On Thursday, the fallout from Peter Thiel’s vendetta against Gawker Media continued with the news that the company’s flagship blog, Gawker, will shut down, even as its other properties live on under new ownership. That sounds like a nail in the coffin for the brand of hypocrisy-shaming dirt-dishing that Gawker and its defunct sibling Valleywag pioneered. Which is, of course, exactly what Thiel intended.
In a New York Times op-ed earlier this week, the PayPal and Palantir co-founder argued that his backing of Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker wasn’t simply an act of revenge for a 2007 Valleywag post that outed him as gay. Rather, he argued, it was a defense of online privacy, and therefore no one need fear a broader chilling effect on America’s press freedom. “As for Gawker,” he added, “whatever good work it did will continue in the future, and suggesting otherwise would be an insult to its writers and to readers.” What exactly Thiel meant by that particular sentence is hard to parse. What good work does he think Gawker did? What made him think that good work would continue following the company’s bankruptcy? And exactly when did the man who crushed Gawker grow so concerned about people insulting it?
But let's try for at least a moment to take this claim seriously. With Valleywag already dead of (mostly) natural causes and Gawker by Thiel’s hand, who in the media should we expect to carry on their legacy, particularly with respect to the demimonde that Thiel inhabits, the high-flying society and culture of Silicon Valley and the technology industry?
The answer is not immediately obvious.
That's partly because, as Adrienne LaFrance observes in an essay for Nieman Reports, the technology industry now enjoys unprecedented power over the media. The man who owns Amazon also owns the Washington Post; a co-founder of Facebook bought and overhauled and then sold the New Republic; even the Intercept, an explicitly investigative enterprise, owes its existence to a tech magnate. BuzzFeed isn't owned by Silicon Valley billionaires, but it does rely on their venture capital funding. That doesn’t mean these companies’ owners shape their tech coverage, but it creates at least the potential for conflicts of interest.
Even those publications that aren't owned by tech kingpins are beholden to the technology industry in troubling ways. We're beholden to them for basic access to products and information, which Machiavellian PR operations like Apple’s staunchly withhold from any journalist or publication they consider overly critical. And our entire industry is now beholden to them for the distribution of our work to readers, which social media companies such as Facebook and Snapchat increasingly mediate. To make matters worse, LaFrance notes, tech journalism lacks an oppositional reporting tradition, because it began as fodder for a sort of advertising-friendly consumer-lifestyle section. As the New York Times' David Streitfeld puts it: "There is no Woodward and Bernstein or Kate Boo of tech reporting."
To be clear, Gawker or Valleywag's tech blogging rarely if ever rose to anything approaching Pulitzer-worthy investigative work—that wasn’t its role. Some of the work was petty and cheap. Much of it was not reporting at all, but aggregation of news reported elsewhere, filtered through a lens of righteous fury. Yet Gawker's refusal to pull punches meant that it landed some pretty good ones. And if its lens was rather monochromatic, it was at least of a more vivid color than the rose-tinted access journalism that prevails in the mainstream tech press.
There are really two voids, then, in contemporary coverage of the technology industry.
There has always been a dearth of sober, meticulous, investigative tech journalism. That's due in part to the factors mentioned above, but also to big tech firms' ruthless control over access to their own information. Draconian nondisclosure agreements for all employees are the norm, and they’re strictly enforced, to the point that workers at a company like Apple can't even tell their spouses what they're working on. (Gawker Media’s Gizmodo was among the first to shine a light on the company’s extreme secrecy.)
And now we have a second, Gawker-size hole in the supply of lively, critical commentary and personal gossip about the fabulously powerful and secretive people who increasingly control the world's information (and a good chunk of its money). What kind of people did Google executive Eric Schmidt follow on Instagram? What did a protected California redwood forest look like after entrepreneur Sean Parker held his “dream wedding” there? How much did Mark Zuckerberg pay to buy his neighbors’ houses so that he could protect his own privacy, after insisting that Facebook users surrender much of theirs? And how did he feel when paparazzi deprived him of it? We know the answers to these questions partly because Gawker brought them to wider public attention. Who among our docile tech press will do that now that it's gone?
A better question might be: Who would dare, now that Thiel has set a precedent for Silicon Valley's ruling class to wield their fortunes to exact revenge on publications that offend them? Who would want to, now that he has successfully made the Gawker mothership so toxic that a new owner would rather shutter it than keep the lights on?
These aren’t rhetorical questions. There are journalists out there who were holding industry captains to account in various ways long before Valleywag and Gawker shut down, and I don't doubt that they'll continue to do so even in the face of the existential threat posed by tycoons with vendettas. There just aren't enough of them.
Here are a few, though, that come to mind. I’m thinking of people like ex-Valleywag editor Nitasha Tiku and Charlie Warzel of BuzzFeed; former Valleywag writer Sam Biddle, who recently decamped from Gawker to the Intercept; Michael F. Nuñez of Gizmodo; Kashmir Hill of Fusion (and editor Alexis Madrigal, who broke the Parker wedding story); Zeynep Tufekci, a UNC professor who writes for the New York Times’ opinion section; and Streitfeld, a relentless pursuer of Amazon for the New York Times. These are not all necessarily the finest journalists covering the industry—although some of them are that too—but those who can be counted on to cover its powerful companies and personalities with a critical eye and an investigative edge. Many of them likely also have smart and fearless editors behind them, supporting their work. And, thankfully, there are investigative reporters at major news organizations who sometimes range into tech, like the Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou, who broke the Theranos scandal. Meanwhile, the fictional HBO show Silicon Valley has forged entertaining satire out of the same sort of material that Valleywag used to report on.
Here are a few more names proposed by people who responded to my query on Twitter (some more earnestly than others):
I believe that the Forbes Contributor Network will keep tech executives in line. https://t.co/tKHzZJyaP4— Prof Jeff Harambe (@ProfJeffJarviss) August 18, 2016
There are more that we’re missing, I'm sure. If you think of them, please feel free to post their names in the comments so that Thiel's lawyers can start combing through their records for actionable misdeeds. I mean, so that we can all applaud and benefit from their noble work.
Disclosure: One Slate editor is married to a Gawker editor. One is married to a lawyer who represented Gawker in the Hulk Hogan trial. One is a former Gawker Media executive editor. None of these Slate staffers worked on this story.