With the death of Gawker and the rise of Trump, free speech is under threat
Remember September? That’s where I’m writing to you from. For me, it’s the night before the first US Presidential debate and more than a month before the election. Trump may well have won by the time you read this but I’m holding fast to wishful thinking. Even at the risk of sounding like the other prognosticators who believed Trump wouldn’t make it this far, like Nate Silver – the data journalist, election predictor and nerd I rely on to tell me what will happen – who calculated that Trump had a two percent chance of becoming the Republican nominee. Or President Obama, who declared in February: ‘I continue to believe Donald Trump will not be President.’ Even when my own father sheepishly admits he’ll cast his vote for Trump, those deep-rooted patriotic feelings implanted in me in school kick in: Americans won’t let this happen.
But if Trump has proven one thing, it’s that he always trumps my worst expectations. Somehow, he remains virtually immune to parody, attack or self-sabotage. It’s even more astounding when you learn that he’s preserved this Teflon coating for decades. Thirty years ago, Trump was the primary target of the satirical magazine Spy, founded by current Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and radio host Kurt Andersen in 1986, with the aim of lampooning the greed and excesses of New York elites. The magazine’s debut issue featured Trump on their list of ‘Top Ten Most Embarrassing New Yorkers’. The editors famously mailed him 13¢ cheques, and then published the deposit stubs when he – like any good multi-millionaire – fastidiously cashed them. Among the many nicknames the Spy editors assigned Trump were ‘ugly cuff-link buff’, ‘well-fed condo hustler’ and ‘joyless punk millionaire’. But one stuck: ‘short-fingered vulgarian’. Trump was so incensed by the insult that he sent the editors pictures of himself with his hands circled in gold Sharpie, while threatening to sue them into bankruptcy.
Spy folded in 1998, but another platform soon emerged to accept the mantle of Trump ridicule. When Gawker Media was founded in 2002, it had a similar ethos of ‘afflicting the comfortable’. Its many blog platforms combined newsy items with the sarcastic tone that we now know as snark. Their Trump epithets had a more dadaist lean: ‘flopped-over traffic cone’, ‘cry baby jack-o’-lantern’, ‘Cheeto-dusted bloviator’ or ‘brightly burning trash fire’. They published an in-depth forensic investigation of his ‘cotton candy hairspray labyrinth’, concluding it was most likely a US$60,000 weave, and elevated the 13¢-cheque prank by setting up a Twitter bot that posted quotes by Benito Mussolini, attributed to @realDonaldTrump, believing he’d eventually retweet one. (He did.) If this editorial approach sounds like it walks the line between biting satire and violation of privacy, you wouldn’t be alone in thinking so. It’s the same ethos that led to their ultimate undoing.
Gawker filed for bankruptcy on 10 June this year after losing a US$140,100,000 lawsuit filed by former professional wrestler and reality-television star Hulk Hogan, who sued the site for publishing a video in which he is seen having sex with the wife of his best friend. Hogan would not have been able to afford that lawsuit without the help of tech billionaire, co-founder of PayPal and first investor in Facebook, Peter Thiel, who contributed more than US$10,000,000 to Hogan’s legal fees. Thiel’s motivation? He was still upset after Gawker’s outing of him in 2007. Thiel had ostensibly been a supporter of online media but in a recent New York Times op-ed, he wrote: ‘As an internet entrepreneur myself, I feel partly responsible for a world in which private information can be instantly broadcast to the whole planet. I also know what it feels like to have one’s own privacy violated.’ He could easily have gone on to say: ‘So, I’m going to single out the one site that did it to me, and silence them forever.’ In July, Thiel spoke in support of Trump at the Republican National Convention and rumours followed that Trump – if elected – would nominate Thiel for the Supreme Court.
Trump has taken an even more aggressive stance toward his critics. He has banned media from his press conferences and mocked (or sued) journalists who challenge him. He calls the ‘failing’ New York Times ‘a laughing-stock rag’, while ‘media’ at large are ‘sleaze’ and ‘absolute, dishonest, abso-lute scum’. More alarmingly, Trump has said that, if elected, he will ‘open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money’. Yet, both Trump and Thiel – who’ve each earned the deceivingly harmless-sounding epithet ‘eccentric billionaire’ – have defended freedom of the press when it pertains to their own interests, but are equally eager to suppress it when it means they are criticized – and their wealth affords them the power to do so. Their only political ideology is one that serves and protects their interests (and themselves) from criticism. And this has consequences for freedom of expression. How would Trump or Thiel respond to a work of art that they perceived to be critical of them? If free speech can be so easily stifled by the whims of ‘eccentric billionaires’, then it would be naive to think that artists or exhibitions won’t be the next platforms to be trampled on.
As Trump gains an ever-more amplified megaphone for preaching xenophobia, racism and hate, Gawker has been silenced by Thiel. I write this not without ambivalence. To be angry at Thiel for stifling the press means also to support Trump’s right to use media as an outlet to propagate lies, insults, conspiracy theories and alt-right memes. If I relish Gawker calling Trump a ‘stately hot dog casing’ or ‘sentient hate-balloon’, then I have to support Trump’s right to tweet his less creative epithets for others: ‘Crooked Hillary’, ‘Lyin’ Ted’. But don’t hate the players, hate the game. Reject a judicial system that allows wealthy individuals to bend the First Amendment to their personal needs. Scorn a financial world that allows an investor who became rich from Facebook to wipe out an entire media platform to settle a vendetta. And resist a political process that allows a dodgy businessman and steak-dealing reality-television demagogue to (almost?) become President.
Lead image: New York Magazine, 'Election Issue', Oct-Nov 2016, cover design by Barbara Kruger. Photograph: Mark Peterson / Redux
First published in Issue 183