The Conspiracy Against Gawker: Things Have to Be More Than Just True to Be Newsworthy
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A couple of posts ago I reviewed (in my own idiosyncratic fashion) Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. This was a book about the many crimes and falsehoods of Theranos, a healthcare startup which got away with the aforementioned crimes and falsehoods for far longer than they should have. They accomplished this mostly through a combination of influencing powerful people and intimidating anyone who tried to expose them. As a country (and a civilization) we take a dim view of this sort of behavior and have set up various failsafes to protect us against it. In the case of Theranos all of our failsafes… failed… (I’m pretty sure that despite the name that’s not what they’re supposed to do.)
Of course, this failure didn’t last forever. Theranos was eventually exposed, by the press. Though even this exposure took a lot longer than it should have, given that Theranos was around for more than a dozen years. Now, it wasn’t the hottest startup in the valley, with a valuation of nine billion dollars for all of those years, but the red flags started appearing as early as 2006 when Elizabeth Holmes (the Theranos Founder) fired the CFO for questioning her ethics. (And if there’s any moral of the Theranos story it’s that Holmes did have questionable ethics.) Also from the very beginning Theranos was claiming to have technology which was entirely too good to be true. It really shouldn’t have taken as long as it did for Theranos to be exposed.
I mentioned in my previous post that Theranos was very liberal with the threat of lawsuits, and that this went a long way towards keeping their various misdeeds secret for so long. Also Silicon Valley is a weird place for news. You have hundreds of startups who want coverage, but probably only a few who actually deserve to be exposed in the way Theranos deserved to be exposed. Given this, I assume it takes a certain amount of specialization to separate the wheat from the chaff so to speak. What was really needed during those years that Theranos was at the height of its wickedness was a Silicon Valley specific publication, with zero fear of being sued.
If only such an outlet existed...
A few days ago I was browsing the Slate Star Codex subreddit, as I sometimes do. And I started reading a post by youcanteatbullets where he mentioned that he had just finished reading Bad Blood (“Much like me,” I thought) and that the book he had read just before that was Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue by Ryan Holiday (“Interesting, that’s the book I’m currently reading,” I thought) and that his big question was if Gawker was so intent on uncovering Silicon Valley gossip that they felt the need to out Peter Thiel, (as gay in case that isn't clear) which then led to the whole vendetta which eventually lead to the lawsuit that brought down Gawker, how is it that they completely missed the Theranos story? (“That is an a terribly interesting question!” I thought. “One which never occurred to me.” I thought.)
As it turns out such an outlet did exist, it was Gawker. One of the major takeaways from Conspiracy, is that they viewed lawsuits with total disdain, going so far as ignore the explicit orders of judges. As scary as David Boies is, I’m guessing that he wouldn’t have made much headway with Gawker had they decided to publish a Theranos expose. And as part of the Gawker network there was a site, Valleywag, specifically devoted to Silicon Valley news. Or as youcanteatbullets puts it, a little more directly:
Nick Denton also liked to say that “todays gossip is tomorrows news”. SO WHY THE HELL DIDN’T GAWKER BREAK THE STORY OF THERANOS?! Their dedicated silicon valley beat Valleywag had its ups and downs but was active from 2013-2015; certainly other Gawker properties covered SV as well. The Carreyrou story was published in October 2015. I checked the Gawker site, the only stories I could find on Theranos were after that original WSJ piece. If Gawker played any socially valuable role at all, it would be exposing a company like Theranos.
Nick Denton was, of course, the owner of Gawker (and Valleywag) and a specific target of Thiel’s anger. And to understand things we need to backup a little bit. Particularly if you’re not familiar with all the details surrounding the lawsuit and the vendetta.
It basically all started in 2007 when, as I mentioned, Valleywag/Gawker outed Peter Thiel. You may or may not know who Thiel is, but you’re far more likely to know who he is now than you were to know who he was then. For those that still don’t, Peter Thiel is a billionaire investor who was one of the founders of Paypal, and one of the earliest investors in Facebook. Even now it’s a stretch to call him a public figure, but back then it would have been especially difficult to make that argument. But if there’s one thing you should know about Gawker, such fine distinctions rarely troubled them. Also I know even if he wasn’t a public figure that doesn’t automatically make what Gawker did illegal, I’m just saying, it’s clear from the book, that the question almost certainly never crossed their minds.
Thiel was not especially closeted at the time, but it still annoyed him because he wanted to be known as a great investor, not a great gay investor. (Also if you have followed Thiel at all, you’ll know he’s pretty conservative, which almost certainly plays into it.) But beyond the annoyance he felt at the violation of his personal privacy, he also felt that an organ specifically dedicated to spreading gossip about the valley was bad for the health of the startup ecosystem, and at one point he compared Gawker to terrorists. (I suppose this means he would have been opposed to Gawker using gossip to bring down Theranos. And I’ll get to that.) These feelings hardened until eventually Thiel decided to figure out a way to take Gawker down. Eventually forming the conspiracy from which the title of the book is taken.
After some years of working at it, the conspiracy finally got their chance to strike when Gawker made the ultimately fatal error of publishing the Hulk Hogan sex tape in October of 2012. At this point I should mention that if you’re anything like me, you might have heard that in addition to all of the embarrassment associated with a sex tape, that this was a sex tape involving Hogan (real name: Terry Bollea) and his best friend’s wife. As it turns out, that’s true, but incredibly misleading. His best friend apparently had an open marriage, and the best friend was the one who suggested it, and filmed it. Also Hogan’s wife had, that very day, finally, and irrevocably ended their marriage. This information isn’t necessary to the point I want to make, but I thought it was interesting.
When the tape was posted, Hogan had his attorneys immediately send a cease and desist letter. When Gawker not only ignored the letter, but sent a disdainful response, Hogan said he would sue. Thiel offered to fund the suit. Of course this was a conspiracy, so Thiel didn’t make this offer directly. In fact Hogan doesn’t find out about Thiel’s involvement until after the verdict. Essentially at the same time as everyone else.
The lawsuit drags on for several years before finally going to trial in March of 2016. And in the end the jury delivers a $140 million dollar judgement against Gawker and Denton, which drives both Denton and Gawker into bankruptcy. (Gawker ends up being sold to Univision in the bankruptcy sale.) As part of the bankruptcy proceedings Hogan ends up with $31 million. And Denton actually ends up with $15 million, so it could have been a lot worse. But one assumes, if nothing else, that people are going to be more careful about posting sex tapes. Or outing people as gay.
In retrospect it’s easy to look at things and point out all of the mistakes Gawker made. Many of them driven by pure arrogance on their part. But if you peel away all the arrogance, there’s an argument to be made that Gawker fought for a somewhat noble and idealistic reason.They fought because they had a philosophy that the “truth” was an absolute defense. Of course as it turns out, it wasn’t, and Conspiracy is mostly a story of the limits of that ideology. Though, I can certainly see its attraction. It’s clean, easy to understand, and the first priority of Superman! It’s hard to imagine prioritizing something above the truth, and I confess, particularly when I was younger that I probably held a very similar ideology to Denton, but as I’ve gotten older, and as Holiday points out, I’ve realized things are more complicated.
This kind of purity is childish, the domain of people who live in the realm of theory and words and recoil from the real world where someone can punch you in the face if you say the wrong words to the wrong person. There is always a defense necessary; discretion is the responsibility of freedom, the obligation that comes along with rights. If not in court, then in life. If not to other people, then to yourself. But that’s only part of it—Nick was the leader. He had allowed that to happen. He had allowed them to proceed closer and closer to trial without really bothering to think through these hard issues, without facing the hard truths about his company. Even the hard truths about how other people would see his company.
If truth isn’t an absolute standard, what should the standard be? I plan to spend most of the space remaining to me examining that question. (To be clear, I’m not sure I have an answer.) But, before I do, I’d like to go on a brief tangent.
When one reads about Thiel’s conspiracy, the obvious question is why don’t more people conspire in this fashion? Thiel is certainly not the only individual with money and power. Nor does he come across as particularly machiavellian. (Though Machiavelli is referenced a lot in the book.) There have to be people more conniving than him. Leading to the obvious question, is Thiel an outlier for engaging in a conspiracy? Or is he only an outlier for having his conspiracy exposed? When you think about it, Thiel’s conspiracy was (comparatively) legal and benign, and while the people involved did take steps to keep things a secret, you got the feeling they could have done more. The stakes if they were found out weren’t enormous, i.e. they weren’t going to go to jail or anything like that. You would imagine that if conspiracies are common that the stakes for most of them are a lot higher, and consequently the incentive to keep things secret is much greater as well. This line of thought inclines me to believe that Thiel is more likely an outlier for having been exposed, than for having done it in the first place.
Of course there are people who see conspiracies everywhere. We call them conspiracy theorists. And I happen to know a few of them. I was talking to one just the other day, and he said that he wasn’t necessarily sure of anything, but that, preceding from the idea that you can’t trust the government, and that people do conspire, you would expect there to be government conspiracies, and further you would expect word of them to leak out. I don’t see any obvious weaknesses in any of these assertions, though also, I should hasten to add, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, and would have a hard time offering up a “conspiracy” that I thought had a greater than single digit chance of being true.
The reason I am not a conspiracy theorist is Hanlon’s Razor:
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
I prefer to replace the word stupidity with the word incompetence, and I also like the theory that Hanlon is a corruption of Heinlein, who had one of his character’s say, “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.” In any event, when I mentioned this, the conspiracy theorist admitted that was a pretty strong rebuttal (though one he had heard) but that he detects more malice, perhaps, than I do in the world. And perhaps the story of Thiel and his conspiracy should lead me to update my own assessment of the probability that certain conspiracy theories are true.
The existence of conspiracy theories was a tangent, but it also gets back to this idea of what should be our standard for saying something, or more accurately publishing something? As I’ve mentioned I don’t think we can rely on a pure standard of “anything that’s true”. (In addition to everything I’ve already mentioned there are significant difficulties in even determining what is true.) Instead it appears the courts have, in part, pivoted instead to a standard of newsworthiness.
I should make it clear up front that this isn’t a horrible standard, I know how hard it is to come up with standards in the first place, and as standards go this is not bad. That said, it has some definite weaknesses. First it’s mostly only applicable to news making organizations. It doesn’t help very much with the current crisis, which seems to largely concern big companies kicking individuals off of their platforms. I’m not necessarily saying that a company should never be able to kick someone off their platform, I’m saying that I don’t think applying a standard of newsworthiness helps very much in making the determination of who should stay and who should go.
Second, newsworthiness can easily devolve into a tyranny of the majority or of money. If ten million people want to see something does that automatically make it newsworthy? Gawker seemed to be advocating for essentially exactly this position. And both Bad Blood and Conspiracy illustrate that with enough money you can make something not newsworthy. To be clear I’m far more sympathetic to Thiel than I am to Holmes and Theranos. Also, while Thiel probably changed the definition of newsworthy going forward, it’s difficult to say exactly how. Further, I assume that the inverse, making something newsworthy through money is probably even easier.
Finally, newsworthiness let’s us know what we can cover, but I’m not sure it does a very good job of telling us what we should cover. This is of course part of the reason it devolves into a popularity contest or an auction. Those both seem to be telling us what we should cover, but I think at best it’s a skewed signal, and at worst it may lead us in completely the opposite direction, which takes us back to the story of Gawker and Theranos.
Imagine for the moment that there are things which it would be beneficial for the public to know. (Perhaps this is the definition of newsworthiness?) But the public isn’t aware of them. Someone has to uncover them, probably an organization we would think of as “The Press”. I would argue that Theranos is a perfect example of this, but beyond that I’m sure there are other things being done by big corporations or especially the government, which also fit this criteria. (Watergate is the classic example of this, and I’m sure many people would argue that the current president is doing things which also fit this criteria.) As we consider this we need to ask two questions.
First, are there more of these things now than there were in the past? Are corporations and governments doing more things which need to be revealed, the same amount or less? My sense is that they’re probably doing more. Government is bigger. Corporations are bigger. There’s also simply more people, period. On the opposite side, it may be that these things are harder to hide and easier to expose, but this takes us to the second question.
Are we better at finding out about these things now than we used to be? Or are we worse? This question is both harder to answer, but also more important. I’m not sure what the answer is, but part of the reason why Gawker completely missing the Theranos fraud is so interesting is that it’s one large data point in favor of the argument that we’re worse at it. Gawker was the quintessential new media company. They were a news organization built for the internet. If “The Press” was going to be more effective when moved to the internet than Gawker should be the number one example of this increased effectiveness, and yet what important news did they end up breaking? Their motto was that today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news. And in the book it mentions that this was sometimes the case, but unless I missed it, it never provided an actual example of this transition. I’m sure if you talked to Denton, he would have a list, but I also assume if there was something of the level of Watergate or Spotlight or Theranos, that it would have been mentioned prominently in the book. If there was such a thing I missed it.
All of this is to say that Gawker certainly used a newsworthiness standard (a very, very broad one) in terms of what they could cover. But appeared to have a skewed view of newsworthiness when it came to what they should cover. In fact the book makes the point, repeatedly, that Gawker was almost exclusively driven by page views. (The Hogan sex tape ultimately racked up seven million.) And I think we can all agree that whatever the definition of newsworthiness (or whether it should even be our primary criteria) that it is not a concept which can be directly exchanged for page views.
Of course, what Gawker was really optimizing for was even worse. They were optimizing for page views/hour of effort. And salacious, but ultimately unimportant gossip ends up being very high on that measure. Which is why they missed the one piece of Theranos gossip which would have been right up their alley. The fact that Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos President Sunny Balwani were in a secret relationship, despite the fact that he was 20 years her senior. Would this have broken open the story by itself? Probably not, but it does illustrate that they weren’t driven to get gossip per se. They were only interested in gossip that required very little effort to get. (Recall that the post that started it all, outing Thiel, was a revelation of something a lot of people already knew.)
The biggest example of Gawker’s weakness was that they were unable to uncover the conspiracy to destroy them. A story that held existential importance for them.
I think the lesson we can draw here is that if we do want to be better at uncovering things that are actually newsworthy, then the centralized, page-view driven model of Gawker is the wrong way to do it. Obviously we can’t put the genie of the internet back in the bottle, we can only work with the wishes we’ve already been granted. One of which is the sheer number and diversity of voices on the internet. (Arguably the opposite of Gawker’s emphasis.)
I said earlier that it’s naive to use the fact that something is true as an absolute standard for what can and can’t be said. I also mentioned that Gawker missed the most important story at all. Perhaps newsworthiness is truth, combined with importance. And on both measures I think that by encouraging a diversity of opinion we stand the greatest chance of encountering both those things. Does this mean we allow people to post (seemingly) crazy conspiracy theories? Well let’s look at those for a second through the lens of importance. Does it matter at all that Hulk Hogan had sex with his best friend’s wife? Not really. Not to anybody beyond the few dozen people directly involved. Does it matter if Theranos was giving out wildly inaccurate test results? Yeah, it does. It doesn’t imperil the country, but it’s important to the thousands of people who did blood tests using their technology. Does it matter if the government was behind 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden had nothing to do with it? Definitely. It matters a huge amount. It might be the most important story of the century. Now, for reasons I already explained, I give that a very, very low chance of being true. And I certainly don’t agree with any associated harassment. But if they just want a forum to make their case, I kind of think they should have it.
Now, to be clear, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I also think people should be given a space to air their seemingly outrageous theories about Trump’s crimes as well. (Though, honestly, I think we are in less danger of any censorship there.) All of which is to say, I understand there are trade-offs, and I understand most people aren’t trying to optimize for newsworthiness or truth or importance. But, if you take nothing else from this post, remember, in theory Gawker was trying to do all three, and, as far as I can tell, they kind of sucked at it, and it might be important, if we want to understand where things are going, if we figure out why.
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