Thankfully, the interviewer didn’t beat around the bush. Moments after coming on stage to speak at the South by Southwest Conference on Sunday, former Gawker CEO Nick Denton was asked about the video.
Given what happened, was it really a good idea? Was it worth it?
You know what video.
The publication of the infamous Hulk Hogan sex video led to Denton paying $31 million to settle a lawsuit from Hogan that was funded by Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel. Part of the settlement involved closing down Gawker and selling some of his other media sites to Univision.
Denton said the Hogan video wasn’t intended to be just a salacious video of Hogan having sex; that even at Gawker they believed mockery should have a point. With the Hogan video, the point was to “hold a mirror up to the public” and ask why we’re so obsessed with celebrity sex videos, he said.
“It’s very easy for us to blame a media outlet or the Facebook algorithm for what ultimately are our own curiosities,” Denton said. The Hogan piece did have flaws, he said, and probably should have been “a little more essay and a little less video for that to work as a point.”
“The meta point was actually worth making. I don’t know if that form is the right one,” Denton said.
Denton was speaking Sunday at the South by Southwest Conference in Austin.
It was one of his first public remarks since settling the Hogan lawsuit in November. The Hogan lawsuit raised questions about the power of billionaires to intimidate the media and shape news coverage.
During the hour-long conversation with Jeff Goodby, a friend and ad industry veteran, Denton wouldn’t disclose whether he has talked with Thiel since the settlement. “
It was reported in Vanity Fair there might have been conversations,” Denton coyly said. “If there had been, I wouldn’t be at liberty to talk about it.”
Denton said he was happy to have settled his lawsuit with Thiel before Donald Trump was elected president, calling it “a lucky timing under the circumstances.”
Thiel, who was a co-founder of PayPal, is a Trump supporter and adviser.
“Obviously Peter Thiel is one of the most powerful people in the country, it is probably wiser not to be in a fight with him at this time,” Denton said. Later, he noted that Thiel made himself a target through his public support of Trump. “If there ever was a political backlash, he has made himself very exposed.”
Denton said despite the feud with Thiel, the lawsuit and the ensuing closure of Gawker, he has no regrets about starting the website, which was known for its gossipy, derisive take on the news.
“Gawker Media Group published a million stories over 12 or 13 years,” Denton said.
“I wouldn’t say that every one of them was Pulitzer-worthy,” he acknowledged, but that wasn’t the point, he said. The idea of blogs and the Internet in “the early days,” was “you say everything, all the things on your mind, all the things you believe, with as little filter as possible.”
He warned that while what happened at Gawker might have been unique, other lawsuits could very well happen at other news sites.
“It’s an experience, in some shape or form, a lot of journalistic organizations, people or countries are going to go through,” Denton said. “All of us are easily insulted, and when given a chance we want to retaliate against insults.” The worrisome part was that billionaires are the only ones with the financial resources to do so, he said.
He noted that a site called TechDirt is being sued for questioning whether a man who said he invented email really did. The lawyer suing TechDirt is the same lawyer who worked on the Hogan lawsuit.
And he said that the point of supporting news organizations, even mainstream news publications such as the New York Times, wasn’t so much to make sure they stay financially solvent, but to help pay their legal bills. Even Denton, who has been critical of the Times in the past, said he’s now a paying subscriber.
“I would be devastated” if the Times went out of business, “ Denton said. “They are a national and international institution.”
But when it came to his next business venture, Denton was fairly tight-lipped.
He emphasized several times that he was delighted by corners of the Internet where people could have debates and conversations surrounding the news, such as sites like Reddit.
Denton gave a shout-out to an obscure site called The Browser, which he said only offers six stories a day, and reminded him of “how awesome the Internet can be.”
“In the habits we truly enjoy,” he said, “are the seeds of the future.”
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