One year ago today, Gawker shut down. Nick Denton’s legendary website is now gone, sued into oblivion by billionaire Peter Thiel, who secretly (and successfully) financed a lawsuit brought by professional wrestler and reality TV star Hulk Hogan. Gawker’s existence ended when a Florida jury found the website’s publication of a short video of Hogan having sex with a friend’s wife so egregious that it awarded Terry Bollea (Hogan’s real name) $40 million more in damages than he demanded — for a total award of over $140 million.
Now that Gawker’s buried, we might consider what we lost when that mischievous and irresponsible purveyor of gossip was shuttered. Gawker was not simply an influential Web outlet; its proudly independent sensibility and critical autonomy remain rare in today’s corporate media sphere. But to consider Gawker simply a minnow in a sea of whales is to miss its true value. Gawker might have been foolhardy, reckless and ultimately self-destructive, but it was also, above all, courageous. With the hindsight of Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency, we should all recognize that courage in the media is needed now more than ever.
Gawker is mostly defined as a guilty pleasure, an exercise in prurience by bored Web surfers and their millennial progeny. Yet its impact on American media remains undeniable. It launched the careers of an excellent set of young journalists, and it demonstrated a rare independence from corporate pressure, celebrity handlers and political operatives. Its stylistic form — directly addressing its readers like friends engaged in conversation — offers an instructive lesson for all media outlets seeking loyalty from readers. Gawker didn’t disdain its commenters: It teased them, argued with them, and kept them interested and coming back. Denton and his cadre of young, underpaid editors understood effective Web journalism.
But to place Gawker only in the context of the Web era is to miss its historical significance. Like PM (New York’s experimental newspaper in the 1940s), or the Berkeley Barb and other alternative press outlets in the 1960s, Gawker began as a crusade to save journalism. Like its alternative predecessors, Gawker challenged the processed wire copy and objective norms of standardized news content with pieces that could be opinionated, sensationalistic, and occasionally bizarre. Readers would be lured in with narcissistic displays, participatory journalism, and styles of address that could range from the nihilistic to the euphoric. There’s a reason it was named “Gawker.”
But if you stuck around, you might learn something. It was Gawker, for instance, that filed the original FOIA request for the emails between Hillary Clinton’s aide Philippe Reines and the news media that would eventually lead to the discovery of Clinton’s suspect email practices (for which she later expressed regret). That the Clinton email scandal would explode during the 2016 election wasn’t Gawker’s fault; they filed their original request in 2012. The whole mess might have been avoided had it been forthrightly addressed immediately. Yet the State Department, then the Clinton campaign, denied, fumbled and delayed an effective response for years. “Clinton Aide Who Avoided FOIA Insists He Didn’t Want to Avoid FOIA When He Wrote ‘I Want to Avoid FOIA,’” a typically barbed Gawker headline from the whole long-running mess read.
Yet for all its widespread venom, there was one politician in particular that Gawker relentlessly skewered: Donald Trump. Long before he was president, Gawker consistently attacked the man who now resides in the White House, on everything from his political positions to his verbal incoherence to his singular hairstyle. Back in 2011, Gawker was already calling Trump out for his racism, his draft-dodging, and the mainstream media’s failure to take his toxicity seriously. In 2013, when Deadspin, Gawker’s sports website, revealed that Notre Dame was propagating an unverified (and likely false) tear-jerking tale of tragic romance for Manti T’eo, its Heisman candidate hopeful, the future president applauded this unmasking of fake news. “Go f— yourself,” was Deadspin’s official Twitter reply.
It’s difficult to imagine a Walter Winchell, Cindy Adams, Matt Drudge, or any classic purveyor of gossip demonstrating such cheeky independence. Though Deadspin still exists, the authentic voice that Gawker brought to culture and politics is sorely missing and needed more than ever. Gawker could be urban and urbane, sophisticated and jaded, transparent and insulting — all at once. It’s a very difficult trick to pull.
To have successfully developed a sensibility that’s simultaneously attractive and annoying may be Gawker’s ultimate legacy. It was a brave but foolhardy attempt to force a new kind of media freedom on an unprepared world. For all its childish snark, Gawker was run by people who understood that authorities — in the media, politics, and culture — too often fail to keep the public’s best interests in mind. Though Gawker is gone, the fact remains that the powerful still don’t have the public’s best interests at heart. But the courage required to point this out — in an amusing, satirical, and pointed manner — is in shorter and shorter supply. For instance, a recent story about the allegedly cultlike and possibly abusive lifestyle of rapper R. Kelly that appeared in BuzzFeed almost never ran, thanks to outlets’ fear of a Thiel-type response. It’s impossible to know how many similarly important stories will never see the light of day for that very reason.
All that’s really left to say is that Gawker is gone and that Donald Trump is president. That simple reality should comfort the rich and powerful everywhere and chill the bones of the rest of us.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Gawker filed its initial FOIA request in 2013. The article has been updated to reflect that the request was actually filed in 2012.