As the media grapples with stories of sexual abuse against women by famous and powerful men, many reporters have found themselves turning to the archives of Gawker.com, a now-dead website that explored, and exposed, the secrets of the powerful.
Gawker was shut down last year after a secret, decade-long campaign waged by the billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel. But the site, where I worked as a reporter for three years, was the first news outlet to air allegations of misconduct against Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey and other members of the political, cultural and journalistic elite. Gawker’s 13-year body of work remains online as a sort of road map to their foibles and misdeeds, which we pursued, more often than not, without regard to the establishment rules of journalism. Gawker distinguished itself by taking editorial risks, large and small. Those can take years to pay off, if they ever do.
The recent surge in reporting in mainstream outlets around sexual predation has led some observers, including NPR and The Washington Post, to wistfully recall Gawker’s heyday and credit the site for being ahead of its time, which is exactly the sort of attitude that my colleagues once scorned as sentimental and self-involved. But the greatest risk to Gawker’s legacy is not the warm haze of nostalgia. It is the increasing likelihood that Gawker will be erased from the Internet forever.
What remains of Gawker now, following Thiel’s successful effort to ruin it after it published a story declaring that he was gay, is a corporate estate under the supervision of a bankruptcy court. Six of the websites that made up Gawker Media were purchased at auction by Univision last year, but Gawker.com and its published stories were left behind as assets for future liquidation. That leaves the possibility that someone will buy the site’s archive, delete it and use copyright law to force the removal of any remaining copies online.
Last month, lawyers for Thiel filed papers with the bankruptcy court, complaining that the estate has ignored his efforts to participate in the bidding process. Those lawyers described Thiel — who once compared Gawker to al-Qaeda and admitted to spending more than $10 million to finance multiple lawsuits aimed at destroying the company — as “the most able and logical purchaser” of the site.
While it’s difficult to judge the sincerity of Thiel’s efforts to acquire Gawker, it’s not hard to imagine where those efforts, if successful, would lead. Charles Harder, the Los Angeles attorney Thiel paid to file lawsuits against Gawker, has argued that a “responsible” buyer would “remove articles from Gawker.com that violate defamation laws, privacy laws, or journalism ethics.” Coming from a lawyer bankrolled by a billionaire, this is not a prescription for sensible stewardship of a website. It is a threat.
As Gawker’s media reporter, I often covered digital outlets that deleted their own articles. The largest case involved BuzzFeed, where longtime staffers were instructed to delete thousands of posts they had published in the site’s infancy. I also covered a contentious episode at Gawker Media, whose executives voted to take down a controversial Gawker post about a married media executive’s text messages with an escort. Covering these disputes exposed me to the varied, and often layered, motivations of media outlets that decide to unpublish: pressure from advertisers, criticism from readers, fear of litigation, even genuine regret. I never contemplated a scenario in which a wealthy patron acquired and destroyed the work of an entire outlet in retribution for what the outlet wrote about him. It still seems unimaginable.
But there’s a precedent for the unimaginable in the fate of Gothamist and DNAinfo, which were shut down last month by their billionaire owner Joe Ricketts after their staffs voted to unionize. When Ricketts pulled the plug, he took the entire archives of all the DNAinfo and Gothamist sites offline (including several that hadn’t tried to join a union), sparking an outcry from contributors and readers. The archives were later restored, but the long-term fate of the stories contained therein — ranging from shoe-leather investigations to neighborhood crime blotters to local cultural coverage — remains unclear. Other sites have been disappeared over the years: Feed Magazine, a pioneering web magazine that lasted six years until closing shop in 2001, is completely gone. And the online archives of Radar Magazine, the Gawker-ish monthly founded by Maer Roshan — which reported on creepy behavior by CBS News anchor Charlie Rose back in 2007 — were deep-sixed after American Media bought the name in a 2008 fire sale.
The difference is that nobody set out on purpose to permanently erase Gothamist or DNAinfo or Radar or Feed. (After initially taking their stories offline, Ricketts assured his employees, through a spokesperson, that the sites’ archives would be preserved.) Thiel cast himself as the hero in a moral drama against a publication that he argued, with some public support, did not deserve to exist. And now he could have the chance to ensure it won’t.
Deliberately erasing a news outlet from the public memory is uncommon in the United States, but the tactic isn’t completely new.
In the early 1930s, as Ron Rosenbaum documented in his 1998 book “Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil,” the Munich Post set out to expose Adolf Hitler as a fraud and the Nazi party as murderers. The paper’s coverage, Rosenbaum wrote, was “a combination of Washington Post-like investigative zeal and New York Post-like tabloid glee — and a peculiar streetwise, wised-up Munich Post edge all their own.”
Like Gawker, the Munich Post published stories about the private affairs of the powerful. Most infamously, the paper exposed and named Nazi leaders who had gay affairs — a violation of Nazi policy on homosexuality — and justified the stories by claiming to be concerned not with sex scandals, but with the hypocrisy of the Nazi party.
Like Gawker, the Munich Post was mean and personal. Hitler’s attorney claimed the paper’s coverage of his half-niece — which implied she and Hitler had an incestuous relationship — was driving him to suicide. (“They had no hesitation about making their attacks on Hitler relentless and personal,” Rosenbaum noted.) Like Gawker, the Munich Post employed tactics that made journalism ethicists cringe. It’s hard to imagine contemporary media referees approving of the Munich Post’s decision to publish — without redactions — a letter in which one Nazi leader blackmails a fellow member for engaging in gay sex.
Hitler called the paper “The Poison Kitchen,” a turn of phrase intended to invoke his preferred epithet for Jews, whom he called “the eternal poisoners of the world.” (Thiel’s denunciations of Gawker have been equally vociferous: He has said its staff “should be described as terrorists, not as writers or reporters.”) Hitler’s enmity toward the Munich Post led to the disappearance of their paper and staff, and the collective forgetting of everything they published for the next several decades. Hitler’s troops burned the paper’s archives, which were lost to history until Rosenbaum found a stash of old copies in the basement of Munich’s Monacensia library.
No historical analogy is exact. Of course, Thiel is not Hitler. But an analogy doesn’t have to be exact to be instructive, and the fate of the Munich Post offers a clear warning against deleting a controversial outlet in its entirety.
The fate of Gawker’s archives will be decided, in large part, by the federal bankruptcy court in Lower Manhattan, whose opaque machinations have already led to the disappearance of several Gawker Media articles.
A handful of former Gawker Media employees recently began raising $500,000 to buy Gawker.com or launch a brand-new outlet in its mold, while somehow preserving the archive. The problem is that $500,000 is only a small fraction of a billion. Even if Thiel didn’t buy Gawker outright, he could easily fund new litigation against its new owner, who would be left to defend hundreds of old stories. Indeed, Charles J. Harder has filed two defamation lawsuits against Univision over stories on the former Gawker Media sites Jezebel and Deadspin that were published before the company was sold, based on the contentious legal theory (which is rejected by most states) that Univision effectively republished those stories when it bought the sites. If such a theory were applied to Gawker under new management, the possibilities for fresh litigation would be limitless.
It will be a miracle if the Gawker archive is still around in a year. But if it’s gone, nobody will be able to say that they didn’t see it coming.