With a hunger for high-stakes libel suits, chants of "crooked media" and "fake news," and an all out denigration of the free press, the fourth estate is headed for the darkest fight of its American life.
These are strange days for American journalism. And we are spiraling down a path that is downright perilous.
Last summer, the Gawker Media Company—13-year-old online media group that at the time owned Gawker, Jezebel, and Deadspin, and other sites—was sued by former professional wrestler Terry Bollea, better known as Hulk Hogan, for invasion of privacy, among other things, after Gawker posted a video of him having sex with a married woman. Bollea won an astounding $140 million in a jury verdict, which put the media company out of business.
The disturbing thing is that the lawsuit had less to do with Hogan or the sex tape and everything to do with the fact that it was a ploy by a Silicon Valley billionaire named Peter Thiel, who was financially backing the lawsuit against Gawker because he had been harboring a grudge against the media company for nearly a decade: In 2007, Gawker Media’s Valleywag, which often mocked Thiel over the years, published an article that Thiel claimed outed him as gay. (Many disagree.)
Last year, Thiel exacted his revenge. Which sets a dangerous precedent for free speech—for, what does it mean that a lawsuit can so easily put a media platform out of business?
Well, we’re about to find out. Last week, Charles Harder, Thiel’s attorney in the Gawker case, brought a similar lawsuit against a much smaller media outlet, Techdirt. The details are kind of silly: The plaintiff, Shiva Ayyadurai, claims he “invented” email. Techdirt likes to make fun of him about it. And as it happens, Harder just happens to be Ayyadurai’s lawyer, too, and is suing Techdirt for $15 million on his behalf. Coincidentally (or perhaps not so), Ayyadurai, together with Harder, also sued Gawker for libel, and won a $750,000 settlement.
Even if Techdirt wins—and it looks quite likely—the legal costs alone will put the small media enterprise out of business. There’s no evidence, yet, of Thiel’s involvement, but under the law, financial backers have no obligation to disclose their relationships to lawsuits.
Most importantly, we now see a pattern: Harder is bringing massive lawsuits designed to bankrupt media. The objective here is complete annihilation.
On Friday, the country is about to inaugurate a litigious man, Donald Trump, whose second-most common aspersion is “I’ll sue!” (of course his first is, “You’re Fired). A common target of his lawsuit threats over the years has been the media. Indeed, during his presidential campaign, according to the Columbia Journalism Review, Trump threatened to sue the media “at least” eleven times through the beginning of October 2016.
While running for president, Trump promised at a rally to “open up our libel laws” to make it easier for him to sue news organizations: “So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.”
Trump escalated his anti-media language throughout his campaign, working at every turn to discredit the press. He went so far as to mock media representatives at his rallies, which sometimes put them in bodily danger. Journalist Greg Hobbs wrote, regarding the threats he felt at Trump rallies, “It’s gotten so bad, NBC and CNN have hired their own security to protect their [reporters and cameramen]. NPR is giving Trump campaign correspondents ‘threat awareness training.’ I have covered six different presidential campaigns, with candidates on both ends of the spectrum. It was never like this.”
The New York Times reported that the press at Trump rallies were under attack, and that, at a rally in Cincinnati in October “there were noticeably more Secret Service agents monitoring the news media’s pen, though the agency declined to comment about the protection.” Trump has gone from mocking the media in order to discredit their reporting of him to endangering the media and the very people who do the work.
Like Harder and Thiel, Trump’s goal isn’t punishment of the media—it’s annihilation. And he’s accomplishing his goal, bit by bit. We should all be very worried. Discrediting and dismantling the media are actions straight out of the authoritarian playbook. Trump is not acting unpredictably; he’s acting like a predictable despot.
Last Wednesday, January 11, Trump held his first press conference as President-elect, and it can only be described as worrisome. Trump answered a question to debunk an alleged intelligence report that suggested connections between Trump and Russia. In his answer, Trump refused to answer questions from Buzzfeed and CNN—the news outlets that broke the story. Jim Acosta, the CNN reporter at the press conference, tried to ask a follow-up question. Trump said to Acosta: “You’re organization is terrible. [Be] quiet. Don’t be rude. I’m not going to give you a question. You are fake news.”
After Trump shut down Acosta, media critics asked, why did the other reporters talk right over their colleague, giving Trump his way? Why did they allow Trump to be such a bully? Why did the other journalists allow Trump to take the reins away from the journalists, to delegitimize one organization—CNN—and thereby legitimize the rest? As social critic Jay Smooth put it, “Every other reporter should have walked out at that moment or else remained silent.”
After all, what happens when Trump delegitimizes the next media outlet? And the next? What remains, after this process of delegitimization, is an endorsed media. And an endorsed media is a state media. What you lose, when you lose the ability to stand up to your politicians, is a free press.
Trump is already setting up his endorsed press—his propaganda arm. He cites Fox News, OANN, and Lifezette. He’s hired Steve Bannon—the publisher of the “alt-right” propaganda magazine Breitbart—as his chief strategist and senior counselor Steve Bannon. And after his most recently press conference, the Trump transition team has threatened to ban the actual press corps from the White House entirely from the press room that President Nixon established. For Trump, it seems, a media that does not kowtow to his commands is an enemy of the state.
We’ve seen this happen before—and recently. Over a period of years, Vladimir Putin has essentially put the Russian independent press out in the cold. He didn’t do it overnight—he did it slowly, incrementally, with seemingly innocuous laws, such as a Russian law forbidding foreign ownership of Russian media companies. Not to mention a series of assassinations of dissidents, including journalists.
Trump has also declared that he intends to continue his close relationship with NBC, the corporation that produces his reality-TV show The Celebrity Apprentice. Although Trump will no longer host the show now that he is POTUS (that role goes to Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom he trashed as a host ), he will be credited as an executive producer. Never in recent memory have we had a president so closely entangled with one media outlet. His own son-in-law, Jared Kushner, owns The New York Observer (although it’s not doing so well) and before winning the election, Trump considered launching his own media company. For a man who reviles journalists when they don’t obey his commands, Trump has his fingers buried deep in our nation’s media.
It’s true that Trump’s threats to sue the media over the years have hardly, if ever, yielded positive results. Charles Harder and Peter Thiel have been much savvier with their lawsuits. When they take aim at a media corporation, so the Gawker story seems to teach us, the media corporation falls—annihilated. What does it mean that a tech billionaire can snap his fingers and close down media outlets on a whim?
What does it mean that that tech billionaire spoke at the Republican National Convention, voicing his strong support of Donald Trump?
It means what most of us have already suspected. The First Amendment—the freedom of the press—is under attack. No, the storm troopers are not burning down The New York Times building. But that’s not how our rights are lost. Rights are perverted, first. People are complacent, first. Journalists let their colleagues get shut out. We the People stand by while lawsuits put magazines, here and there, out of business.
But with Harder and Thiel’s tactics and Trump’s persuasive power, soon we won’t have a reliable media to turn to any more, right when we need them most.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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