Tech reporters: The death of Gawker is not an excuse
Let’s give Gawker its funeral, and its wake. Let’s allow its editors and writers to mourn: To silence the pianos and with muffled drum ring out the coffin, let the mourners come. All that WH Auden jazz.
Let’s not contradict them when they say that Peter Thiel [a Pando investor, depressingly] really wanted to destroy them because of their brave coverage of Clarium Capital (“Peter Thiel makes me sick… because he's got such a nauseatingly successful track record" Denton told a Gawker reporter, right before the site began focussing on his failures) rather than for their coverage of his sex life (“Peter Thiel is totally gay, people!”) Let’s not point out that, for all the mythmaking, in most cases Gawker’s coverage of Silicon Valley was focussed on cyberbullying junior marketing bods who posted dumb tweets, or shaming senior executives for supporting charity auctions, or mocking children, or encouraging protesters to throw rocks at entry level developers on Google buses. Let’s not point out that Gawker-Kinja was itself an offshored, arrogant, smug, tax-dodging, intern-underpaying tech company with a swanky office and a sociopathic boss. Let’s none of us mention the deposition in which one of the editors targeted by Thiel joked that he’d probably publish a toddler’s sextape (so long as the child were older than four.)
Let’s not even raise an eyebrow at how even Gawker’s own defense of its Silicon Valley coverage focuses almost entirely on things written during an earlier iteration of Valleywag that stopped existing half a decade ago. Let’s not point out that, by the company’s own telling, the fearless tech industry reporting that apparently brought down Gawker was masterminded by people like Owen Thomas and Ryan Tate and Nick Denton himself. Let’s draw a veil over the most recent brace of Valleywag editors - including the one who openly called for more bullying against “nerds” and cost Gawker Media seven figures in lost advertising (indeed let’s take his word that he was joking) and let’s follow the lead set by Gawker itself and airbrush Dan Lyons’ sexist, embarrassingly ill-informed tenure completely from history. Let’s not speculate at how snarkily and gloatingly Valleywag might cover its own demise, were it to be happening to some other tech company.
Let’s allow the kids to have their day, or even their week of self-pity and self-reflection. After all, this is the first time most Gawker writers have been unable to get their own way. That they’ve been the bullied and not the bullies. Until now, they’ve always been the ones who get to publish a video of your daughter being raped and to laugh and say "blah blah blah" when she begs them to take it down. They’ve been the ones who decide if your sex tape is newsworthy, or if a photograph of your murdered teenager's corpse should be exploited for clicks.
They’re shellshocked. Having their own lives upended by someone with more power and money than themselves - by someone even more unpleasant than themselves - is something that will take some time to process. They’ve just learned that life is unfair and that mom and dad can’t always bail you out when you do something bad.
So let’s cut them some slack.
Instead, let’s turn our attention to the rest of the media and the way it covers Silicon Valley and the wider tech industry. Let’s examine the article after article, tweet after tweet, from reporters bemoaning not just the death of Gawker but the death of critical tech journalism. Let’s consider the near-consensus that, thanks to Peter Thiel’s grotesque vendetta against Gawker, it is now simply TOO DANGEROUS to rake muck in Silicon Valley. Let’s read articles like this one demanding to know “who would dare [cover Valley billionaires], now that Thiel has set a precedent for Silicon Valley's ruling class to wield their fortunes to exact revenge on publications that offend them?”
And let’s ask the question: Well, why not you?
Let’s ask: Why should a billionaire like Peter Thiel be able to scare you away from doing your job? Why should the threat of lawsuits or even personal bankruptcy be a reason to throw up your hands and say “it’s just too frightening!” Who ever told you that doing journalism - real, serious, investigative journalism - was not supposed to be scary? Or put differently, if you’re too scared to ask tough questions in case someone sues you, were you really a journalist in the first place?
How exactly are tech reporters supposed to look war correspondents in Syria or anti-corruption reporters in Mexico in the eye and even think about complaining that they can’t do their job because Peter Thiel might take their rice cooker?
The UK - Nick Denton’s homeland and my own - has some of the strictest libel laws on the planet. How do American tech journalists explain the fact that, despite this, every day in London newspapers are still printed and websites are still published?
Is it possible… just possible… that a large number of American tech reporters, and their editors, are full of shit? That their huffing and puffing and arm throwing about how they can’t possibly investigate Silicon Valley now is because they never really investigated it in the first place, and now Peter Thiel has given them a convenient excuse not to start? Might that explain why Theranos and Uber and all the companies implicated in the Techtopus wage-theft scandal got such an easy ride for so long? Or why, in most cases, WeWork and Hyperloop and every VC firm in the Valley still does? Because developing sources is hard, and jabbing them in the eye is even harder. And getting a free iPhone or partying with billionaires is way easier, and a lot more fun.
Let’s not go too far down that road.
Let’s do this instead: Let’s use the demise of Gawker as an inciting event - a rallying cry to double down on serious investigations into (and, yes, satirization of) the most powerful people in Silicon Valley, in the world even. Let’s forget all the gay-shaming and bullying and hypocrisy and punching down of Gawker’s actual Silicon Valley coverage and instead build something to replace the imaginary, idealized Gawker/Valleywag that so many journalists insist used to exist.
Let’s take fanboys off the Apple beat, and stop expecting gadget reviewers to act like business journalists. Let’s stop treating press releases as “breaking news” and stop acting like publishing a self-leaked hiring announcement makes you a real journalistic outlet rather than a Minority Report version of LinkedIn.
Let’s do our best to cover Silicon Valley power brokers, and invite those same powerbrokers (including Peter Thiel) to do their worst. Let’s remember those war correspondents who get shot at and the Russian authors who get poloniumed and the Mexican drug gang reporters who get beheaded and left at the side of the road. Or if we don’t want to be quite so dramatic, let’s think about the American whistleblowers who face jail or the political reporters who refuse to reveal their sources even when faced with a grand jury. And let’s consider ourselves unspeakably lucky that the worst thing tech reporters face is an angry libertarian with a Trump fetish coming after our kitchen appliances.
In other words, let’s stop using the death of Gawker as an excuse, and seize it as an opportunity to actually hold these fuckers to account, confident (if not actually safe) in the knowledge that while our reporting might one day send them to jail the worst they can do is steal our lunch money.
Or let’s not. I hear South By Southwest is going to be sick next year. And what about the iPhone 7? Duuuuddddeee. You going to YC Demo Day...?