Journalists like to comfort themselves with the old axiom that if each side of a conflict thinks you favor the other, you’re doing something right.
Gawker Media, the aggressive gossip blog and mini-media empire now facing a fight for its financial life, boasts enemies on all sides. In fact, Gawker has had the distinction of being accused of anti-Semitism and being the frequent target of anti-Semites.
On Friday, Gawker’s owner Nick Denton announced the company is filing for bankruptcy to get out from under a $140 million judgment awarded to professional wrestler Hulk Hogan after Gawker broadcast a sex tape featuring Hogan and the wife of one of his friends in 2012.
Hogan’s suit, financed in large part by Silicon Valley titan and Gawker target Peter Thiel, is at the center of a debate over the ability of aggrieved gazillionaires to bankroll libel and privacy suits and muzzle media outlets.
Gawker is also entertaining bids from other publishers, including one as high as $100 million.
Denton is Jewish, and white supremacists and other hate sites have tagged Gawker as part of a Jewish media conspiracy. One white power blogger calls Gawker a “filth rat-faced Jew website,” in an article titled, “How The Jews Ruined American Icon Hulk Hogan.” Infostormer, a site bent on “destroying Jewish tyranny,” calls Denton “Jew vermin.”
On the flip side, FrontPage, a news website founded by 1960s-radical-turned-conservative-firebrand David Horowitz, calls Gawker “an anti-Semitic website brimming over with hatred and contempt for Jews and the Jewish state.” FrontPage points to a 2007 post in which an unnamed Gawker blogger, reporting that some Israeli bookstores would be open on the Jewish Sabbath to sell copies of the latest Harry Potter novel, wrote that “these are Jews, let’s remember, and a buck’s a buck.”
A columnist for the Chicago Tribune wrote that the Harry Potter post “a) shows the perils of being too hip for the room, or b) is stupefying in its casual offensiveness.”
Gawker also earned a subdued rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League earlier this year when it set out to undermine a feel-good Twitter campaign by Coca-Cola. Essentially, Gawker tricked Coke’s Twitter account into tweeting out sections of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”
“It is highly unfortunate that Coca-Cola’s attempt to encourage all of us to make using the Internet a more positive experience encountered this roadblock, and also revealing of how pervasive the challenge is,” Abe Foxman, then-national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said at the time.
Denton, born and raised in England, is the son of Marika Marton, a Hungarian Jew who escaped the Soviet invasion of that country in 1956, and Geoffrey Denton, a Yorkshire-born economist.
During the Hulk Hogan trial, Denton’s lawyer invoked the publisher’s mother in describing Gawker’s commitment to the First Amendment. Gawker lawyer Michael Berry said Denton’s mom was a Hungarian Jew “who survived the Nazis,” and later escaped the Soviet occupation of Hungary.
“Mr. Denton grew up with parents who’ve seen first-hand what happens when speech is suppressed,” Berry said. “He wants the public to have the simple, unvarnished truth … the unvarnished truth about public figures.”
That “unvarnished truth,” it turns out, made Gawker a target. Some say rightfully so, as slime and innuendo shouldn’t be protected “free speech.” Others defend Gawker as a courageous if snarky truth-teller.
That divide extends to the commentary over the Hogan lawsuit and Thiel’s role in funding it. “Thiel’s desire to protect individual privacy even in the age of the Internet is certainly defensible, and making this case in court represents a justifiable use of his own funds,” writes David French for the National Review.
Margaret Sullivan disagrees. “Gawker’s offerings certainly aren’t the Pentagon Papers, or the revelations about spying on citizens by the National Security Agency,” she writes in the Washington Post. “But when a vindictive billionaire can muscle his way into a lawsuit with the intention of putting a media company out of business, there’s reason to worry.”