” one said. Those who had strong opinions generally shared them on Twitter, anyway: “Friday night round of Gawker tears for everybody they gleefully inflicted pain on,” the Salon columnist Mary Beth Williams tweeted on Friday. (Williams has been the subject of a handful of Gawker posts, including “Mary Elizabeth Williams Is Irksome” and “Ten People Who Should Quit the Media in 2012.”) “Fingers crossed Gawker loses,” tweeted author Ben Schott. (Schott hasn’t been written about on the site since 2007.)
And, as is fond Gawker-bashing tradition, some of the harshest critics have been former employees. Broadly editor Tracie Egan Morrissey, a former editor at Gawker Media’s Jezebel, wished Hogan luck in destroying the company last week; on Friday, she tweeted, “I feel really bad for my friends who still work at Gawker Media. It sucks that their jobs are in jeopardy” — before following up: “[T]hat being said, this feels like a victory for all the women who were ghettoized in editorial and told they couldn’t move up the ranks.”
But by and large, Gawker’s media peers stand behind it, even as they distance themselves from it. “It was a vile story about vile people,” Slate Group editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg wrote over email. “I would never defend that kind of gutter journalism. But I worry about the Florida jury verdict setting a precedent that restricts press freedom in favor of a legally undefined privacy right, moving us closer to something like the European right to be forgotten. Also, the size of the award and the requirement to post a ruinous bond in order to appeal are preposterous.”
The media commentator Jeff Jarvis — himself a longtime Gawker target — wrote a Medium post on Friday that summed up this argument succinctly: “Gawker is nothing if not reliably offensive, noxious, and cruel. Nonetheless, it deserves the defense the Bill of Rights affords. […] Like it or not, Gawker deserves the protection of the First Amendment like Nazis in Skokie.”
Over the phone, Jarvis told me he was most worried about the chilling effect the ruling could have on organizations with shallower pockets. “I do worry that others who have newsworthy things to publish may stop themselves out of fear of being destroyed in court. In an age when everyone can be a publisher, not everyone has billions of dollars, and a bankroll to support legal fees.”
Others went further: “Based on what I read about the case, I would have voted against the invasion of privacy charges,” emailed Jack Shafer, the Politico columnist and media critic. “I have no animus against the Gawker squad so hence I am without schadenfreude. Ugly cases sometimes make good law — our protections against prior restraint were established in Near vs. Minnesota, which pitted a totally scurrilous publication against the state — so here’s hoping that the appeal results in a Gawker victory and potentially greater protection to publish.”
“It’s embarrassing to work in media and see people cheering Gawker’s (temporary) loss,” a newspaper reporter said of the site’s thorny reputation. “It’s not the outlets that have mastered sponsored content who need First Amendment protections. It’s the ones that are willing to burn those bridges.”
But ultimately, and tellingly, the handwringing of media-insider Twitter made up only a very small part of the reaction to the verdict online. You only need to check in on the celebration over on the KotakuInAction subreddit, a hub for Gamergate discussion (Kotaku is Gawker Media’s video-game blog) to see where the real action is happening. And Gamergaters — despite their ostensible free-speech commitments — see no real problem celebrating Gawker’s demise.
Milo Yiannopoulos, the Breitbart Tech editor and prominent Gamergate commentator, says that perspective mostly comes from a feeling that Gawker has “abused” free speech. “[A]s a result it’s being punished by readers and punished by the market,” he said. Gamergate’s upholding of free speech “doesn’t mean you can’t take pleasure in seeing them get a bloody nose. I refuse to feel sorry for taking pleasure in this because they had it coming.”
But even Yiannopoulos had to admit that it wasn’t as cleanly cut as he might’ve hoped. “They’re probably going to win on appeal,” he predicted, “and if I’m honest and true to my principles, I’ll probably be happy with that, right? Because I don’t want a legal precedent that makes it more difficult to tell the truth.”