After Gawker closed, many in the media wrote hand-wringing stories about the ability of a billionaire to take down a publication. But the out editors of People and Entertainment Weekly are’t grieving for the media gossip site.
“Smell you later,” said Henry Goldblatt, editor in chief of EW, during a panel discussion at NLGJA’s opening reception last week in Miami.
“The way it went out of business was a tricky question, but I will not miss them,” said Jess Cagle, the editor in chief of People who is also editorial director for Time Inc. “They were mean.”
Gawker will forever become a cautionary tale in journalism schools, not only because it was taken down by a billionaire but also because of how it acted. Even the site's founder, Nick Denton, took a fatalistic tone when reflecting on the site being closed by Univision, which scooped up the Gawker Media network of sites from bankruptcy, but shuttered the Gawker site itself. In his goodbye letter, Denton wrote, "It is a fitting conclusion to this experiment in what happens when you let journalists say what they really think."
Gawker was sued into bankruptcy after it posted a sex tape of Hulk Hogan against his will and then refused to take it down. That lawsuit and several others were secretly funded by billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel. He’d claimed to have exacted revenge over a story on Valleywag (formerly a Gawker Media website) that outed him as gay in 2007. The headline was, “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.”
Gawker Media was founded by another gay man, Denton, who has said he sees outing as part of journalism’s pursuit for truth. "Maybe because I was gay, I grew up hating open secrets," Denton told Time magazine this year. "Usually if someone’s gay it’s a pretty open secret. Their friends know, their family knows, but out of some misplaced sense of decency nobody talks about it."
Denton claims the billionaire actually took revenge for critical coverage of his ideas and business ventures, not for being outed. Denton said in that last story that Thiel was "portrayed as a crackpot libertarian. His ideas were mocked." Thiel is known to LGBT people as the man who funded a now-defunct conservative group for gay Republicans, GOProud, and he endorsed Donald Trump this year, even speaking at the Republican National Convention despite the party passing a platform that would clear the way for ex-gay therapy.
In another case of outing, though, Denton has said it was a mistake to report that a former Condé Nast executive — married to a woman and with children — had tried to hire a rent boy. That story was removed, though the consequences couldn’t be undone.
During a question-and-answer session with the audience at the NLGJA panel, Cagle was asked whether Gawker deserved its fate.
“Yeah, I think Gawker is the worst example of ‘gotcha’ journalism,” he said to the room full of LGBT journalists. “I’ve been attacked by Gawker in, I feel like, a most unfair way. I’ve seen friends of mine attacked by it in a most unfair way. There was a mean-spiritedness to it that I just felt was unconscionable and also wrong. There was no journalism applied to it.”
In one headline from 2012, Gawker wrote, “Entertainment Weekly Editor Jess Cagle Is a Hopeless Starfucker.” That story forever turns up in Cagle’s search results on Google, but he's gone on to be promoted several times and is no longer editor of EW.
“Anybody can attack me, and they have — but if the facts are right and if it’s fair,” said Cagle. “And there are certainly things that I’ve done in my career and that Henry’s done and that you’ve done and that we can all be held accountable for that we could have done better. And that’s totally fair. But there was just something about Gawker, just the way it went after, whether it was celebrities, particularly people in the media, with the kind of the bleed to take them down that I felt was so poisonous. So I do not lament the passing of Gawker at all.”
Goldblatt echoed his boss. “I don’t lament the passing of Gawker at all. Hard stop, period,” he said. “I think like Jess what they did was unconscionable.”
Goldblatt doesn’t buy the notion that Thiel was outed. He noted that Owen Thomas, the author of the original story, told The New York Times later that, “I did discuss his sexuality, but it was known to a wide circle who felt that it was not fit for discussion beyond that circle. I thought that attitude was retrograde and homophobic, and that informed my reporting. I believe that he was out and not in the closet.”
Goldblatt interprets those comments to mean Thiel was living openly “and it was not a big secret.” Still, he argues that Gawker got what it deserved.
“Owen really didn’t feel he was doing anything wrong,” said Goldblatt. “So it’s interesting to see this was the tipping point. I’m not sure I would have chosen this particular story as the tipping point. But what they’ve done to some friends and colleagues of mine was reprehensible, so smell you later.”
Cagle was challenged by follow-up questioning about whether the ability of a billionaire to take down a media company has him worried that his company, Time Inc., could be next.
“That really could’ve happened to any of us,” he said. “The Church of Scientology for many, many years silenced any critic by just suing them to death because they could afford to do it.”
Time magazine was famously locked in a years-long lawsuit over its 1991 cover story, “Scientology: The Cult of Greed.” In the end, the magazine won and the lawsuit was dismissed.
“Time fortunately had the pockets to defend itself,” said Cagle. “But a lot of people don’t. And usually it doesn’t entail the media bowing and going out of business. It usually entails the facts never getting reported in the first place. So yeah, I think we are all vulnerable to that. If someone has the pockets who really wants to put us out of business, whether they are right or wrong, it is possible, especially for smaller start-ups, for smaller publications. And now, you know, even big publications are becoming smaller publications.”