Pando

Gawker reminds buyers of the fearless journalism that, it claims, makes Silicon Valley tremble

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on June 3, 2016

From The Press Freedom Desk

Yesterday afternoon, Gawker published the world’s longest, and saddest, “For Sale” notice.

Signed by “Gawker Editors,” the post purported to list the stories which Gawker is proudest of having published in its decade-or-so history.

You know the backstory, of course. Gawker is currently being sued, perhaps out of existence, by a number of plaintiffs, including Hulk Hogan. Several of those lawsuits were secretly funded by Silicon Valley billionaire, Peter Thiel (disclosure: A Pando investor through Founders Fund). You can read my views on Thiel’s shady and wrong-headed campaign here. And, should you still be left wondering if I’m on Team Thiel, you can read the post where I call him a fucking asshole here.

Still, Thiel's involvement in the lawsuits has given Gawker the perfect hero narrative for why it is currently standing at death’s door. A narrative that it hopes will make Gawker Media attractive to buyers who might otherwise be put off by, say, one of its editors boasting he’d publish a sex tape featuring a child.

Forget the sleeze! Silicon Valley billionaires are so threatened by Gawker’s searing investigative journalism they'll do anything to silence us! Call now! No reasonable offer refused!

This same narrative is repeated in the “Here's What Gawker Media Does” post, which also includes a pouty paragraph about how even Thiel’s many critics feel the need to couch their criticism with a disclaimed that they hate Gawker too.

Even those who are rightly alarmed at Thiel’s unprecedented attack on an institution that he regards as “terrible for the Valley” usually feel the need to preface that conclusion with some form of “I hate to defend Gawker, but...”

It’s an understandable habit. Gawker Media has not put a lot of effort, over the years, into being likable. We have earned a long list of enemies.

But the notion that Gawker Media—the company, encompassing seven web sites, that Thiel is attempting to permanently silence—is best understood as a platform for spewing hatred, or for bullying, is at odds with our own experience.

Yes, you -- that is, the functionally literate Gawker reader in possession of a working set of eyes -- might think Gawker is guilty of bullying, or of spewing hatred, but people who work at the company say it's fantastic! And so, having established this version of reality -- Gawker is imperilled because it spoke truth to Silicon Valley power -- The Editors present their list of creme-de-la-creme reporting.

You might reasonably expect that list to include a large number of the stories from Valleywag, given that’s the vertical that made Thiel and his cronies so bent on revenge.

So guess how many of the "here’s Gawker’s best real journalism” headlines chosen by the site’s editors came from Valleywag...

Six?

Three?

One?

None.

Zero.

Embarrassingly, the list didn’t even include the very important story which, Denton says, triggered Thiel’s ire in the first place: The story from 2007 in which writer Owen Thomas revealed that “Peter Thiel is totally gay.”

By failing to point to a single Valleywag story that they’re actually proud of, Gawker’s editors confirm what we all know -- what even Nick Denton knows: That Gawker’s coverage of Silicon Valley has always been laughably bad. That whatever real journalism might have appeared on Gawker Media properties almost never involved speaking truth to tech power.

Much of Valleywag’s laughable badness can be traced to Denton’s propensity for hiring idiots with no tech reporting experience and no sources and, on several occasions, weren’t even based on the West Coast. In fact, the only Valleywag editor generally considered to know what he was doing was Denton himself, who took over the job to replace Valleywag’s founding editor who was fired for boasting to reporters that the site was deliberately trying to provoke defamation suits. The original Valleywag was shuttered not long afterwards.

The Valleywag "brand" lay silent for years until it was relaunched in 2013, helmed by Sam Biddle. A year or so later, Biddle was removed from his post for Tweeting that he hoped to “bring back bullying”. His successor Dan Lyons was shown the door after Pando (and others) pointed to multiple examples of his ugly sexism. Lyons later admitted he didn’t have a fucking clue what he was talking about, offering as an example an 11 tech industry predictions for the year post in which he got every single one wrong. “I hate myself so much,” he wrote afterwards.

As I wrote back in 2013 (and as others have written), Valleywag repeatedly failed to take shots at the Valley’s many real deserving targets. Instead the site’s writers focussed on attacking low-to-mid level tech workers over dumb social media posts. Valleywag was frequently MIA on big stories, or so late that a story was already growing mold by the time they “broke” it. (Remember, Denton’s whole justification for Valleywag outing Thiel is that everyone already knew Thiel was gay.)

Valleywag was absolutely nowhere on Wikileaks or Pierre Omidyar’s acquisition of the Snowden archives (in fact they have been nowhere on Pierre Omidyar at all, which possibly explains why he is Gawker’s most vocal supporter) They were nowhere on the “techtopus” scandal -- the biggest cartel the tech industry has ever seen -- and they were scooped on pretty much every other recent tech story of consequence: Uber’s bad behavior (scooped repeatedly by Buzzfeed),  Zenefits (Buzzfeed again), Theranos (scooped by the Journal) and even on Thiel’s secret funding of Gawker's own lawsuits (scooped by Forbes and the New York Times).

On other scandals, Gawker managed to plant its flag firmly on the wrong side of the battlefield. As regular readers will know, a couple of years ago, Pando launched something of a crusade against anonymous bullying apps. As we reported, children were threatening suicide after classmates used apps like Secret to spread lies and rumors about them. In other words, a Silicon Valley startup was getting rich by doing real harm to the most vulnerable members of society. As a direct result of that reporting, Secret was forced to remove many of its bullying features and subsequently shut down completely.

On that particular story, Gawker took the side of the Valley tech giant against the victims: Valleywag editor Sam "bring back bullying" Biddle wrote several posts praising Secret and proudly declared himself a fan of the company in media interviews. Biddle himself was later accused of cyberbullying (including by the New York Times) when he sent a furious mob after IAC PR rep Justine Sacco over a racially charged joke tweet. That incident was so ugly it formed the cornerstone of Jon Ronson’s book about Internet mobs, and Biddle wrote a lengthy mea culpa.

Then there was Secret’s big rival, Whisper, which the Guardian reported was creepily tracking and deanonymising its users in the hope of creating news stories from their confessions. The Whisper employee at the center of the scandal -- who was subsequently booted from the company -- was a man by the name of Neetzan Zimmerman. That would be the same Neetzan Zimmermann who joined Whisper from… Gawker.

But. But. But. Just because Valleywag was a cesspool, doesn’t mean the rest of Gawker Media hasn’t ever broken any real tech stories. What about Gizmodo, or Gawker.com itself?

Included on the site’s own best-of list (containing more than 50 stories from across all Gawker media properties) there are just six involving the tech industry.

The list in full: (I’ve grouped with ampersands multiple headlines that related to the same core story.)

Mark Zuckerberg Asks Racist Facebook Employees to Stop Crossing Out Black Lives Matter Slogans

Facebook Employees Asked Mark Zuckerberg If They Should Try to Stop a Donald Trump Presidency

Want to Know What Facebook Really Thinks of Journalists? Here's What Happened When It Hired Some. & Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News

Remember When Dr. Dre Bashed a Female Journalist’s Face Against a Wall?

Over 4,000 BuzzFeed Posts Have Completely Disappeared & BuzzFeed Deleted Posts Under Pressure from Its Own Business Department & BuzzFeed Deletes Post Critical of Dove, a BuzzFeed Advertiser

The Underground Website Where You Can Buy Any Drug Imaginable

That’s it. Those are the stories that, more than any other, Gawker says made it the scourge of Silicon Valley billionaires. That demonstrate what Denton meant this week when he said:

“A Silicon Valley billionaire is a hundred times — a thousand times — more powerful than a Congressman… “I think there’s an imbalance, and part of the way in which that balance is corrected is through news and journalism and gossip.”

Look again at those stories. Does anything jump out at you?

Of the six, only three actually involve a Silicon Valley billionaire: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

And, of those stories, only one actually paints Zuckerberg in a negative light. The other two show Zuckerberg criticising racist graffiti and employees expressing concern to Zuckerberg about a Trump presidency. Take that, Zuck!

The next little cluster of stories centers on New York based Buzzfeed. That is, the media company which, Denton has admitted, he considers Gawker’s biggest competitor. Which is not to say the stories weren’t important, or accurate -- they were. But let’s not kid ourselves they had as much to do with Gawker holding Silicon Valley to account as scoring points against a New York rival.

Then there’s the Dre story which, in fact, Gawker didn’t tie to Silicon Valley at all, even though Dre had already sold his company to Apple and taken an official role at the company. Moreover, Gawker didn’t actually break that story. In fact the story was already old hat when Pando’s James Robinson wrote this over a year earlier…

Apple plans to acquihire a man who violently assaulted a woman and the tech industry doesn't care

By far the strongest story on the list was Adrian Chen’s brilliant Silk Road investigation. Chen was absolutely the first to go deep on Silk Road and the first to expose the players behind it. As Gawker’s post acknowledges, he also likely played a large role in sending the network’s founder to jail.

And so ends the list. 

Those stories are all The Editors could muster as proof that Thiel, and the rest of Silicon Valley, hates Gawker because of its fearless tech journalism. Despite those stories forming the centerpiece of the company's "Silicon Valley wants to stop us because we're doing our job" narrative.

There’s no doubt whatsoever that Peter Thiel and his friends want Gawker dead. But, as Gawker's own evidence proves, that's not because it did any meaningful reporting on him, his business interests or the business interests of his friends.  Peter Thiel wants Gawker dead because he’s a petulant billionaire with too much time on his hands whose reaction to a mean post about his sexual preferences was to spend ten million dollars on a revenge campaign. 

In that regard, Thiel more closely resembles his media-hating BFF Donald Trump than he does Silicon Valley’s real ruling class. Which is why that same ruling class lined up at this week’s Code conference to spout platitudes about how wonderful and important Gawker was, safe in the knowledge that Denton and his minions never did them a lick of real harm.