If you haven’t been hiding under a rock lately, then you’ve probably heard of the ongoing spat between Hulk Hogan and Gawker. A recent Guardian article refers to the outcome, in which Hogan won $140M in damages against Gawker, as a “chilling taste of things to come.” Everybody and their brother has been talking about this icecream-like verdict.
But let’s back up a second. Gawker, the tabloid that people are somehow still referring to as “journalism,” that published someone’s private sex tape and thought that was cool. This is among the worst possible major media outlets to defend, in the top 50 or 100 at least. Sure, billionaire Facebook board member Peter Thiel funded Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker. Vivek Wadhwa, with right-wing rag The Washington Post, thinks that this is simply the latest development in the news media’s subservience to the tech industry. But why is Gawker’s loss to the Hulk being labeled such a grave threat to journalism?
“It’s a game of access, and if you don’t play it carefully, you may pay sorely”
The truth is, as Wadhwa himself argues, that this is not a “growing” trend; even if we take for granted the absurd premise that Gawker’s defeat represents a blow to “journalism,” this is quite simply already how business is conducted. Nick Bilton sums up the dynamic quite well in his article on journalism in Silicon Valley:
The system here has been molded to effectively prevent reporters from asking tough questions. It’s a game of access, and if you don’t play it carefully, you may pay sorely. Outlets that write negatively about gadgets often don’t get pre-release versions of the next gadget. Writers who ask probing questions may not get to interview the C.E.O. next time he or she is doing the rounds. If you comply with these rules, you’re rewarded with page views and praise in the tech blogosphere. And then there’s the fact that many of these tech outlets rely so heavily on tech conferences. “If you look at most tech publications, they have major conferences as their revenue,” Jason Calacanis, the blogger and founder of Weblogs, told me. “If you hit too hard, you lose keynotes, ticket buyers, and support in the tech space.”
Which sounds a lot like, well, just about any relationship between power and news media outlets. For example–on the one hand, there’s Obama’s “War on Whistleblowers” (and journalists). On the other hand, we all know about how the mainstream media regularly sanitizes images of war and other content that the U.S. government wants to reflect positively on its policies. This interplay between repression and regime-friendly media coverage is an old, old dynamic in the age of mass media, where “propaganda” has for a long time been a commonplace term, testifying to the ubiquity of its practice. This is not news; this is what governments and capitalists do all of the time. It’s how they create the image of consensus, even to the point of having an army of hundreds of millions of fake social media personalities to ape the party line.
“The most obvious and inexcusable form of rank propaganda”
Of course, such lengths aren’t exactly necessary, as media outlets are generally happy to say whatever those in power want them to say. I am reminded of Glen Greenwald’s 2012 article for Slate, in which he talks about how the Obama administration uses the word “militant” to mean “all military-age males in a strike zone,” thus avoiding counting civilian deaths (which serves as a lesson, as if we really needed one, for why one can’t rely on the killers to count the dead). To make matters worse,
Virtually every time the U.S. fires a missile from a drone and ends the lives of Muslims, American media outlets dutifully trumpet in headlines that the dead were “militants”–even though those media outlets literally do not have the slightest idea of who was actually killed. They simply cite always-unnamed “officials” claiming that the dead were “militants.” It’s the most obvious and inexcusable form of rank propaganda: media outlets continuously propagating a vital claim without having the slightest idea if it’s true.
The press are free to print nearly whatever they want–thankfully, not including sex tapes–but they’re also free to be owned by unscrupulous capitalists who want to be on the good side of those in power because they share the same interests, and because they want to make lots of advertising dollars paid by other unscrupulous capitalists. In Gawker’s case, they just gotta get those clicks, no matter how low they have to sink. The resulting situation is such that so-called “freedom” of the press, in a capitalist society (just like its more nakedly authoritarian counterparts), yields narratives that are already “chilled” and sanitized in advance, if not mired in outright sleaze.
To behave as though we don’t live in a society that is already up to its neck in bullshit and propaganda is truly an incredible feat of the imagination–especially in the context of Trump’s meteoric rise from the cesspool of reality TV–and those who can carry on with it should be congratulated accordingly, if it weren’t for the fact that they are in this case defending Gawker’s reprehensible actions, mutating what is basically a gross invasion of someone’s privacy into (somehow, incredibly) the current poster child for press freedom. What’s more, to seriously regard the final result of #HulkVsGawk as a palpable threat to everyday people’s freedoms, much less to those of mass media outlets that are overwhelmingly dominated by the rich and powerful, is not only surpassingly absurd, but serves as a potent reminder of the extent to which our media and political cultures have descended into the foggy depths of historical amnesia and wide-eyed madness.