Dissecting This Week’s Media Fissure

(Disclaimer: Before a writer rips me apart or tweets this post without reading it fully, I used to be a long-time columnist for TechCrunch (the most frequent contributor they’ve ever had, over 100 posts and nearly 100 videos over a three period. I’m also a small, early-stage investor in Silicon Valley.)

A few days later, and the lava flowing from this week’s media eruption at Mount Gawker is still red hot. As I’m sure we all know by now, it was revealed that a multibillionaire founder, operator, investor, and board member of Facebook — the largest publisher in the world — secretly financed a citizen’s legal bills against an online tabloid magazine which outed the financier a decade ago and, more recently, took a very intimate video of the plaintiff in this case and published it to the web. Since then, a jury in Florida awarded the plaintiff over a $100M settlement and essentially rendered the online tabloid bankrupt, out of business.

Twitter has been aflame, where journalists spend lots of time tweeting before this eruption, with writers’ expressing concerns and fears over (1) the ability of one person to finance litigation against anyone, including media companies; (2) the potential threat to the future of free speech; and (3) a defensive backlash against claims from others that the online media model shouldn’t reckless chase page views. Targeting journalists as a victim can inflame an issue. This is a tactic disruptors used right after September 11, when different media outlets received packages laced with anthrax. The news this week was interpreted by many as if it were like digital anthrax.

As someone who is both pro-technology and invests in its future, but also as someone who has spent considerable time publishing online, here are my quick reactions to the furor, which I hope add a perspective and move the conversation forward:

1/ People Hate The Financier And Company He Represents: Imagine the plaintiff bankrolled his case by leveraging crowdfunding. He still would’ve won the summary judgment of over $100M. Some are saying the financier should’ve disclosed his backing, but that may have also affected the jury’s ability to assess the case on the merits. The plaintiff had a legal right to sue for damages. What’s clear now is the hatred for the financier and the growing fears of Facebook felt by the publishing world. We would be having a very different conversation if a big political backer financed this litigation.

2/ Protecting Privacy Trumps Freedom Of Reckless Speech: It’s almost like everyone forgot why this case went to the courts. Someone had private videos of them in compromised positions published to the Internet. Think about that. Someone could hack into your Dropcam feed at home and publish that to the web. There has to be a line of what people can publish without recourse and what is punishable by jail or fines. People also forget the courts will always uphold freedom of speech so long as the speech in question is of material public benefit. This case doesn’t threaten free speech, but it sure does make people think twice of posting immaterial, private personal information and trying to ruin someone’s personal life.

3/ Publishing Power Is Real: For over three years, I could post anything I wanted to TechCrunch, just hit publish and go. TechCrunch has huge distribution and many of those articles are syndicated around the world. I was never under oversight. I could hit publish without recourse. As a result, I was always hyper-careful to never make public information which was shared with me confidentially or in private. I’m not saying I was a “real journalist” as I was working in the industry at the time, but even then I would still get nastigrams for three out of every four posts I’d write because someone didn’t like it, but it always felt utterly reckless to cross the line of going after someone. There are some tech blogs that have done that (in addition to the defendant) and in the cases where it is material information (say, someone did something illegal), I’ve never seen anyone get mad at the respected tech and finance journalists. In fact, many of them are respected for bringing this information to the public record.

Finally, a personal thought:

4/ Writing As A Career Is Scary: I am not someone with marketable skills. I always enjoyed writing for fun, and for years, people would always say, “Why don’t you just write?” But I knew what that would entail. This case exposes deeper fears and anxieties many who have been stuck inside the journalism establishment feel deep down inside but rarely confront head-on. Many journalists work for media brands whose influence wanes in a digital world and/or are themselves bankrolled by a successful tycoon or family. Many of them (not all!) cling to a belief they’re independent or that freedom of press and speech need to be protected to the point where they can write about someone else without sticking the facts, without going to the videotape.

Writing online for a living is sort of like the taxi industry — an industry already under attack and waiting to be further disrupted by a Swiss Army knife of changes in the digital landscape: Facebook’s newsfeed, hosting, and algorithms; ad-blockers in iOS; social network products delivering information to users rather than media brands; and so on. Yes, some people will make it work, but aside from those who have the brand and digital-formula to carry through, it will be hard to carve out a career here, and as the courts have declared — it’s probably not a good idea to publish someone’s very private information unless it’s truly material to the public record. A tech investor who embezzles or a tech CEO who falsifies medical tests should be pilloried by the press, but publishing videos of them engaging in infidelity isn’t germane to the higher task at hand.

Despite what many people say online, there’s definitely a place for a Valleywag-style or new publication to act as a smart check against the tech and startup ecosystem at large, to take the other side on the merits and bring the hype down to the earth — it just so happened that this particular case was the fault line that was tested, but it was bound to happen at some point. The proper way to extrapolate from this event is to assume the lawsuit was self-financed or financed from the crowd — what then? I’d bet the conversation would be very different.

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2017 Semil Shah.

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