Gawker founder Nick Denton painted a bleak picture of the future of journalism and American society as a whole, in a wide-ranging conversation with ad agency veteran Jeff Goodby.
"People do not like fully-fledged unfettered expression," Denton told Goodby during the "Life After Gawker" session at the SXSW Conference on Sunday. "We are, all of us, easily insulted, and when given a chance, we want to retaliate. Journalists are often the tip of the spear, and sometimes the tip of the spear gets broken."
Last August, the 13-year-old news and gossip site Gawker folded after being bankrupted in a lawsuit brought by former wrestling star Hulk Hogan. The site had published a sex tape featuring the wrestler. After the judgment, it came to light that the suit had been funded by tech billionaire Peter Thiel, whom Gawker had outed as gay in 2007.
Both of those stories were controversial at the time, but Denton defended Gawker’s right to publish them, and Goodby—co-founder and co-chairman of Goodby Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco—lauded him for being someone who "stands by his story," calling him a friend and a "big hero of mine."
Denton did admit that if faced with the choice to move forward with the Hogan story again, he might reconsider, or at least present the story in a less salacious way. But when Goodby asked whether the fallout from the lawsuit held implications for journalism as a whole, Denton’s warnings were dire. Thiel’s success in the courts showed that mainstream media can’t stand up to a determined opponent with deep pockets.
"The reason why the press was strong through the late 20th century was there was a classified ad revenue stream" and the powerful people investigated by journalists were "rarely that much richer than the media that was covering them," Denton said. Now, "Peter Thiel alone is worth as much as the market capitalization of the New York Times. The balance of power has shifted dramatically."
Journalists should be wary even of benevolent billionaires, he added. "There is vulnerability in the charity model." Jeff Bezos of Amazon may be funding important work from The Washington Post now, but it’s unlikely they will be conducting an antitrust investigation of the company, Denton noted.
But it gets worse. While a wealthy few can take down a media operation, "the truly dangerous stories are not about celebrities," he said. "They’re product reviews." He offered the example of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, which has well-documented flaws that can cause fires. "An honest review of the Samsung Galaxy Note is a dangerous, expensive proposition. There won’t be any drama. You just won’t see any advertising for two years. That’s the salaries of 10 or 20 journalists up in smoke."
With Gawker gone and serving as an example of how aggressive, combative media is susceptible to legal action, Goodby asked what counter now exists for sites like Breitbart News, a right-wing purveyor of fake news stories and conspiracy theories with ties to white supremacy. "I’m not sure you have a lot of confidence in the institution of journalism or the institution of government to solve those problems," Goodby said to Denton.
Denton gave an answer marked with more hope than the rest of his assertions would have indicated. "I have a lot of confidence in the institution of conversation," he said, noting that even Twitter trolls often come around to meaningful discussion when engaged one-on-one.
Denton advocated a "Zen Buddhist" response. The battle against sites like Breitbart "is not going to be won in some kind of direct, head-to-head conflict, and I don’t think it’s going to be won by escalating even further," Denton said, before admitting that Gawker itself may have been a part of escalating those disagreements. "Breitbart is a further escalation."
It’s a natural response to react to fascist and racist propaganda by trying to "punch the Nazi," Denton said. "But they have the guns."