By Casey Bukro
On the Chicago police beat, which I covered at the City News Bureau of Chicago, legend was that police sometimes arrested suspicious characters for mopery with intentions to gawk.
By definition, a gawker is a person who stares openly at someone or something. To gawk is to gape, stare or rubberneck without trying to hide that you’re doing it. A gawker also can be an awkward or clumsy person.
So when Financial Times reporter Nick Denton launched Gawker.com in 2003, I figured I knew what to expect. The website described itself as a media news and gossip blog, one of its goals being to “afflict the comfortable.” Gawker Media became a network of blogs, including Gizmodo, Deadpan, Jezebel and Lifehacker.
Farhad Manjoo, in the New York Times, called Gawker Media “the first publisher that understood the pace, culture and possibilities of online news. And it used that understanding to unleash a set of technical, business and journalistic innovations on the news industry that have altered how we produce, consume and react to media today.”
“Gawker altered how we produce, consume and react to media.”
That sounds pretty impressive. Manjoo ended his piece by pointing out that Gawker criticized people without giving them the benefit of the doubt and vented outrage against ordinary people who didn’t deserve it. “A lot of the internet is wonderful,” writes Manjoo. “A lot of the internet is terrible. For both, blame Gawker.”
But I could not help feeling I’ve seen it before, in college newspapers that trade in insults and poor taste in the name of satire.
The leading example in my memory was the Illini Tumor, calling itself “a growth on the student body.” Later, it become simply “The Tumor.”
It was printed as an annual fundraising gimmick around home-coming at the University of Illinois for the campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. And it did raise a lot of money, some of it used for good causes. But it could be outrageously crude and offensive, as was Gawker.
I was Midwestern regional director for SPJ in the 1970s and 1980s. The Tumor was my first direct confrontation with ethics in journalism, and a painful one.
The Tumor staff argued that with the funds it raised, it could send busloads of its journalists to the annual SPJ conventions. More straight-laced types asked how SPJ could condone such scandalous journalism? What could a regional director do?
University officials held their noses and let students be students, hoping they would learn something in the process. They were entitled to freedom of the press, even though the Tumor was obnoxious. That’s one of the benefits of freedom of expression, even for college students. To be fair, some of the rants were funny. You’d expect that from bright kids with snarky attitudes.
As often happens, the problem solved itself when the Tumor faded into history, as Gawker is now doing. Offensive journalism can be funny and entertaining, but eventually the enemies it makes catch up with it. Satire takes real skill, which over time often degenerates into slapstick fart jokes. Even “Saturday Night Live” has had trouble trying to keep its edge.
“Even the media must obey the law.”
Gawker was sued in 2012 by Hulk Hogan, the TV personality/wrestler born Terry Bollea. Gawker published excerpts of a video tape of Hogan having sex with the wife of a friend.
A jury agreed that was invasion of privacy, resulting in a $140 million judgment against Gawker, $10 million against CEO Denton and $100,000 against Gawker’s editor. Gawker Media was forced into bankruptcy, the New York Post declaring that “even the media must obey the law.”
Univision Communications bought Gawker Media for $135 million, announcing it would shut down gawker.com but continue to operate its other sites.
The site really may have been brought down by PayPal co-founder and billionaire Peter Thiel, who admits secretly funding the wrestler’s lawsuit. Gawker claimed in 2007 that Thiel was gay.
In satire, it’s often a matter of who gets the last laugh. Defiant to the end, Gawker threw a party celebrating its demise and extolling its bravery and independence, Jacob Bernstein reported in the New York Times. Gawker had been a training ground for gifted writers, wrote Bernstein, “and a place where too many of the articles published were not only mean but inconsequential.”
Gawker clearly was unethical, posting not only sex videos but a steady diet of reports on trivial failings of the famous and not so famous. Invasion of privacy is not only illegal—punishable in court—it also robs the targets of their dignity.
“Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness,” the Society of Professional Journalists ethics code says. Gawker made little pretense of tying its targets’ private actions to any public impact. It afflicted its victims simply because they were comfortable.
Gawker’s folly is not identical to the Tumor’s. A generation or more separates them. But their methods were similar—cruelty, insults and humiliation that sometimes passed for humor.
What we called satire a generation or so ago has evolved into the kind of social media attacks we see today. Technology changed, the times changed, but the hurt inflicted is the same. The internet made that possible. Anonymity plays a role in the mean-spirited tone of social media. The world’s discourse is coarser, and its media reflect that.
Good satire and penetrating social commentary are worthy efforts in a world often soured by death, destruction and mind-numbing, petty political bickering. It helps to be funny, always with an eye for suspicious characters who can be arrested for mopery with intentions to gawk.
Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers, submit a question.