Column
August 24, 2016

Quit gawking

People in their late 20s and early 30s are able to determine which of their peers are attempting to become “real adults” by checking for an array of telltale signs: a marriage, a mortgage, a Costco membership, a firm support for the pragmatic politics of Hillary Clinton. For the past decade, there has perhaps been no greater distinguishing mark among these self-conscious grownups than a professed distaste for the scandalous news website Gawker.
Serious grownups hate Gawker. Its writers are irresponsible gossipmongers who adhere to no ethical code. They traffic in purposeless obscenity and cheerful defamation. The blog publishes hearsay, not news, with an editorial stance that favors opinion over objectivity. Journalism, after all, belongs to the Edward R. Murrows of the world, not the Alfred E. Neumans.
If pressed, Gawker’s haters will admit that some admirable writing has appeared on some of Gawker Media’s “verticals”—the network of sub-blogs that includes Deadspin and Jezebel—but they’ll insist that the work of Gawker itself has been consistently barbarous since its founding in 2003.
The recent reports, then, that in the wake of the Hulk Hogan sex tape lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker Media the company has sold its assets to Univision Communications, which will shut down the disgraced flagship brand at Gawker.com while Deadspin, Jezebel, Gizmodo, Jalopnik, Kotaku, and Lifehacker will continue operations, must make for happy news indeed.
Sure, the particular story of Gawker’s unraveling—at the hands of a vindictive billionaire who, angered by a personally revealing article of which he was the subject in 2007, used his near-limitless resources to fund a covert nine-year campaign against the company through a series of false-flag lawsuits fronted by various subjects of unflattering Gawker coverage that, in the view of many writers, should have been protected by the Constitutional right to free speech—may pose some frightening questions about the influence of wealth and power over the dissemination of information in the United States (we may not prefer to live in a country where, if a rich person doesn’t like what a media outlet is publishing, he can simply pay to have it destroyed), but ultimately, Gawker got what it deserved: it had stepped over the line—of decency, of good taste—one too many times.
For me, the demise of Gawker feels most of all like a victory for all the people who never much liked the idea of blogs in the first place. Do you remember the early years of the new millennium, when an older generation was first discovering the Internet and was so very terrified by the concept of a place where anyone—even without a journalism degree—could write or publish anything, accurate or not, and nobody could do anything about it? Where was the fact-checking? Where was the vetting process? How, in this strange new world, would we know what was true and what wasn’t?
Well, how did we ever know? We knew something was true when it had emerged from a long-established media outlet whose relationship to institutions of power ensured a tone of consistently respectful “impartiality” that, for its readership, defined the voice of “real journalism.” If the New York Times printed something false, it thereby became true. Whatever showed up on the Internet, by contrast, was false by virtue of being on the Internet.
Gawker was the Internet. It was reckless and disrespectful and waggish; it sought to offend. Without deference or restraint, it attacked respected figures like Bill Cosby, Mark Zuckerberg, and Roger Goodell. Sometimes, Gawker’s writers attacked people for no good reason at all except that they felt like it. When people say that they hate Gawker, what they really mean is that they hate the Internet—or, at least, what the Internet used to be: a Wild West of discourse, where traditional rules of decorum and fairness had yet to materialize. Its early denizens seemed to intuit that these rules did not actually exist to serve them, or to serve truth—they existed to serve someone else.
These days, the voice of the Internet is more BuzzFeed than Gawker: the cheery, bland human-impersonation of corporatized content. No one will ever sue BuzzFeed. The “grownups” may not like it much over there, either, but at least it doesn’t make them nervous. As for me—I grew up on the Internet, which means that I didn’t grow up at all.
Gawker, I’ll miss you.

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