Goodbye rich powerful old gatekeepers, hello richer powerful new ones
Earlier this week, Stratechery’s Ben Thompson argued that the era of powerful men like Harvey Weinstein being able to harass and assault in silence may soon be over.
Why? Because Weinstein is a so-called “Gatekeeper” - someone who wields so much power over the careers of actors, directors and other workers in the film industry that he’s able to scare them into silence. Gatekeepers like Weinstein are also able to use their economic power - as advertisers, and controllers of celebrities - to ensure that media gatekeepers, like the New York Times, are reluctant to report on their misdeeds.
Increasingly though, Thompson argues, the Internet is disrupting those gatekeepers: YouTube is disrupting Hollywood, blogs are disrupting the Times etc etc. Men like Weinstein are suddenly less powerful, less able to control the story.
Thompson’s position is compelling, and characteristically well argued, with graphs and back-of-a-napkin drawings. Not to mention this rousing call to action...
[T]he end of gatekeepers is inevitable: the Internet provides abundance, not scarcity, and power flows from discovery, not distribution.
We can regret the change or relish it, but we cannot halt it: best to get on with making it work for far more people than gatekeepers ever helped — or harassed.
More importantly, Thompson’s thesis feels true. Weinstein is certainly less powerful than during the height of his Miramax power, and we know the New York Times is no longer one of only one or two newspapers that matters.
And yet, while Thompson’s vision of crumbling gates and weakened moguls sounds and feels authentic, closer examination reveals a reality as flimsy and unrealistic as an old movie set.
It might be true (and I’m not certain it is, by the way) that publications like the Times will soon cease to be gatekeepers. It might even be true that the Times et al are hopelessly conflicted by their relationships with studios and other key advertisers (if that were true then some days the Times would contain only positive reviews and blank pages). But the real howler here is the implication that, once the Times and other gatekeepers are swept aside, other smaller, less cowed publications will step into the breach.
That notion can be dismissed in two words. Two words you’re going to be hearing even more frequently should Thompson’s thesis bear out.
Harder - a name which I probably shouldn’t write a third time lest he appear from my bathroom mirror - is of course best known as Peter Thiel’s pet lawyer, the man who helped Hulk Hogan to destroy Gawker. Until recently, he also represented Harvey Weinstein in his lawsuit against the Times. More pertinently here, Harder (here he comes!) is the lawyer who represented Shiva Ayyadurai in his attempt to crush tech news site, Techdirt.
The problem, as demonstrated by the Techdirt case, is that lawyers like Charles Harder make no distinction between gatekeepers and indies when sending threats of legal armageddon. The only difference is that only big, powerful gatekeepers like the Times - flawed and conflicted as they might be - have the resources to swat down those threats and publish anyway.
For all Thompson’s vision of crumbling gatekeepers, there’s a reason why the Weinstein story ultimately broke in the Times and The New Yorker and why still most bombshell stories are first broken by major newspapers: Lawyers are very, very expensive. And the only thing more expensive than lawyers is not having lawyers.
Yes, indies still can and do publish frightening stories -- The Information has done great work on Silicon Valley harassment and I’d be remiss not to remind readers of what happened when Sarah took on Uber. But, in a world without gatekeepers, it is nonetheless significantly cheaper and easier to shut down an entire publication, not just a single story.
And it’s not just Charles Harder. There are thousands of Harders in America, all ready, willing, and able to sue into oblivion any publication that dares cross their clients. And whatever Thompson might argue, those clients are only getting richer and more powerful.
I understand Thompson’s reasoning - for as long as there has been an internet, journalists have been arguing that it was going to change, and solve, all of the world’s ills. "No more gatekeepers" is one of the oldest of the old saws.
But that brings us to the other flaw in Thompson’s argument: It breezes past the possibility that the great, disruptive tech industry might itself be chock full of predators. I’ve already mentioned Thiel (a political and legal predator but not, to the best of my knowledge, any other kind) -- but this seems like a good time to mention another Harder client: Roy Price, the Amazon Studio’s boss who was fired after reportedly sexually harassing a colleague. As a Pando reader you don’t need me to repeat the rogues gallery of tech disruptors who have recently been accused of sexual assault or harassment and were able to mostly get away with it until their stories were finally told in publications like the cowed, gatekeepery New York Times.
In fact, the mere existence of Amazon - or Google or Facebook - would seem to give lie to the notion that gatekeepers are on the way out. In the past, a story ignored by the Times might have gotten picked up by the Post or some foreign title. But today, well, does a story truly exist if Google doesn’t index it? Or if Facebook won’t allow it to be shared? Between them, those two entities control some 70% of all digital advertising. Aren’t they the greatest gatekeepers the world has ever known?
Held against all the immense power - and abusive workplaces - being created right here in bold, disruptive, gatekeeper-destroying Silicon Valley, Thompson’s rosy future of humbled moguls and uncowed bloggers starts to look a tad ludicrous.