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Legacy of Snark: Why Gawker Mattered

After 14 years of media takedowns and gags run into the ground, Gawker is finally gone – but is that a good thing?

After 14 years of media takedowns and gags run into the ground, Gawker is finally gone – but is that a good thing?

Gawker.com, a website where people who would never be on the list at a club told America what wasn’t cool anymore, died today. Or maybe last week. I don’t care.

Gawker is gone, felled by Peter Thiel, an anti-democratic billionaire creep who perfectly embodies the stereotype of Libertarians as people who will scream “tyranny” when the government does anything to them that they believe private companies have a right to do to everyone else. Thiel played a long game, steamed for nearly a decade after Gawker “outed” him, despite his sexuality being a secret as closely kept in Silicon Valley as Paul Lynde’s was on Hollywood Squares.

Along the way he had help, courtesy of a Pinellas County, Florida trial over the sex tape of Pinellas County celebrity Hulk Hogan, who knew he was being filmed fucking the wife of his friend Bubba the Love Sponge — host of Tampa Bay’s avatar of “Skippy and Goatface’s FM Drivetime Holocaust” — and who spent the remaining unpublished portions of the tape explaining how rich a black guy would have to be for his daughter to “fuck with niggers.”

It was a lovely pairing: a billionaire with endless resources for a grudge, and a geriatric nostalgia act who alienated most of the wrestling industry over a career defined by megalomania, and who’d hemorrhaged his fortune on a divorce, his daughter’s go-nowhere music career and repeated legal fees for his son’s drunk-driving drift team schtick. One to hack the meat off the bone, the other ready to pounce on any morsel that fell off the blade as it swung.

(Those with only passing familiarity with the trial and even less with the First Amendment are encouraged to start angrily reply-tweeting immediately.)

It’s an interesting story, and it doesn’t matter now. Gawker is dissolved, its writers absorbed by other sites from the Gawker Media family, which themselves were bought by Univision. It’s a banner day for its haters everywhere; there is no shortage of them. And that doesn’t matter either.

Apart from that last legal battle, Gawker mostly won. Gawker’s in-house writing style came to define the voice of of blogging nearly everywhere. The “everyone’s a fraud” tone of media Twitter is as much Gawker’s as it is anyone else’s. And for as much as respectable media always held Gawker at arm’s length while reporting on it and its impact on journalism, they sure as hell hired a lot of alumni.

You probably won’t see a lot of mourning for Gawker. It makes sense.

I worked for Gawker for a year, covering the 2012 election, and left in 2013 after the absence of an election made my contract less than necessary.

I don’t think I ever fell in love with the place. I carped about it on my blog before being hired; after I left, I had difficulty concealing the fact that I was angry. On staff, I worked from 1,000 miles away, and the staff-wide chatroom was full of in-jokes I didn’t get and conversations I couldn’t contribute to. What friendships I made came mostly after my departure. I never even set foot in the office until the end of 2014, and then only to get Christmas drunk with the Deadspin crew.

Plenty of things about the site drove me up the wall. I never thought the “Gawker Stalker” thing was interesting. Like any other outlet, it could brand a gag and run it into the ground — the “500 Days of Kristin” being just the most monumental example. And, over its lifetime, the site repeatedly fell prey to a disease unique to a plurality of New Yorkers: thinking that living there represents the culmination (or a part) of some hero’s journey or significant creative or psychological process, and not, instead, a real-estate decision irrelevant to the over 310 million Americans who do not live there and do not remotely give a shit.

The problem with talking about Gawker is that most people who worked there or admired it feel a need to apologise for their fondness, and everyone else belabors their refusal to speak well of it. Writing about Gawker descends into an unbearable rut wherein the writer declares support or antipathy, then temporises about the things they reluctantly regret or esteem. 

Which is stupid. Every one of us who still gets a local paper can open it every day and eventually find an article or writer that annoys the shit out of us at best or provokes violent disagreement at worst. Publications offer a lot of different articles and opinions, ideally to as many people as possible, with the unfortunate byproduct that eventually a few of them inspire dislike. And all publications fuck up. Gawker fucked up. Everyone but Gawker Media, in covering the Manti Te’o story, fucked up. Shit happens.

Perhaps Gawker’s relatively short lifespan in the publishing world inspires the inevitable paragraph that begins “however” or “unfortunately” — the very wise and urbane harrumph that signals an adult opinion follows, because it is an opinion generated by wrestling with more than one idea at once. It’s certainly something that nobody seems to feel is mandatory with many other publications.

You don’t read a lot of summaries of the New York Times’ importance that feel a burdensome obligation to mention that Judith Miller faithfully reprinted every feral Dick Cheney growl that fell into her ear and helped grease the skids for the murder of anywhere from 100,000 to 1 million Iraqis. MSNBC’s Iraq War coverage is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the fact that, at the time, they were owned by a military contractor.

Discussions of the Washington Post don’t come freighted automatically with thoughts on the fabricated, Pulitzer Prize-winning “Jimmy’s World,” or the fact that its reporting on for-profit colleges seemed conspicuously sunny at the same time that the Post’s ownership also owned Kaplan University. The New Republic can be discussed without including Andrew Sullivan’s giving a legitimate platform for discredited race “science.” After the magazine’s sale in 2014, most people in the mainstream media tried avoid that discussion entirely, until Ta-Nehisi Coates rained on their parade.

And while those events are in the past, Gawker’s past was frequently treated as its present by critics who didn’t feel that knowing their subject was any hindrance to high dudgeon. Gawker’s “infamous” compensation structure – tying page-loads to paychecks and thus supposedly incentivizing a reckless pursuit of sensationalism – hasn’t been in effect this decade. Similarly, even the site’s name seems inextricably bound to the appellation “gossip website,” despite gossip items being at best an irregular feature this decade as well. By these lights, Politico is a gossip website. Every news website is a gossip website. Whatever.

This constant “on the other hand” formulation in evaluating Gawker inevitably overshadows what it did do, which is mainstream the online commentary tone that you likely read every day, changing journalism forever, probably without your noticing. No, really: This piece itself begins with what you might call the “Gawker Appositive,” a proper noun followed by a descriptive clause that unabashedly lays out the writer’s perspective and what kind of attitude is to follow.

Gawker articles ditched the “view from nowhere” objectivity of print journalism and were instead upfront about the author’s attitude. And that’s good! (There’s another Gawkerism: the pithy line with the enthusiastic exclamation point after an observation that might seem ambivalent.) At the very minimum, the tone suggested that whatever post you were reading was already part of an ongoing conversation that everyone would be stupid to pretend to be agnostic about. Often, it tried to un-house the reader, providing a shock or a laugh that made it hard to just skim whatever came next. At best, it made you challenge the way you thought about something.

Whatever else, it was entertaining, and it made words something more than a vehicle for conveying a daily news rundown and instead something worth lending a spare thought. Gawker recognized that most online journalism was in some version of the summary business. (This was nothing new; Almost all columns in legacy media were essentially commentary on facts presented in other parts of the paper.) But if we were all going to be writing glosses on someone else’s work from now on, at least the people writing those glosses could have recognizable tastes and personalities that would build some sense of identity with the audience, and they could actually write.

Imagine, for a moment, a world where the dominant style to emerge from the early-to-mid-2000s was the exhausting, “I am going to make you stop buying processed milk” earnestness of DailyKos or the “I am a B-list former TV star from the 1990’s, and I am not afraid to give my baby processed milk” of the Huffington Post — or the worst possibility, the marriage of the two that is whatever happened to Salon.

Instead, while the rest of journalism saw older writers clinging to the few remaining jobs as management clustered around the same succession of new bad ideas, Gawker trusted new voices to hone their own, find their own stories and succeed or flop without a safety net. They hired a lot of kids who hadn’t hit the wall of repetition and agonising self-scrutiny, paid them a living wage and told them that there was a lot of news out there, every day, and they needed to make it thoughtful if at all possible, entertaining at the very least, and both if they could manage it. For the most part, they did.

For the most part, all the wrong people are breathing a sigh of relief.

Aside from journalists worried about the First Amendment implications of the site’s shutdown, and aside from fans of particular writers, you probably won’t see a lot of mourning for Gawker. It makes sense.

With the exasperating exception of Beyoncé, Gawker was never really in the tank for anybody. Yes, it leaned left, but it also regularly shit on most of the Democratic Party. (My 2012 endorsement of Barack Obama came after a thousand words arguing that his stances on whistleblowers, civil liberties and the War on Terror were somewhere between a disappointment and an atrocity.) The site’s recurring coverage of a few favorite public personalities emerged either ironically or almost in spite of everyone’s best efforts.

There’s a reason why we gravitate toward the person at the party smiling most frequently and effortlessly. By and large, people like being around positivity. Optimism has a multiplier effect, and we like people who like us. While the guy in the corner of the party smirking and taking potshots at everyone is fun for a while, eventually he’ll come for someone you like. He’s not as much fun after that.

The sexily snarky Gawker headline that roped you in on day one was followed by months and years of the same, until the targets eventually included your own hobbies, your own heroes, your own identifying characteristics. What began as a fun attitude when it was turned outward eventually pointed back at you. It was inevitable, and when you fell out of love, it was easy to fall hard. This included fellow journalists. 

Peter Theil at the Hy! Summit, March 19, 2014.

For an industry in which everyone is one week away from being downsized and applying for jobs at some place they were mocking just the week before, Gawker’s staff often wrote like people who thought they’d be employed there forever. The result was a fearlessness that you could read very few other places, one that the internecine criticism of media Twitter more or less apes in short form and with subtweets, hedging and plausible deniability to this day.

Gawker came for everybody. Nearly the entire op-ed staffs of the Times and the Post were held in open contempt. While email-baiting glurge merchants like Upworthy were busy setting traffic records and redefining Facebook-tailored insipidity, Gawker was happy to point out that their model seemed to be writing about what was wrong with the world through the one uplifting exception that proved the rule – like writing about income inequality via a saccharine soft-focus feature on a lottery winner.

When the rest of the media was scrambling to figure out how Buzzfeed’s traffic kept skyrocketing and how to imitate it, Gawker was willing to call it an empire of theft. Not just Benny Johnson — an untalented Mr. Ripley with a penchant for O.J. Simpson levels of dramatic elasticity in talking about himself, who got busted plagiarising from fucking Yahoo Answers and was only reluctantly terminated after the mountain of evidence got too big to ignore — but the whole thing.

In between all those listicles applauding people born in the 1970s for being able to remember incredibly popular mainstream ephemera from the 1980s, there were articles consisting only of screenshots of other people’s tweets or just wholly poached from Tumblr (with the credit and link buried at the bottom after a Burma-Shave of image macros and large-print descriptions of the same).

And after the site started to hire serious writers and run serious reporting and excellent longform pieces – almost as if the point were to make critics say, “But they do publish some good work and hire some good people” – Gawker was still there to wipe away some of that sudden makeover. It was a testament to the quality of Buzzfeed’s previous editorial standards that updating them required the quiet deletion of over 4,000 posts, including 3,278 from one editor alone, who still works there.

They were there to hound union-busting gadfly Arianna Huffington when she cashed in a few score million dollars on a back catalogue of unpaid contributions. They battered the puerile narcissism of Thought Catalog. They despised CNN and Fox News for different reasons but equal measure. They mocked Vice for its relentless Viceness. They treated Business Insider founder and entire-Wikipedia-article-copy-and-paster Henry Blodget like a Faulknerian idiot man-child.

They hounded Mike Bloomberg and Andrew Cuomo and politicians at all points North, South and West. On most days, right-wing media was approached with the esteem one holds for a dog that shits on the rug and then eats it. They treated the sweat-homunculi that migrated from pick-up artistry to alt-right “men’s rights” misogyny to outright neofascism with the familiar and stinging revulsion of a sexually active woman. When Rolling Stone retracted a feature about college rape, Gawker was there too. This list is incomplete.

The lesson that working long enough in media teaches you is the same one that being a good student of history does, too: Don’t elevate anyone to the status of personal hero, because if you look long enough, you’ll find the reason why they don’t deserve it. But the historian’s good fortune is that everyone he has to talk about is probably dead, and even if they aren’t, most people won’t raise a toast when he croaks.

For the most part, all the wrong people are breathing a sigh of relief, and that, for the most part, doesn’t matter. The website at gawker.com might be gone, but the voice it created is now disseminated so far across Internet news and commentary that it can’t ever really be stopped. Not merely in terms of style, but because the miscreants who inspired so much handwringing keep getting hired and promoted by the same journalistic gatekeepers they allegedly scandalised.

Gawker wasn’t heroic, and nobody else is either. At its best, it wasn’t afraid of all the things everyone else was afraid of, refusing to learn the hesitations imparted by a career steeped in its own folklore and superstitions. If you want a one-line valediction, take this: Look at who is celebrating today the hardest, and see if, while it lasted, Gawker didn’t make enemies of all the right assholes.