Never Mind Peter Thiel. Gawker Killed Itself

Think of It as an Autoerotic Asphyxiation

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Credit: Courtesy Gawker
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How are you supposed to feel about the fact that Gawker.com is shutting down this week? Very sad, apparently, if the recent wave of Gawker praise in the media is any guidance.

Univision's announced acquisition of Gawker Media blogs Deadspin, Lifehacker, Gizmodo, Jalopnik, Jezebel and Kotaku last week -- a sale forced by Gawker Media's bankruptcy following a $140 million ruling against it in Hulk Hogan's invasion-of-privacy lawsuit -- is making plenty of media observers suddenly nostalgic about the Gawker Media flagship that nobody wanted. ("Desirable though the other properties are," Gawker Media founder Nick Denton wrote in a note to his staff, "we have not been able to find a single media company or investor willing also to take on Gawker.com.")

The New York Post's Lia Eustachewich, for instance, referred to Gawker on Friday as "Nick Denton's beloved gossip site" -- which is just surreal, because while it was still alive, Gawker made a UFC-worthy spectacle of bashing the Post.

In a piece titled "Gawker is dead: An appreciation," The Washington Post's Philip Bump wrote, "There are so many good writers out there who are better, directly or indirectly, thanks to the site's fearlessness, aggressiveness and attitude. Gawker made its opponents better. Gawker and its writers, despite some steps backward, made the web better. It made the web what it is."

And Slate's editors pulled together a list of more than a dozen of their favorite Gawker stories over the years in a post titled "Gawker Is Dead. These Posts Are Why We'll Miss It."

By the way, in a sign of just how deeply embedded Gawker is in the media-industrial complex, the Slate post included this disclaimer: "When it comes to Gawker we are conflicted out the wazoo. One Slate editor is married to a Gawker editor. One is married to a lawyer who represented Gawker in the Hulk Hogan trial. One is a former Gawker Media executive editor. None of these Slate staffers worked on this roundup."

Like the Slate staff, I've got my own convoluted relationship with Gawker, which formally launched in January 2003, just a few months after Nick Denton registered the Gawker.com URL. This is a story I've told before, but I'll tell it again here: In the summer of that year, when I was an editor-at-large at New York Magazine, I took Elizabeth Spiers, Gawker's first writer, out for coffee with the intention of poaching her. (Elizabeth's title at Gawker was "editor," but she was its only writer, and the only writer she was editing was herself.) By the fall, she decided to jump ship to NYMag -- announcing her surprise departure in a wry statement on her personal blog titled "I sell out."

I was an early fan of Gawker -- in New York Magazine I called it "erratic, funny, bitchy, passionate and obsessive to the point of being a little demented" -- and I was friendly with not only Elizabeth, but Gawker owner Nick. To his credit, Nick was a good sport about Elizabeth's departure and we remained friendly; my theory was that, as much as Nick loved Elizabeth, he was also eager to find out if the Gawker brand was bigger than his star blogger.

It was. And Nick found a brilliant replacement for Elizabeth, a guy named Choire Sicha (who I was also friendly with, and also wanted to poach for a job at yet another publication later on, though that didn't work out).

It must be noted that Elizabeth and Choire, though they could be, yes, bitchy (or snarky, the adjective that was most often applied to Gawker's tone in its early days), they were not, you know, assholes. They were not cruel. They were not bullies.

But roughly four years into Gawker's life, its tone had already started to curdle. (Sicha had left Gawker Media, where he'd been elevated to editorial director, to join The New York Observer as a senior editor in May 2005. He came back to Gawker in 2007, and then left again by early 2008.) By this point, Gawker Media had moved from its early single-author-blog model into a series of fully staffed bloggy sweatshops at Gawker and its siblings, including gadget blog Gizmodo and political blog Wonkette (which Denton later sold off).

In October 2007, New York Magazine ran a cover story titled "Everybody Sucks" and subtitled "Gawker and the rage of the creative underclass." It was written by Vanessa Grigoriadis (who, full disclosure, was an editorial assistant at the print magazine who I poached to write for nymag.com, which I'd launched; by 2007, though, I was working at another media company and had nothing to do with the publication of "Everybody Sucks.") Vanessa wrote about being personally savaged by Gawker and its increasingly out-of-control commenters, and placed Gawker's bad attitude within the larger context of New York in the late aughts:

It's long been known to magazine journalists that there's an audience out there that's hungry to see the grasping and vainglorious and undeservedly successful ("douchebags" or "asshats," in Gawker parlance) put in the tumbrel and taken to their doom. It's not necessarily a pleasant job, but someone's got to do it. Young writers have always had the option of making their name by meting out character assassinations -- I have been guilty of taking this path myself -- but Gawker's ad hominem attacks and piss-on-a-baby humor far outstrip even Spy magazine's.

It's an inevitable consequence of living in today's New York: Youthful anxiety and generational angst about having been completely cheated out of ownership of Manhattan, and only sporadically gaining it in Brooklyn and Queens, has fostered a bloodlust for the heads of the douchebags who stole the city. It's that old story of haves and have-nots, rewritten once again. Gawker is the finest mechanism to date for satisfying this craving.

You know that famous line about how "The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable"? Gawker had started with that sensibility. Back in 2003, in a Gawker post titled "What Is Gawker" (lost to Gawker-server history but captured at the time by Felix Salmon), Elizabeth Spiers wrote,

Current obsessions include but are not limited to, Tina Brown, urban dating rituals, Condé Nastiness, movie grosses, Hamptons gauche, real estate porn, Harvey Weinstein, fantasy skyscrapers, downwardly mobile i-bankers, Eurotrash, extreme sport social climbing, pomp, circumstance, and other matters of weighty import.

But by 2007, Gawker's writers had moved far beyond targeting the "haves" and the "undeservedly successful." If Gawker decided you were a "douchebag" or an "asshat," for whatever arbitrary reason, it would come after you and fucking destroy you.

There was something downright proto-Trumpian about Gawker as it shifted from afflict-the-comfortable snark to take-no-prisoners drive-bys. In fact, these days, when Donald Trump really loses it and gets personal and goes absolutely nuclear on his targets -- particularly when he attacks the family members of his targets -- it's hard for me not to think of the tone and tactics of Gawker at its worst. In Vanessa's story, for instance, she recounted how on Sept. 27, 2007, Gawker published a post titled "Elijah Pollack Is Going To Be A Horror" -- a hit job on a preschooler intended, apparently, to punish his father for being a writer Gawker hates. (Pollack had blogged on Epicurious about how his precocious son had declared a cheese sample at grocery store to be "too boring for me.") As Vanessa explained it,

Two weeks ago, Gawker writer Josh Stein jumped on the 4-year-old son of satirist Neal Pollack, calling him a "horror" and "the worst" for providing his father with some cute quips about expensive cheese at a gourmet store; Pollack responded by sending an e-mail blast about his feelings to his friends, but Gawker got hold of the e-mail and relentlessly dug into him again and again. When Pollack first saw the post, "my heart sank to my knees," he says. "Instinctively, and stupidly, I sent out that e-mail, which I should never have done, because it just gave them the satisfaction of knowing that they'd gotten to me. That's all bullies want, really."

(Josh Stein's follow-up post was titled "Neal Pollack Half-Heartedly Defends His Character/Son.")

At the same time Gawkerites were becoming drunk on their media-cultural power, they were also, ironically, grappling with career insecurity. As I wrote in an Ad Age column in June 2008, by this point, Gawker's pseudo-celebrity bloggers had figured out that they were as disposable -- as cog-in-a-wheel-ish -- as any of the cubicle-dwelling suckers populating old-media combines. Nick Denton had already fired a writer for failing to drum up enough pageviews, and by October of that year, Gawker -- just like much of the establishment mainstream media -- responded to the Great Recession by swinging the axe (see: "Black Friday At Gawker Media: 19 Layoffs At Blog Network.")

For those who think that Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel -- the man credited with killing Gawker by funding Hulk Hogan's lawsuit against it -- is uniquely hysterical about the awfulness of Gawker and its previously shuttered Silicon Valley offshoot blog Valleywag, take note of this passage from my June 2008 column (that I'd somehow forgotten about until I started to revisit my past relationship to and with Gawker):

In March, Michael Arrington, of TechCrunch fame -- in the wake of the suicide of advertising exec Paul Tilley, who many indelicately speculated had been distraught about attacks he'd endured from ad-industry blogs -- wrote a post titled "When Will We Have Our First Valleywag Suicide?" about Gawker Media's Silicon Valley blog and the distress it causes in its often blindsided subjects. And then Ricky Van Veen, the editor in chief of College Humor, writing on his thoughtful (generally non-comedic) personal blog, speculated that Gawker Media's cruelest bloggers could be, yes, murder victims if one of their more thin-skinned targets snapped.

The kicker of Ricky's blog post is worth quoting here:

When you have a collective group hurling dozens of harsh items a day at vulnerable people, statistically it's just a matter of time before one of your targets snaps. It's simply a numbers game.

Being a friend of Gawker's publisher Nick Denton for years, I can safely say that Gawker's tone will not soften. He's a businessman above all else (a brilliant one at that) and unless it's good for traffic to start being nice to people (it's not), there would be no reason to do so.

Oddly enough, it's actually pretty easy to be friendly with Nick Denton -- at least if you don't work for him. (In this week's New York Magazine, former Gawker editor Max Read writes of "the legend of 'Nick Denton': a forbidding, humorless crypto-sociopath who pushed his employees to the limits of their ability.") From first meeting him in 2003 (the year after he arrived in New York, following some lucrative adventures as a technologist in San Francisco, and before that as a journalist at the Financial Times in his native London), I liked him. I've had strangely endearing conversations with him over the years -- sometimes over coffee at the kitchen counter in his beautiful SoHo apartment (which he recently gave up and sublet in the wake of declaring personal bankruptcy), and once during a long stroll through Manhattan's Highline elevated park.

He is, as you'd expect, a keen observer of macro and micro media-world shifts, but he's also a good listener and, unexpectedly, emotionally open. I recall him once telling me about his heartbreak over a failed relationship. And when one of my sisters was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, I remember Nick thereafter asking about her, each time we spoke, with genuine concern.

But Nick is... complicated. For a sense of just how complicated, read this 2009 post by Ryan Tate on, yes, Gawker, titled "The Writer Nick Denton Couldn't Let Go (And Then Secretly Smeared)."

Gawker, meanwhile, got bigger and bigger and more and more widely read -- and while it often continued to be an entertaining read, when it chose to be mean, it could be stomach-turningly poisonous.

In 2011, GQ published a profile written by Gabriel Sherman headlined "Gawker Ex-Editor A.J. Daulerio: The Worldwide Leader in Sextapes." (At the time, Daulerio was at Gawker sibling Deadspin, the sports blog, where he'd made a, uh, name for himself by publishing an alleged photo of Brett Favre's penis for which he'd paid a source $12,000 in cash.) Daulerio is, of course, the Gawker Media employee who, in 2012 (by then back at Gawker), would publish a post titled "Even for a Minute, Watching Hulk Hogan Have Sex in a Canopy Bed is Not Safe For Work but Watch it Anyway."

This passage from Sherman's profile of Daulerio is worth reading if you want to get a sense of just how deranged the culture at Gawker Media was becoming:

Perhaps Daulerio's darkest moment came last spring, when he posted a video of an obviously drunk college girl having sex in a bathroom stall at a sports bar in Bloomington, Indiana. ... (In the fall of 2009, he'd posted a clip of a couple getting it on in a stall at the new Cowboys Stadium.) On May 11, a few days after the video went up, Daulerio received an e-mail from a woman imploring him to take it down. "I know the people in it and it is extreemly [sic] hurtful. please, this is completely unfair," she wrote. In separate responses, both Daulerio and [Gaby] Darbyshire, the Gawker lawyer, refused to comply. ...

The next day, though, he and Darbyshire decided that removing the video was "the best course of action," Darbyshire says. But by then it had migrated to other sites. And a couple of days after that, Daulerio received a panicked call from the girl's father. "He had this basic breakdown on the phone," Daulerio recalled. "The guy is like, 'You gotta understand, I've just been dealing with watching my daughter get fucked in a pile of piss for the past two days.' "

Daulerio now says he wishes he hadn't run the video. "It wasn't funny," he says. "It was possibly rape. I was trying to kind of put it in that same category [as the Dallas video]. I didn't really look at the thing close enough to realize there's maybe something a little more sinister going on here and a little more disturbing."

Fast forward to 2013. As we learned during the Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker trial, that year A.J. Daulerio was deposed by Hulk Hogan's lawyer and was asked, "Can you imagine a situation where a celebrity sex tape would not be newsworthy?"

"If they were a child," Daulerio responded.

"Under what age?" the lawyer pressed.

"Four," Daulerio answered flippantly.

(What is it with Gawker and four-year-olds?)

- - -

Gawker.com is set to cease operations any minute now -- or at least go dormant (the archives will remain online, and Nick Denton hasn't ruled out the possibility that it could eventually come back to life).

But for many readers, and for much of the media world, Gawker actually died on July 17, 2015.

That's when it ran a notorious post about a non-famous, married New York publishing executive who, it seemed, was being blackmailed by an escort the executive had allegedly contacted. Failing to get what he wanted out of the executive, the escort went to Gawker, which dutifully published a sordid story. In publishing it, Gawker not only arbitrarily invaded the privacy of a random exec few people had ever heard of, but effectively aided and abetted the escort's apparent blackmail scheme.

Readers and Gawker advertisers reacted with anger and revulsion, Denton and his management team pulled the post, and then a couple of cluelessly self-righteous Gawker editors (including Max Read), who'd somehow convinced themselves that their escort story was tantamount to the Pentagon Papers, resigned in protest.

As Nick Denton told Ad Age Executive Editor Nat Ives at the time, "On this occasion we overstepped the line and our editorial reputation was at stake. As founder, as guardian of the editorial ethos, I made the decision that this was a post that shouldn't be up there."

Just to give you one more sense of the extent to which, by this point, the inmates were running the asylum, consider this Gawker post, which had run five months before the escort story: "Awful Michael Wolff's Awful Girlfriend Is Pregnant."

Bringing this all back to my own personal, insufferable Manhattan media fishbowl, I'm friends with Michael Wolff; ages ago I recruited him to write the media column at New York Magazine (and was his editor for a number of years).

His girlfriend, Victoria, is, in fact, lovely. Her actual crime, like that of four-year-old Elijah Pollack in 2007, was being associated with a writer Gawker long ago decided to hate. (The irony was that, before Gawker was even a twinkle in Nick Denton's eye, Michael Wolff had, in New York Magazine, made his name afflicting the posh media ruling class, deftly taking down the likes of Tina Brown, Condé Nasties, New York Times editors, Rupert Murdoch and on and on. But way too many Gawker writers over the years, many of them fresh out of college, thought they invented merciless media criticism.)

When Gawker's meltdown surrounding the escort story happened, Michael decided to quote from a sheepish Denton email -- Nick sent it to Michael after the "Awful Girlfriend" post was published -- in a column for The Hollywood Reporter, where he's a contributor. In his email to Michael, Nick sounded oddly defeated about his reckless employees:

That description of Victoria was mean and pointless. ... I do wish there was a better way to address insults without storing up resentment. ... I would love to institutionalize and automate some right of response. Even the most insolent of Gawker bloggers is better and more reasonable in an exchange.

"His point," Michael wrote, "seemed to be that there was in fact no oversight, and no responsibility, prompting questions about whether Denton is able to exercise oversight, or has in effect relinquished most responsibility."

- - -

Responsibility.

Peter Thiel, backer of Hulk Hogan's lawsuit, which drove Gawker's parent company Gawker Media into bankruptcy, is responsible for Gawker's death -- that's the prevailing media narrative. ("Peter Thiel Just Got His Wish: Gawker Is Shutting Down" is how Wired put it.)

But of course there's a parallel narrative, 13 years in the making: Gawker ran itself off the road.

Gawker simply didn't know when to hit the brakes -- or maybe it didn't even know how to operate the brakes. It slammed into a tree or crashed through the guardrail and over the cliff or [insert a visual of your choice here, with the horror level depending on whether or not you or any of your colleagues or friends or family have ever been brutalized by Gawker].

By the logic of this narrative, Gawker killed itself. We can't rule it a suicide, though, because clearly Gawker didn't intend to die.

But maybe it was more along the lines of, say, autoerotic asphyxiation.

Despite running plenty of sharp commentary and even committing legitimate acts of journalism over the years (see examples of varying quality cited by Gawker's own editors in a defensive, self-pitying June post about the site's legacy), Gawker just couldn't help itself.

Every once in awhile, it just had to get off the best way it knew how: through an ever-more dangerous little masturbatory S&M game. It was a game that involved schoolyard-bully-level cruelty. And too often it was mixed with adolescent-grade prurient interest in people's private lives.

It was an intoxicating game that made some Gawkerites feel so powerful, so dominant, so alive.

Until... well, you know how the story ends.

Simon Dumenco, aka Media Guy, is an Ad Age editor-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.