Despite the daily routine of attacking the media and journalists, I am tired of giving Trump the victory of quintessentially ‘defeating’ or ‘ruining’ modern journalism. Though Mr. Trump did play his part, and managed to continuously paint the media as the ultimate adversary, and wage a cultural war on designated outlets such as CNN and The Washington Post, the real laceration of freedom of speech may have already happened long before he became president.
One of the most infamous court cases between a media publication and a third party is the Gawker and Hulk Hogan case. The reason this case holds a reverberating symbolism in today’s society when I think of the attack on modern journalism, is because it was the first time in history that a single man held the power to undercut freedom of speech. Nonetheless, this single man happens to be one of Trump’s wealthiest public supporters and beloved by the entire Republican Party.
March 18, 2016, A Florida jury awards Hulk Hogan $140 million in damages after deciding that Gawker invaded the wrestler’s privacy by uploading scenes of a sex-tape on their website. Later that year, Forbes breaks the news that billionaire Peter Thiel funded the entire lawsuit against Gawker, a practice commonly known in the US as ‘third-party litigation funding’. Thiel explains his rational behind funding the Hogan case as, “one of my greater philanthropic things that I have done” to the New York Times in May 2016, and also said that he spent around $10 million bankrolling lawsuits against Gawker – though he claimed it was not a business deal.
Another interesting fact to point out is that Peter Thiel also owns a data-mining company called Palantir, which according to Bloomberg News, “uses War on Terror tools to track American citizens.”
“When you say your aim is deterrence rather than revenge, whom do you aim to deter?” – Gawker founder Nick Denton pens an open letter to Peter Thiel
Gawker eventually filed for bankruptcy, and was sold to Univision Communications, which ended the publications 14 year go as an independent company. Then, Gawker.com was shut down, and Isaac Lee, Univision’s chief digital officer stated that the reasoning for its shutdown was the Hogan case.
A newer and more notorious example of the power that Silicon Valley has when it comes to reshaping the media is the Cambridge Analytica saga that questionably persuaded the U.S. 2016 election, and Brexit. Sure, these billionaires all somehow have a connection to Trump himself, but if anything, Trump is nothing but a bully and a figurehead who uses his title to abuse the media. It’s bizarre to think that the most venerable and most powerful institution in the US believes that the press is harming the country. The consequences have limited the press from ironically, doing their jobs.
Billionaires and politicians infiltrating the media is not new. However, this power that these billionaire Silicon Valley giants have is purely adversarial and personal. Whatever the reasoning was for Thiel to go after Gawker is irrelevant yet still orchestrated the downfall of an independent publication, and led into this current threatening situation which we are currently in when it comes to freedom of speech.
While Trump remains President, it is too difficult to say whether this web of billionaires who believe that they are not vulnerable to the truth, will completely destroy journalism or not. The anger and the fury that Trump embodies and infiltrates into his supporters has created a social norm of complete disbelief and anger towards any media. This is a scary thing, and we as a society are not monolithic – however we are not meant to be ran by the rich men in Silicon Valley.
The Gawker case really questions what an Independent publisher can really do without the power of some billionaire in Silicon Valley? What people seem to misinterpret from these social media powerhouses and networks, is that it is not news – rather a display of digital dopamine catered to your own personal politics and interests. The real press is supposed to represent the public, and without strong, critical press, there is no democracy.