I’m not particularly good at metaphor, but let me take a crack at it anyway: Say there’s a dude repeatedly poking dinosaurs with a stick. No matter how much he argues that he has a right to go around poking dinosaurs with a stick, that nothing in the law prevents him from doing so, none of us would probably be very surprised when a T-Rex finally chomps said stick-wielder into a bloody mess.
That said, we probably shouldn’t be high-fiving over the guy’s bloody carcass, either.
That’s kind of how I feel about last week’s closure of online gossip rag, Gawker, after it ticked off a very rich, very powerful T-Rex.
Let’s get some background: In 2007, Gawker posted a story eloquently headlined, “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.” As you probably surmised, the story centers around one Peter Thiel and reveals, through mostly anecdotal evidence, that he is, most likely, totally gay.
“But, Adam,” you’re probably saying to your newspaper or computer screen or phone or wrist watch right about now, “who the heck is Peter Thiel? And why on earth would anyone care whether or not this person is or isn’t totally gay?”
Good questions. To answer the first, Peter Thiel is a multi-billionaire venturehedgefundcapitalistentrepreneur. To answer the second, no one. No one cares.
Well, that’s not true. Peter Thiel cared. He was understandably upset about being outed, and in a fashion befitting some pop culture’s best wealthy fictional villains – Lex Luthor, Charles Foster Kane, Smaug – he very vocally vowed revenge before rescinding into the shadows to plot and scheme.
Jump ahead more than five years, time which Gawker spent doing its dinosaur-poking due diligence. In October 2012, the site published grainy video footage of popular childhood hero and professional Atomic Leg Drop artist Hulk Hogan practicing the crotch clutch suplex on a friend’s wife. The wrestler sent a cease and desist letter to the site, which Gawker creator and managing editor and overall nice guy according to sarcastic people Nick Denton metaphorically crumpled up and tossed in a trash bin.
“Washed up celebrity sex tapes are protected by the God-given constitutional rights laid down by our forefathers in ink drawn from the blood of angels,” Denton probably said upon receiving said letter, chin shoved so high into the air it knocked no less than three satellites out of orbit. The End.
Or was it? Spoiler: It wasn’t.
Displaying the kind of intestinal fortitude that secured him the WWF Championship in his 1988 Wrestlmania title fight against walking mountain Andre the Giant, Hogan dragged himself up from the mat, rope-by-rope, and fought back.
He took the case to court in Florida, where a judge ordered Gawker to remove the video. Despite being, by my rough estimates, a good foot or so shorter than Hogan and looking way less impressive when emerging from clouds of smoke to the sounds of Jimmi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child,” Denton crossed his arms and defiantly refused to remove the video.
So, Hogan sued Gawker, and like the towering warriors of the squared circle, these two giants waged a ferocious battle that lasted until March of this year when a jury ruled that the sex tape violated Hogan’s privacy and awarded him a total of more than $140 million in damages, bankrupting Gawker and leading to its inevitable closure.
“But, Adam,” you’re undoubtedly asking your chosen reading device, “Didn’t Hogan lose most of his money in his divorce from ex-wife/Brooke Hogan co-creator Linda Hogan? How could he have possibly afforded to wage a legal war of attrition?”
Ah. Well, you’re not the first to ask. Turns out, when Toto pulled away that particular curtain, who should we find operating Hulk Hogan’s pulleys and levers (and repeatedly yelling “brother” into a red and yellow microphone)? None other than Peter Thiel. For more than a decade, the billionaire had been secretly funding a battle against Gawker, hiring a team of lawyers to find “victims” of the site. This included Hogan, whom Thiel aided to the tune of $10 million.
Dun dun duuuuuuuuuuuuun!
So, now that you’re all caught up, why should you care about any of this?
“But, Adam, you magnificent moron, didn’t Gawker get what it had coming?” you’re asking me. “I mean, if the site didn’t profit off the misery of others … if tasteless gossip and salacious rumor weren’t its bread and butter … and IF Denton had just pulled the Hogan tape when it was first ordered … wouldn’t they have never been in this mess in the first place?”
Good question, and maybe. But that’s almost not the point. Strip away the context, and this is a story about a very, very rich man using his wealth to silence a news organization for writing something he didn’t like. It was a trashy, mean-spirited something, but the result still sets a disturbing precedent.
To get back to the terrible metaphor that opened this thing, journalists are sometimes required to go around poking dinosaurs, either to get them to move or maybe admit they’ve been skimming funds from the local coffers or whatever else dinosaurs do. Which isn’t to say there aren’t bad journalists out there or publications profiting from the misery of some poor brontosaurus who’s been poked to extinction. There absolutely are, and Gawker may have very likely been one of them.
But to celebrate its demise is to discourage other journalists from picking up sticks. Before you know it, the world is completely overrun with T-Rexes sleeping comfortably wherever they want, their bellies filled with the flesh and blood of whomever they darn well felt like eating.