Gawker Fights for Its Life Against Hulk Hogan’s $100 Million Sex Tape Lawsuit

AP Photo/Dan Steinberg
AP Photo/Dan Steinberg

Left-wing blogging empire Gawker Media is being sued for publishing a sex tape of professional wrestler Terry Bollea, better known as Hulk Hogan. If Gawker loses, they face the prospect of a $100 million payout to Hogan, a penalty that could cripple the once-mighty media empire.

Jury selection has begun in the landmark case, the first time a media company has been brought to trial for publishing a celebrity’s sex tape. Hogan claims that the trial violated his personal privacy, while Gawker claims that it was their First Amendment right to publish the material.

According to the Washington Post, Hogan appeared in the courtroom wearing his signature bandana and a silver cross. He did not make any statements during jury selection, but made the following, characteristically cocky tweet to his social media followers:

Gawker Media, the blogging empire of former Financial Times journalist Nick Denton, is notorious for publishing salacious rumours about celebrities and public figures. In 2007, the company faced controversy over “Gawker Stalker,” a Google maps-powered app that encouraged members of the public to track celebrities in real time, uploading their pictures and locations to the map. In 2008, the site published the hacked personal emails of then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

More recently, the site sparked widespread outrage after it “outed” a Condé Nast executive as a gay man. Gawker’s repeated, no-holds-barred intrusions into the private lives of others has been covered extensively by Breitbart.

Gawker also acquired a fearsome reputation as one of the leading purveyors of “social justice” politics on the internet. Its crucifixion of communications executive Justine Sacco over a politically incorrect joke on Twitter is now remembered as a horrifying, quintessential example of online public shaming.

The site’s video games outlet, Kotaku, also played a significant role in the near-ruination of Stardock CEO Brad Wardell, while its now-defunct tech vertical, Valleywag, led the way in making former Business Insider CTO Pax Dickinson unemployable — again, over politically incorrect tweets. In the early 2010s, it was hard to separate the politics of the regressive left from the public shaming campaigns of the Gawker empire.

Gawker’s aura of invincibility would ultimately be shattered by the most unlikely of groups: gamers. Sick of Kotaku’s reign of terror, gamers bombarded the site’s advertisers with complaints in the latter half of 2014, costing Gawker “seven figures” in advertising revenue. They even forced then-Valleywag editor Sam Biddle, famous for making the targets of his blog posts apologise, into his own act of public contrition.

Since then, Gawker’s fortunes have experienced a rapid decline, with steadily declining traffic rates. Fallout over the Condé Nast controversy led to the resignation of several veteran Gawker staff members, including the site’s Editor-in-Chief, Max Read. Meanwhile, the site has shut down a number of its verticals (including Valleywag, the one-time terror of the tech industry) and has pivoted away from its old intrusive, crusading style. It’s been a long time since the last successful Gawker-led public shaming campaign. A very long time.

For Gawker, the change may have come too late. With declining traffic and the prospect of a high-profile, $100 million payout to Hulk Hogan, the site’s days may be numbered. According to the New York Times, employees at the company talk about the Hogan case in “apocalyptic terms.” Even Nick Denton has publicly admitted that losing the case would be a “disaster” for Gawker, forcing it to seek outside investment. But who would invest in a declining company?

Hulk Hogan may well deal the final blow to Gawker, but the blogging empire was already a wounded beast.

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