2016 Rewind: Cake or Death: Gawker and the Killer Muck

This editorial was originally published in June 2016.

There is a certain architecture to every salacious news story, at least the more attractive ones. There is a bit of shock, a hint at promises broken, a foundation of betrayal (preferably of an innocent party) and an appalling lack of judgment— creating a solid structure of hard-earned and well-deserved public humiliation.

Those who toss away privilege, power and very often the public good for an unnecessary shag or two are fair game in the minds of many, but Nick Denton’s Gawker seemed unfettered by any idea of who merited a public thrashing.

Gawker regularly, and seemingly with great enthusiasm, went too far in the eyes of many—ethically, journalistically and in sheer tastelessness—underscored by one editor’s hard-to-stomach child porn jokes during a deposition.

For its alleged sins, Gawker has rather frequently found itself in court, the most recent appearance ending with a company-killing judgment of $140 million.

It is not that the magazine—which is now up for sale—is so much worse than Perez Hilton or other similar publications in regard to the genre of merciless celebrity voyeurism but rather that it often turned its lens towards regular folks—or rather regular rich folks—whom would have none of this rumored sexual shenanigans reporting.

Gawker is (for the moment) in some ways a throwback to vintage muck-raking journalism: the heydays of  The National Enquirer and The Star before reality TV made everything odd and stomach-churning open source.

The blog—perhaps in a rush of millennials-driven “everything-old-is-hot” euphoria—began at its outset publishing op-eds and gossipy featured posts which made 1970’s ideas– that what people do in bed, for instance, is really shocking and interesting—The New Edgy.

It tried, that is, but even millennials do not believe in the mythology of edginess anymore.

Muck in the post-Clinton era is quasi-serious muck—it slathers tales of personal proclivities with enough sugary, pseudo-analysis frosting that it seems as if it is a delectable slice of Americana rather than a bit of stale soft-core porn.

The 30-year slow creep of tabloid journalism—such as in-depth musings on the cultural signification of Kim Kardashian’s pouring champagne on her bum—has tainted some of the most respected publications, now forced to think about click-bait as financial strategy.

There is such a thing as a Kardashian Effect—a state within which the pursuit of social media memes overtakes all other pursuits by a publication—including meaning.

This recent devolution from infotainment brings inanity to transcendent levels.  Having created a new digital genre of evangelical mindlessness, it buries any remnant of cultural significance beneath an endless cascade of celebrity rants and Instagram pics.

There is, of course, another pseudo-genre of reportage; the modern form of yellow journalism. Hysterical and highly partisan, publishers use an easy-bake recipe of terror, shock and conspiracy theories (along with a bit about ethnicity) in order to hint at a “big picture” which is most often never revealed but which can be whisked quickly into Twitter-friendly quotes.

It is perhaps inevitable—in a world in which CNN and The New York Times must compete against Twitter and Comedy Central for mere survival—that things would get a bit sleazy.

Using political commentary and family values dogma as a modesty curtain for readers hoping to get a “pain porn” glimpse of a humiliated, teary-eyed political wife, even the most illustrious publishers have waded into the muck, hoping to find stories that are intellectually palatable, relevant but nonetheless steeped in celebrity culture.

Kanye West’s recent insistence, however, that celebrities are a population subject to wholesale persecution by the press (with the invasion of privacy as the penultimate hate crime) is perhaps a bit much.  Many stars—including West—openly discuss their sex lives and seemingly endless other intimate personal details in social media and therefore might not have much to support a claim of privacy invasion when nothing of their lives has been hidden from the public eye.

This brings us to what Gawker—and its impending sale—actually means.

In a world in which there are so very many scandals waiting to be plucked from pre-existing political, financial, and Hollywood dramas—Gawker has no need to focus on who gave it to whom, or who is or is not gay.

Adding to the needless suffering component of the fall of House Gawker is the fact that unlike early days of tabloids, today’s celebrities have become brands and those brands have become causes.

America’s rich and powerful are now not merely celebrities but revered cultural icons, self-anointed with the privilege of ruthlessly protecting not only their reputations but their ability to employ their coffers to rise above mud-slinging and even accurate reporting.

Gawker’s fall was perhaps long overdue in the eyes of some, but its chilling effect on the Other Half of journalism cannot be underestimated.

A demise which was in part due to Gawker’s knack for making influential enemies has– -justifiably or not—unleashed an exemplary, well-funded ground war quite likely to encourage more celebrity grudge matches.

Most publications, even venerable cash-cows, would not survive a $140 million damage judgment, or even one for a third of that amount. Gawker was not punished but obliterated—a precedent which could weave its way into the canons of still—evolving digital privacy laws.

Using this model, an offended party such as a Donald Trump might reasonably use a virtually inexhaustible pool of wealth to dismember—at least the editorial wing—of disobedient publications using the Gawker rout as a legal foundation.

The stories that matter, including culturally significant revelations about public figures—such as Bill Cosby’s long, complicated history of sex crime allegations which were ignored for decades—may be overlooked by leading publications simply out of a need to remain solvent.

Fluff journalism—fawning profiles and light, invariably sweetened analysis—requires no risk, involves negligible research and above all seduces, rather than enrages, rich, powerful friends who own rich, ad-buying companies.

Gawker is effectively gone—at least in its current incarnation—but it has changed the playing field for gossips, culture pundits, and investigative reporters permanently. The awful choice—to produce an endless stream of sugary treats for the powerful and omnipresent or face an equally endless barrage of lawsuits—is perhaps one which has already been made for everyone.

 

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