In 2013, Justine Sacco tweeted a tasteless joke about a trip to Africa.
"Going to Africa," Sacco tweeted. "Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!"
It was a dumb thing to tweet, and the joke wasn't funny, but Sacco was for all intents and purposes a nobody with a handful of followers. She didn't deserve what happened to her next.
With the glee of a schoolyard bully, Gawker's Sam Biddle picked up the tweet, turned it into a story, and used the blogging company's millions-strong audience to shame Sacco. Within an hour or two, #HasJustineLandedYet began trending on Twitter. Realizing Sacco was still on her flight, one participant in the shame festival drove to the South African airport where she was scheduled to arrive and snapped photos of her.
Sacco was humiliated, painted as virulent racist, fired, and will be forever associated with that tweet. All because Gawker's Biddle wanted an afternoon's worth of fun, and because his company thrives on the clicks it gets from ruining lives.
On March 18, Gawker and its owner, Nick Denton, discovered the downside. A Florida jury awarded plaintiff Terry "Hulk Hogan" Bollea a staggering $115 million in damages because Gawker had published a sex tape of Hogan having sex with Heather Clem, the wife of Hogan's friend. The award is enough to potentially cripple Gawker Media.
Neither Hogan nor Clem knew they were being taped. Gawker's staff ignored pleas from Hogan and Clem to remove the post, which proudly described Gawker and its readers as "shameless voyeurs and deviants." When a judge ordered Gawker Media Company to take the video down, a Gawker writer put on his Constitutional Lawyer hat and, with all the hubris of someone accustomed to bullying people, declared the judicial order "risible and contemptuous of centuries of First Amendment jurisprudence."
A March 19 article in The New York Times quotes legal experts saying the Gawker verdict won't have much of an effect on media outlets.
“I think the damages are crazy, but I just don’t see this as a terrible blow to the First Amendment,” George Freeman, the executive director of the Media Law Resource Center, told The News York Times.
Freeman and the other legal analysts are right. The ruling means nothing for honest media outlets run by people who hold themselves to standards, value time-honored ethical guidelines, and aren't out to ruin people's lives for clicks and ad revenue.
But the ruling is a big deal, if for nothing else than the fact that there are operators of thousands of websites staffed by people playing at journalist without any training, news judgment or respect for the responsibilities that come with serving readers. The verdict makes it clear that, while the U.S. proudly respects press freedom, there are lines you don't cross, and no one gets to arbitrarily redefine the concepts of newsworthiness and privacy.
For Gawker, it's a long time coming. In the summer of 2015, Gawker famously outed a gay man, using a one-source story to allege he solicited a male prostitute. The story's subject wasn't a public figure, nor was he a hypocritical lawmaker railing against gay rights. He was a private citizen, there was no reason to out him, and Gawker's peers were quick to criticize the tabloid.
Likewise, Biddle cost his company thousands of dollars in advertising dollars in 2014, when he tweeted "Bring back bullying." For years, Gawker writers have been writing shadily sourced stories about actor John Travolta's alleged gay cruising exploits. While Annalee Newitz, the capable editor of Gawker's sister site, Gizmodo, has written columns denouncing "the internet shame spiral," some of her co-workers thrive on shaming people, from public figures to small fry.
In a way, it's a shame -- no pun intended. Deadspin, another Gawker sister site, famously broke the story about former college football player Manti Te'o's girlfriend hoax. It's also been almost single-handedly responsible for cataloging ethical abuses and shady journalism practices at ESPN, filling a niche because ESPN is so powerful that other sportswriters are loathe to criticize the company.
Likewise, at sister site i09, Charlie Jane Anders edits what some say is the Internet's best science fiction site. Automotive blog Jalopnik provides one of the Web's most interesting takes on cars, while Foxtrot Alpha's Taylor Rogoway does an amazing job of covering the defense industry and military hardware in terms anyone can understand.
Those journalists don't deserve to lose their positions if the $115 million in damages to Hogan stand, and Gawker Media Company is forced to fold.
Observers who have watched Gawker writers brush off criticism, gleefully ruin lives and declare themselves champions of free speech might be reminded of Hunter Moore, the former proprietor of revenge-porn site Is Anyone Up? At the height of his powers, Moore reveled in his infamy as "the most hated man on the Internet" and preened like a rock star, claiming women were flying out to California just to have sex with him. Like Gawker, Moore delighted in ruining people's lives. Unlike Gawker, Moore didn't pretend he had lofty or noble goals.
Yet Hunter got his -- he's now a felon, convicted of identity theft and computer crimes, and he's paid out for at least one defamation lawsuit.
Both cases prove that, while we enjoy freedom of speech that's the envy of people in dozens of other countries, there's a difference between disseminating information out of goodwill, and using the megaphone of the Internet as a bully pulpit to shame people, ruin lives and destroy privacy. If the Gawker case makes even one editor or webmaster reconsider their choice to destroy a person's life, it's worth it.