Talking Past Gawker

The Shrink Man Dumbeth

Over the weekend, Ben Smith, a good value add for the New York Times, did a profile on the new Gawker titled, “If Gawker Is Nice, Is It Still Gawker?” The weekend had hardly ended before we got an answer to that question in the form of a new Gawker headline about a friend’s article, titled, “BIGOT REVIEWS BIGOT FOR NYT BOOK REVIEW.” 

Ya, I don’t think Gawker can reform, even if its old/new editor Leah Finnegan is disavowing her “terrorist” past and declaring, “I’m not interested in ruining people’s lives.” Even if there was a concerted effort from on high to not indulge in old excesses, there’s a simple, inescapable issue: New Gawker operates in a landscape that Old Gawker created. 

Whether by accident or intent, Twitter became the ideal place for Gawker’s pithy style, and so Twitter overtook its forefather while inspiring that forefather to take untenable risks. To quote former Gawker editor Max Read:

Twitter and Reddit and a dozen other social networks and hosting platforms have out-Gawkered Gawker in their low thresholds for publishing and disregard for traditional standards, and, even more important, they distribute liability.

Gawker chased the dragon right off a cliff while social media networks kept pumping out Gawker-inspired salacious content, consequence free. Now, Gawker is back, as is The Defector, a subscription site set up by some Gawker alumni. 

You can’t possibly expect Gawker to escape itself, when no other major online publication has been able to shed that influence. Like how Atatürk’s radical purging of Arabic and Persian words in 1928 changed Turkish for everyone, Gawker speak is a totalizing lingo in media. Beyond media, it’s completely embedded itself into the general Twitter patois. And it’s, in part, the language of Shrink Man. 

What is the Shrink Man? Well, it’s a bit like a straw man, but devoted to stigmatized summation. And you get what a straw man is. You’re in a presidential debate and your opponent says you want to execute every dog in town and by gum, he’s against that sort of thing. That tactic has been around for ages. It’s effective, to a degree, but it’s a blunt instrument. It’s basically simple lying, nothing fancy. 

Shrink Man is different. Many of its practitioners are quite smart, and they’re frequently clever about trimming a foe’s flabbily nuanced statement into a punchily embarrassing Onion-style headline. My friends in tech hate journalists, viewing them as stupid wreckers, but I’d counter that it takes some aptitude to immiserate the current masters of the universe.

Even some of the less clever Shrink Mans can work because they fit a market need for brevity within a world that’s flooded with information. Few consumers have the time to sift through every pundit’s nuances, so the Shrink Man is here to give you CliffsNotes. 

CliffsNotes are sort of boring though. Many would rather get a little dopamine hit off reading a charge like, “BIGOT REVIEWS BIGOT.” And what was said in that carefully crafted review? Were there interesting ideas there, concepts one could agree or disagree with? Doesn’t matter. We saved you time. Bad people were talking and that’s really all you needed to know. Remember when people tried to know about things? Lolz.

And so this play gets run into the ground, again and again. On Twitter, bluechecks keep instructing you to reduce thousands of words or entire careers down to “bad” or “stupid” or “grifter” or whatever, and eventually you get pretty dumb. And by “you,” I don’t necessarily mean the reader. I mean the royal media You, the You we are depending on to tell us what Ivermectin actually does and does not do. This is where we’d theoretically need the media, an arbiter to make sense of a complicated topic like whether a popular drug might or might not have some benefit in mitigating the effects of a novel virus. Unfortunately, that media is instead hyping stories about “horse dewormer” overdoses. You see, Shrink Man doesn’t trust the audience with a relatively mundane story about a drug not being effective like its users hoped, with an explanation of the science behind its ineffectiveness. Just keep saying “horse dewormer,” as though the only reason anyone ever took interest in the drug boiled down to some hillbilly equine fetish. Everything must be BIG LOUD SCARY QUICK. Stigmatized summation, baby.

How did we get to so dumb a place? Through many avenues, but I believe that a moral failing from the Gawker days informed the general media’s intellectual collapse. Let’s think here and get a bit reductive in the spirit of this essay. What did Gawker run on? What made it really go? 

Gawker’s bills were paid by its commodification of humiliation. Sure, it helped the brand that they occasionally posted lucid essays and broke meaningful stories. It helped in the way that the highbrow articles at Playboy allowed men of a different era to buy magazines, guilt free. But at bottom, prurient privacy invasion was the core of the business. Hell, Gawker proprietor Nick Denton ran a porn site called Fleshbot that hosted celebrity sex tapes and accounted for 5% of his empire’s traffic at one point. 

Why else would their sports branch Deadspin make itself “your go-to source for professional athlete penis”? What was the point of widely sharing this softer core revenge porn? Why did Deadspin pay $12,000 to run photos of Brett Favre’s penis, against the objections of the woman he allegedly sent the photos to, and why did they include her name in the story, even though she asked them not to? What truth-to-power goal was being accomplished here? 

When you read fawning prestige media retrospectives on Gawker, you can easily spot a sin of omission, if you know the publication’s history well enough. A prestige outlet will list a few famous instances of Gawker going too far, and it won’t include that instance where Gawker posted a video of an obviously, completely inebriated college girl having sex in a Bloomington, Indiana bathroom stall — a video she and her father begged Gawker to take down. “I am the girl in it and it was stolen from me and put up without my permission,” she told Gawker’s complaint department, which forwarded the message to editor-in-chief A.J. Daulerio, with a note that read, “Blah, blah, blah.” In a series of emails, Daulerio told the woman:

Best advice I can give you right now: do not make a big deal out of this because, as you can tell, the footage is blurry and you are not identified by name," Daulerio wrote to the woman. Before handing the matter off to Deadspin’s lawyer, Daulerio finished with, "It's not getting taken down. I've said that. And it's not a very serious matter. It is a dumb mistake you (or whomever) made while drunk in college. Happens to the best of us.”

I’d posit that the broader media rarely include that example in the retrospectives because it would swing the metaphorical jury. Those details sure seemed compelling to the literal jury in St. Petersburg, Florida that decided against Gawker. From Conspiracy by Ryan Holiday, on media coverage of Daulerio’s retelling of the incident: 

If they’d looked closer in that moment, they’d have noticed a juror’s knuckles grip intensely on the bar in front of the jury box, restraining anger as the callous words of the defendant were read onto the record just a few feet away.

From a New York Times article titled, “Gawker Editor’s Testimony Stuns Courtroom in Hulk Hogan Trial”:

Asked whether sex sells, Mr. Daulerio replied, “I’m sure.” In such a culture, he went on, it was “pretty standard operating procedure” to seize upon and publish photographs and videos of celebrities in compromising or intimate situations, regardless of whether the celebrity might object or be embarrassed. Mr. Daulerio conceded that no such consideration guided Gawker’s publication of lewd images of the former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre or of photographs of a topless Duchess of Cambridge. “She’s a public figure, and those pictures were published elsewhere,” Mr. Daulerio said, referring to the duchess, the former Kate Middleton. He acknowledged that there had been no discussion in the Gawker newsroom at the time whether the publication of the pictures constituted an invasion of her privacy.

No wonder they lost. And the point here isn’t to prove that Hulk Hogan’s case against Gawker was decided correctly, or to say that Gawker was only bad, all the time. I’m just making the case that the core of their business model was such a depravity that it shocked the consciences of courtroom normies who hadn’t been inculcated into a media culture of shrugging it off.

Again, I want to emphasize that I don’t think the people who wrote for them were uniformly bad, or even bad altogether. It should also be noted that they had some talented writers, like Tommy Craggs, and they reported out some meaningful stories. It’s just that, when you plug yourself into that incentive structure, you find yourself stretching for cruelty. I could even feel the pull when I guest-posted a withering Deadspin article back in 2012 on Don Nelson.

Indeed, these people probably did a lot of damage because they saw themselves as righteous. They were the only ones mean enough to break the powerful’s self-satisfied delusions. Gawker’s self-conception seemed that of a predator whose predations weren’t just necessary for its own survival but for the health of an entire ecosystem. In that light, their aggressions weren’t just morally permissible, but morally necessary. I think they saw themselves like that epic H. L. Mencken quote: 

The liberation of the human mind has never been furthered by dunderheads; it has been furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe — that the god in the sanctuary was finite in his power and hence a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.

That’s a perspective I can sympathize with, if not occasionally emulate, but then again, the core of my business model doesn’t include showing you naked pictures of someone who doesn’t want me to. There’s something to be said for unsparing journalism, but marry that mandate to a need for constant public shaming of people? That’s just bloodlust, absent empathy, packaged as justice. It’s a powerfully destructive cocktail that modern Twitter happens to be drowning in, long after Gawker set the pattern.

None of Gawker’s old moral sickness would matter much in the grand scheme if Gawker itself didn’t matter so much in the grand scheme. We, The Media, are the fruit of their poisonous tree. Credit to them. The bastards were smart, energetic and in the end, pervasively influential. After 2010, they had enough juice, backed by enough intimidation, to get most everyone else in line. So we installed their program, the one that was meant to humiliate, primarily, and it set the modern journalism template: Its norms, its tone and its aims. It was one that rejected “civility” as a trojan horse for the status quo, thereby freeing up journalists to be vengeful, incurious assholes towards anyone with a differing perspective. And it helped unleash The Shrink Man on Twitter, our most shrunken medium.

New Gawker aspires to be a major publication again, almost guaranteeing that it will rely on Shrink to efficiently drive engagement. It is fate. The narratives of your enemies must be unflatteringly summarized. 

Everything outside of NYC media conventional wisdom is to be shrunken. I can’t evade the Shrink Man, not even at this Substack outpost. Peers will reduce the tens of thousands of words on this site into some digestible scorn tablet, if it hasn’t happened already. What can you do, really? That’s life, and a small price to pay for the independence I’m currently now enjoying. But for all these other media people who toil at rigid institutions, tweeting under the watchful gaze of HR departments? Tough sledding.

You can fight it, I guess. But how can you really escape reduction? You’re an idiot, you’re a bigot, you’re whatever they say. It’s maligning by defining and you just can’t argue with a definition of yourself. You’ll seem peevish and defensive. You’re fucked, man. 

I’m not so pessimistic in the grand scheme, though. I’ve been buoyed by the response this Substack has gotten, along with the response others in the media have garnered, including that damned friend bigot. The Shrink Man has corroded much of prestige journalism, but independent creators are finding their voices outside of those ruins. 

Yes, some version of you can be shrunken. Yes, some will think that a few unflattering summaries is all you are. But you can just keep talking, whistling past the quicksand of their trap. Talk enough and your people get to know you more, and know the caricature less. They might even notice your flaws and not give too much of a shit. People have flaws, and the more you talk, the more you seem like a person to them. One of a few reasons why Joe Rogan is uncancellable, despite providing critics with the largest backlog of possibly incriminating extemporaneous conversation, is because he provides it. He’s too expansive to be shrunken. You can’t unperson someone who’s just so thoroughly a man in full to so many. Few if any of us can attain that platform, but there’s a lesson there. 

We can’t escape Gawker’s legacy, that much is impossible. But we can talk past it. And keep talking. And in the end, define ourselves.