Hulk Hogan sex tape trial shows Nick Denton’s Gawker is run by children journalists
At a dinner in New York a few years ago, Nick Denton, the British journalist turned US internet publishing entrepreneur — who with his company, Gawker Media, was found liable this week for $140 million in an invasion of privacy suit for posting a sex tape of the former wrestler Hulk Hogan — was sitting next to Piers Morgan, then hosting his CNN show. The two former Fleet Streeters seemed to be getting along well until Morgan, confiding an amusing tidbit, suddenly thought better of it and clarified, “this is off the record, right?”
Denton, soft spoken and phlegmatic, rather sighed and then said, with faint glint in his eye, that he had such a hard time remembering what was on or off the record that it was easier for him just to regard everything as being on.
In addition to being a wet blanket over his conversation with Morgan – and, as well, quite a nuanced put down — it was a pretty succinct summation of Denton’s journalistic stance. He saw himself as a personal example of transparency (at that same dinner he went on without filter about his own sex life), he saw everybody else, especially media people, as hiding behind journalism’s many double standards of opacity, and, to boot, he obviously took special relish in the power and moral one-upmanship this disregard of ordinary politesse gave him.
A year or so after this, Denton, who had become quite friendly with Victoria Floethe, the woman I live with, invited us to a party at his Soho loft where Victoria happily confided to him that she was pregnant. At the same time, Denton encouraged me to meet the coterie of his staff at the party — a small group of angry wallflowers with no evident ability to mix with the other guests. “They should meet some adults,” Denton said, introducing me, and adding, with a genial aside, that Victoria and I were expecting a baby.
Gawker’s headline the next day, in the full flower of Denton’s gotcha transparency, was “Michael Wolff’s Awful Girlfriend Is Pregnant.” (When I complained and pointed out that — even beyond a reasonable expectation that our conversation with him in his house and at his invitation was private — the headline itself was pretty clearly sexist, it was changed to “Awful Michael Wolff’s Awful Girlfriend Is Pregnant.”)
Still, along my own annoyance, Victoria’s refusal to ever speak to Denton again, and, indeed, my sympathy with Piers Morgan’s efforts to be an entertaining dinner companion, I understood and even admired what Denton was up to. It was to see the chattering class for all its comedy and vanity, to reveal the nature of power through the nature of behaviour, and to take the piss out of all of us — to let journalism do what fiction used to, show us how we live now. I wish I had thought of it. (In fact, Denton has credited my book Burn Rate as a particular model of transparency and viciousness — rather making me question my own empathy and judgment.)
But Denton’s curious inclination to party-going and social climbing, together with his personal interest in being liked, and, too, perhaps a certain boredom with everyday gossip, seemed to cause him to distance himself from his own enterprise. He was the eminence, the adult, even the fair-minded person, trying as best he could to control a staff of the relatively uncontrollable. This was disconcertingly similar to Rupert Murdoch’s view: Murdoch believed his newsrooms (in fact all newsrooms) were filled with reprobates (often drunken ones), and while they needed to be restrained, it was that lack of restraint that made for a “good read” (as well as causing the hacking scandal). Indeed, Denton is an inveterate Murdoch admirer (even through the hacking scandal).
But Murdoch, even with hacking, had much more control then Denton did. In a way, Denton was leading a crusade of children journalists or would-be journalists (during the trial, the Hogan legal team delved deeply into how little experience Gawker staffers, even ones with considerably authority, actually had). He had harnessed the resentments of people nobody else would hire by giving them quite extraordinary powers — Lord of the Flies type powers. (In 2007, Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote a notable piece in New York Magazine about Gawker called “Everybody Sucks: Gawker and the Rage of the Creative Underclass.”) And at some point the reasonable question became how much power was he actually able to exercise over them (staff members voted in a union not long ago which, among other demands, is dedicated to protecting their editorial freedom). Either because he was losing interest, or his staff was just too odd and difficult, or because he had created this system of ultimate transparency and gratuitous insult he could not now gracefully retreat from, Gawker became ever-more increasingly anarchic, provocative, and cruel. Its zenith was the revelation last year that a married executive, one without public profile or position, was planning a gay assignation (with fulsome details). Denton’s young staff believed the sexual secrets of the middle aged are the Rosetta Stone of capitalist corruption.
Hence the $140 million.
Gawker had been passed a purloined copy of the surreptitiously recorded Hogan sex tape, and, regarding this as quite a hoot (during the trail, Gawker described the tape as newsworthy, but it was clear its newsworthiness was mostly related to it being a hoot), posted the most graphic piece of it.
The other defendant in the Hogan trial is Gawker former staffer and, briefly, its editor, AJ Daulerio, who made the decision to post the tape. Daulerio is part wounded animal and part Peter Pan figure, a journalist at the margins who might have been, if it still existed, a figure from the alternative press, styling himself as a post-literate Hunter S Thompson. Beyond whatever else the jury might have concluded, practically speaking it would not have been possible, after Daulerio’s testimony, including jokes about kiddie porn, to conclude other than that Denton had forsaken control of his enterprise to a figure whose actions could be justified only if journalism required no reason, restraint, or purpose. And, in fact, that was pretty much the Gawker defence: even the useless, worthless, meaningless, and abusive ought to be protected by the First Amendment.
And perhaps it should. And Gawker seems to be counting on an appeals court to ultimately support the right to publish the useless, worthless, meaningless, and abusive, and save it from financial ruin. But it is hard to imagine a case that might more incline even the most absolutist of First Amendment defenders to modify that position.