For a brief period yesterday morning, the phrase “I Stand with Gawker” was trending on Twitter, as the result of an New York Times op-ed by Esquire writer Stephen Marche. After allowing that the gossip website had attacked him for nearly the entirety of his career, he wrote:
I believe that Gawker serves an essential function in a celebrity-obsessed culture, and if it were to disappear, the world would be poorer and the cause of journalistic truth would be damaged. In its struggle against the billionaire Peter Thiel — who, it turns out, secretly funded Hulk Hogan’s privacy lawsuit against the website, resulting in a $140 million jury award — Gawker deserves more support than it is getting.
Gawker Media is appealing the verdict and remains tangled in a number of other suits, so the billionaire-vs.-blog battle is now being fought mostly by proxy, with every potential news writer and reader (yours truly included!) desperate to have their say. While picking a side and performing outrage is always appealing, it’s also worth using this controversy to confront how we’re implicated in a bellwether case that is dissolving into a journalistic mess.
For instance, if we’re feeling upset about how Silicon Valley oligarchs attempt to control our access to certain news or news outlets, perhaps we should think more about how much control we’ve already willingly ceded. Thiel, after all, made a good deal of his money through Facebook — yes, that Facebook, the site we just discovered may have been (intentionally or not) censoring conservative news stories, the one that defines when nudity is or isn’t appropriate, the place where 44 percent of the American population gets its news. The danger of allowing one person undue influence is heightened when so much control has already been handed over. Perhaps we should attempt to claw that freedom of information back on a small scale as well as taking a larger stand.
That’s a separate issue, we huff. After all, the First Amendment at least allows organizations like Gawker the right to say and report what they wish on their own platforms, even if Thiel or Facebook’s trending topics team doesn’t want those viewpoints heard. But while we celebrate the need for a free press and free speech, it’s worth considering what kind of speech we should value, and what speech — while it may be allowed — may not be worth encouraging. Using “free speech” to defend the sharing of an unasked-for sex tape or the outing of a gay CEO is more a defense of our own prurient interest than anything else. The promotion of a celebrity culture free from hard news coarsens discourse and may take from the public interest as much as it gives. It’s possible that we should begin by enforcing norms of restraint as readers and writers ourselves, and remember that the speech we battle for should be held to some standard of value other than the number of clicks it might generate.
Reflecting on this controversy need not lead only to self-castigation. Happily, the support for Gawker shows that there is interest in defending journalistic freedom — increasingly under threat abroad and perhaps soon in jeopardy at home. And while it’s worth concerning ourselves with the chilling effect that the threat of litigation might have on outlets that reveal uncomfortable but necessary truths, it’s heartening to know that such challenges won’t pass unnoticed and that journalists won’t remain unsupported.
Gawker’s positioning of itself as an unfairly targeted teller of vital truths is … questionable, to put it mildly, and Thiel’s crusade seems both unnecessarily vindictive and uncomfortably sly. It’s possible to stand with neither party in the debate, while welcoming the ways in which the controversy is bringing questions about media control, press freedom and journalistic ethics into the light.