Peter Thiel has succeeded in his attempt to destroy Gawker. The billionaire helped fund Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the web publisher, and this has led to today’s announcement that Gawker.com will be shutting down. Univision bought Gawker’s related specialty websites, and will continue running them for the moment, but the parent site is done.
Gawker’s reputation has never been very high, even among people who think it does good work in some areas. The ethos of the site—combining salacious gossip and an aggressive attitude with serious journalism, often in the same piece—led to some important exclusives, like scooping the Toronto Star on the Rob Ford crack video. But the organization operated on the ethos that almost anything was fair game about a person whose name was in the news, whether it was a sex tape or a poorly worded tweet. When one of Gawker’s writers turned Justine Sacco into a world-famous pariah for a bad Twitter joke, it helped make the organization a sort of symbol for the Internet culture of public shaming. Gawker’s founder, Nick Denton, already knew this reputation was a problem, and tried to retool Gawker as more of a politics site with a snarky edge. But once a site is hit with a bad reputation, it’s hard to escape.
Still, it’s hard to think of Gawker.com’s demise as a good thing, even if you set aside the fact that Gawker employed some good people who did some good work. It worries people, in part, because of the encouragement Thiel’s success might give to other rich people. Free speech, as we are constantly reminded, does not mean private citizens can’t do what they can to take away your platform. So Thiel isn’t doing anything unconstitutional. But the moral issue—should people with plentiful resources use them to drive people with not-so-plentiful resources out of business—is a different matter. Thiel would argue, and has argued, that he’s just helping someone else who doesn’t have enough money to sustain an expensive lawsuit. (What an unjust world we live in where tech makes you richer than something that truly benefits humanity, like pro wrestling.) But we can expect other rich people to take notice: revenge works.
The other thing that this illustrates is that despite all the talk about liberal bias in the media—some of it probably warranted, on some issues—media with an openly liberal tilt are actually quite precarious these days. Gawker has collapsed under pressure from a lawsuit; Salon.com has been struggling and is in line for a retool; Larry Wilmore’s combination of Daily Show-style humour with serious liberal political discussion has been canceled. That doesn’t mean there’s no market for partisan liberal media (as opposed to media that leans liberal on some particular issues), it just means the market is still not as robust as one might think from all the Twitter and Facebook shares of people destroying Republicans.
And meanwhile, the market for partisan conservative media remains strong, despite the in-fighting over Donald Trump. Breitbart, the conservative site that turned itself into what some conservatives derisively called “Trump Pravda,” has essentially been invited to take over Trump’s campaign. Despite the infighting over both Trump and its disgraced founder Roger Ailes, Fox News is still doing very well. The decline of partisan conservative media is often predicted but never seems to come, which means that even if Trump loses, many Trump supporters will still have a fair amount of influence in conservative and Republican circles. At the very least there’ll be Thiel, who gave a well-received speech at the Republican national convention.
So the end of Gawker reveals, if nothing else, the fragility of the recent rise of liberal media; many of these sites could be one bad quarter or one lawsuit away from extinction. Meanwhile, conservative media may if anything be getting stronger, and more influential on party politics. If Hillary Clinton becomes president, she’ll be able to ignore most criticism from left-leaning media, knowing that many of those outlets are paper tigers. In or out of power, the Republicans will have to pay more and more attention to right-leaning media. Even if Gawker helped to contribute to the bitter partisan atmosphere in the U.S., its collapse may make things worse.