At a recent Heleo event at the National Arts Club in Manhattan, bestselling social science writer Malcolm Gladwell admitted that he couldn’t see the point in being upset over the demise of the digital media site Gawker.
Gawker, a gossip blog that ended operations in August after losing a lawsuit over its publication of Hulk Hogan’s sex tape, was best known for its snarky tone and fearless publishing practices. Gladwell made three points about Gawker’s maybe-not-so-unexpected end:
- Where were the lawyers? “Over the course of 20 years,” Gladwell said, referencing his time as a staff writer for the Washington Post and The New Yorker, “I’ve had the following conversation—let’s say, conservatively, 30 times—in which my editor says to me, we’re going to have to have our lawyers look at that, and the lawyers look at that and say, you can’t say that.” For Gladwell, taking material out of a story is a no-brainer if that material might get him or his publication sued. After a conversation with a lawyer, he changes the offending bit. But Gladwell remarked that, “at Gawker, clearly that conversation never happened.”
- Why get sued over this? Gladwell made an exception for one instance when a publication shouldn’t change a story that might get them in legal trouble: when “there is a point of principle involved,” such as The New York Times and the Washington Post’s publication of The Pentagon Papers. This was something of “political and social importance,” something that, for Gladwell, was worthy of taking a moral stand. “Gawker chose to get sued over publishing a video of a guy having sex with his best friend’s wife,” he said, “Is that the rock we want to die on?”
- Why doesn’t Gawker just start over? As a purely online media source, Gawker didn’t have to contend with the costs of printing and distribution systems. According to Gladwell, “the whole point of the internet is that if you sue it and it goes out of business, then you turn around and you start Gawker 2.”
Of course, Gawker had a history of regularly skewering Gladwell, along with members of the media, the political class, and the New York “elite,” a practice which earned it no outpouring of pity from its regular targets. So it might be unreasonable to expect Gladwell to feel sorry for an outlet fond of calling him the “poofy haired airport bookstore genius-in-residence.” Should the rest of us bemoan its absence? It depends: are you Team Gladwell or Team Gawker?