Plenty of folks would argue that Gawker got what it deserved. After all, the suit was a response to publication of a Hogan sex tape, not some intrepid work of journalism.
“I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people, even when there was no connection with the public interest,” Thiel told the New York Times last month.
Yet Gawker, whose portfolio includes Deadspin and Gizmodo, also deserves some credit for breaking the story of Hillary Clinton’s private email use. It was Gizmodo that first reported accusations of political bias in Facebook’s trending topics. Deadspin exposed the myth of the love story that bolstered Manti Te’o’s profile during his Heisman Trophy campaign and scooped everyone on Brett Favre's sexting harassment of a New York Jets employee.
So, the same media company that did the tawdry work of posting Hogan’s sex tape did some meaningful stuff, too. And now the entire company is bankrupt.
This matters in the midst of a presidential campaign because one candidate, Donald Trump, is encouraging more lawsuits against the media. He said in February that as president he would “open up” libel laws to make it easier to take journalists to court.
As I’ve written before, the presumptive Republican nominee wouldn’t even need to succeed in changing the law to make life very difficult for the free press. By simply promoting an environment in which disgruntled wealthy figures file or fund tons of lawsuits — even ones they know they will lose — Trump could cause news outlets to bleed out.
Lyrissa Lidsky, a professor at the University of Florida who specializes in First Amendment and media law, explained the potential implications to me last month: “It’s one thing to know that you can litigate a libel case and win, but the litigation costs can be enormous before you get that victory. So if you can’t finance the cost necessary to win, then you’re as effectively silenced as if the law were against you.”
Lidsky said that at a time when Gawker’s bankruptcy was merely a possibility. Now it’s reality. And the idea that such billionaires as Thiel and Trump could silence media outlets they don’t like with their pocketbooks is a little less theoretical now.