Gawker and lawsuits: Press freedom faces a double threat

One of the most dangerous trends in American life is the increasingly successful attack on the already weakened news media, a trend heightened by Donald Trump’s threat to sue journalists and a billionaire’s in shutting down the scandal site Gawker. 

It’s a threat to media outlets large and small, particularly those with limited financial resources, including community newspapers and ethnic publications, such as this very publication, the Jewish Journal. 

Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, made his intentions clear in a speech to a rally in Fort Worth, Texas, in February: “One of the things I’m going to do if I win, and I hope we do and we’re certainly leading, I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money. We’re going to open up those libel laws. So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace, or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.”

What Trump is advocating is weakening the constitutional First Amendment protection of freedom of speech. Specifically, he’s against the Supreme Court’s 1964 decision in New York Times vs. Sullivan. That momentous ruling greatly increased media freedom by demanding that public officials fighting a critical story must prove actual malice. Malice means a story was published with the knowledge that it was false and that the publication recklessly disregarded the truth. Later, the decision was expanded to include lawsuits by public figures. 

For more than half a century, Sullivan remains the great protector of freedom of the press. Trump’s threat to dismantle it, presumably with his new Supreme Court, is one of the great dangers of his presidential campaign.

Peter Thiel, the successful rich Silicon Valley investor, came at press freedom from another angle. Gawker was an uninhibited internet site that ran gossipy scandal stories on the famous and the little known, humiliating many of its subjects but sometimes striking its version of gold, as it did by pushing the Bill Cosby story. In one story, it wrote that Thiel was gay. His preferences were known in Silicon Valley, but Thiel, who happens to be a Trump supporter, said Gawker had “ruined people’s lives for no reason.” He began an all-out underground campaign against Gawker.

His chance came when Gawker ran a video of well-known wrestler Hulk Hogan having sex with a woman. Thiel hired an aggressive and talented lawyer for Hogan, whose real name is Terry G. Bollea. The wrestler sued Gawker for invasion of privacy. A Florida jury awarded Bollea $140 million, a judgment that put Gawker out of business.

What, you might ask, does a sensation-mad gossip-scandal site have in common with respectable journalism, including publications like this one? Quite a bit.

The Jewish publication The Forward provides a possible example. The Forward, founded in 1897 by socialists, including famed editor and novelist Abraham Cahan, has long focused attention on slumlords, dating back to the packed tenements of New York’s Lower East Side. In 2010, Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote an opinion piece, “When The Slumlords Are Us,” in which she named three of them from a list first published by The Village Voice.

Let me play law professor for a moment and ask a hypothetical: What if the new Trump Supreme Court wiped out the Sullivan press doctrine and made it easy to win a libel suit? Or what if more deep-pockets Peter Thiels appeared, ready to finance lawsuits against publications they hated. 

In other words, what if one of those slumlords wanted revenge against The Forward, as Thiel did in the Gawker case?

Think of today’s media proprietors or the owners of the thousands of websites and small community papers around the country, which play watchdog in their towns and cities. Before they go after a rich big shot, they might very well ponder these words by Nick Denton, the Gawker founder:

“Peter Thiel has achieved his objectives. His proxy, Terry Bollea, also known as Hulk Hogan, has a claim on the company and my personal assets after winning a $140 million trial court judgment in his Florida privacy case. Even if that decision is reversed or reduced on appeal, it is too late for Gawker itself. Its former editor, who wrote the story about Hogan, has a $230 million hold on his checking account. The flagship site, a magnet for most of the lawsuits marshaled by Peter Thiel’s lawyer, has for most media companies become simply too dangerous to own.”

With Trump determined to overturn the Sullivan decision, and more rich people emboldened by Thiel’s success, the news media faces a dangerous threat. That is particularly true for outlets large and small that practice accountability investigative journalism — finding out who is to blame for misdeeds by government, businesses, charities, religious organizations and other powerful institutions.

With staff reductions due to plummeting circulation and advertising, media outlets are already pulling back from this kind of journalism, as comedian John Oliver pointed out recently on his TV show in his devastating satire on how newspapers are chasing stories about cute animals rather than scandals at city hall. 

An editor or owner, looking fearfully at the bottom line when a reporter races in with evidence of a scandal, is likely to say, “It’s not worth it.” That will be the new credo of journalism, replacing the still-stirring words that journalist-humorist Finley Peter Dunne wrote more than 100 years ago: “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Hobbled Gawker’s critics include Jews – and anti-Semites

Journalists like to comfort themselves with the old axiom that if each side of a conflict thinks you favor the other, you’re doing something right.

Gawker Media, the aggressive gossip blog and mini-media empire now facing a fight for its financial life, boasts enemies on all sides. In fact, Gawker has had the distinction of being accused of anti-Semitism and being the frequent target of anti-Semites.

On Friday, Gawker’s owner Nick Denton announced the company is filing for bankruptcy to get out from under a $140 million judgment awarded to professional wrestler Hulk Hogan after Gawker broadcast a sex tape featuring Hogan and the wife of one of his friends in 2012.

Hogan’s suit, financed in large part by Silicon Valley titan and Gawker target Peter Thiel, is at the center of a debate over the ability of aggrieved gazillionaires to bankroll libel and privacy suits and muzzle media outlets.

Gawker is also entertaining bids from other publishers, including one as high as $100 million.

Denton is Jewish, and white supremacists and other hate sites have tagged Gawker as part of a Jewish media conspiracy. One white power blogger calls Gawker a “filth rat-faced Jew website,” in an article titled, “How The Jews Ruined American Icon Hulk Hogan.” Infostormer, a site bent on “destroying Jewish tyranny,” callsDenton “Jew vermin.”

On the flip side, FrontPage, a news website founded by 1960s-radical-turned-conservative-firebrand David Horowitz, calls Gawker “an anti-Semitic website brimming over with hatred and contempt for Jews and the Jewish state.” FrontPage points to a 2007 post in which an unnamed Gawker blogger, reporting that some Israeli bookstores would be open on the Jewish Sabbath to sell copies of the latest Harry Potter novel, wrote that “these are Jews, let’s remember, and a buck’s a buck.”

A columnist for the Chicago Tribune wrote that the Harry Potter post “a) shows the perils of being too hip for the room, or b) is stupefying in its casual offensiveness.”

Gawker also earned a subdued rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League earlier this year when it set out to undermine a feel-good Twitter campaign by Coca-Cola. Essentially, Gawker tricked Coke’s Twitter account into tweeting out sections of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”

“It is highly unfortunate that Coca-Cola’s attempt to encourage all of us to make using the Internet a more positive experience encountered this roadblock, and also revealing of how pervasive the challenge is,” Abe Foxman, then-national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said at the time.

Denton, born and raised in England, is the son of Marika Marton, a Hungarian Jew who escaped the Soviet invasion of that country in 1956, and Geoffrey Denton, a Yorkshire-born economist.

During the Hulk Hogan trial, Denton’s lawyer invoked the publisher’s mother in describing Gawker’s commitment to the First Amendment. Gawker lawyer Michael Berry said Denton’s mom was a Hungarian Jew “who survived the Nazis,” and later escaped the Soviet occupation of Hungary.

“Mr. Denton grew up with parents who’ve seen first-hand what happens when speech is suppressed,” Berry said. “He wants the public to have the simple, unvarnished truth … the unvarnished truth about public figures.”

That “unvarnished truth,” it turns out, made Gawker a target. Some say rightfully so, as slime and innuendo shouldn’t be protected “free speech.” Others defend Gawker as a courageous if snarky truth-teller.

That divide extends to the commentary over the Hogan lawsuit and Thiel’s role in funding it. “Thiel’s desire to protect individual privacy even in the age of the Internet is certainly defensible, and making this case in court represents a justifiable use of his own funds,” writes David French for the National Review.

Margaret Sullivan disagrees. “Gawker’s offerings certainly aren’t the Pentagon Papers, or the revelations about spying on citizens by the National Security Agency,” she writes in the Washington Post. “But when a vindictive billionaire can muscle his way into a lawsuit with the intention of putting a media company out of business, there’s reason to worry.”

Lena Dunham book leaks

The book proposal that landed “Girls” creator Lena Dunham a $3.7 million publishing deal was leaked online on Monday.

The 66-page proposal explains the ideas behind the book, “Not That Kind of Girl,” and reveals it will be divided into six sections: Work, Friendship, Body, Sex, Love and Big Picture, the Christian Science Monitor reported. The structure of the book by the Jewish actress, writer and director is inspired by the late Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown’s “Having It All.”

“I’ve never kept a diary,” Dunham wrote in the introduction. “I remember being given a journal around age six, penning a long paragraph about my massive crush on Colin Bliss (what a name!) and then leaving it casually strewn open on the kitchen counter for my parents to ‘find.’ Here was my feeling: if a girl writes in her diary and no one’s there to read it did she really write at all?”

Some notable quotes from the proposal include: “Every ice pop I ate, every movie I watched, every poem I wrote was tinged with a fearful loss,” and “I’ve been in therapy since I was seven.”

The leaked proposal was posted on various blogs and websites, but was taken down when Dunham’s attorney intervened. There is still no word if she is writing the book naked while eating cake.