How Hulk Hogan & Peter Thiel Almost Made Sure That The Story Of R. Kelly's 'Cult' Stayed Unpublished

from the bad-news dept

I recognize that not everyone agrees that the jury verdict against Gawker in the case brought by Hulk Hogan was a disaster for the First Amendment. I disagree. As we explained, even if you dislike Gawker and believe that it was a terrible smut rag that deserved to go out of business, the lawsuit presented a clear blueprint via which the famous and wealthy could attempt to silence any publication — even those doing legitimate reporting. We, somewhat obviously, are feeling the rather direct effects of that ourselves, given that we’re facing a lawsuit filed by the same lawyer who represented Hogan.

But, here’s yet another example of the chilling effects created by the Hogan verdict directly. You may have heard, recently, about a fairly astounding story, reported by famed music reporter Jim DeRogatis, that the singer R. Kelly was “holding women against their will in a ‘cult.'”. The story is quite incredible and detailed. It was published in Buzzfeed which, despite its reputation for viral videos and top 10 gif lists, has been publishing some amazing reporting over the past few years.

But the story of why it was in Buzzfeed, and how the Hulk Hogan verdict almost kept the story from being revealed at all is important, and highlights the chilling effects of the Hogan verdict, and how it is likely stifling other important stories about the rich and famous from being published. DeRogatis, beyond his many years of excellent reporting about music and the music world, has tangled with R. Kelly before. You may be familiar with some older controversies involving Kelly… and most of those were also broken by DeRogatis, starting way back in 2000, when he broke the story of R. Kelly having sex with teenaged girls. DeRogatis was also deeply involved in the criminal trial of Kelly a decade ago (in which Kelly was eventually found “not guilty.”)

You can read the details of DeRogatis’ latest story at Buzzfeed, but that’s not the part that really interests us at Techdirt. Instead, it’s the fact that multiple publications wouldn’t publish this latest story — often pointing to the Hulk Hogan verdict as the reason why. DeRogatis discussed the background to the story with Josh Levin at Slate, which includes this tidbit:

What was the reporting process like? Was most of that time spent trying to get people to talk?

Most of that time was spent, post?Hulk Hogan and Gawker, finding a media outlet that was willing to run it. I?ve been working with BuzzFeed since Wednesday afternoon, and those were 12-plus?hour days every single day until this morning.

So… that’s interesting. Here you have a well-known, well-respected reporter who has a long history of breaking these kinds of stories about R. Kelly — and the hardest part was finding a publication that would actually publish the story? Because of the Hogan verdict? Margaret Sullivan, over at the Washington Post goes deeper into the chilling effect of the Hogan verdict on DeRogatis’s reporting saga.

Three separate media organizations were interested but got cold feet at the last minute, DeRogatis said. Each one, after investing months of work, backed away from the story that used named sources and documents to describe how women near Atlanta and Chicago were held as if in a cult, according to what parents and others had told police. (DeRogatis declined to name the news organizations because of his appreciation of the editors he worked with; they weren?t the ones who pulled the plug. They include a regional print publication, a world-famous multimedia behemoth and a radio-based digital outlet.)

?Gawker came up in a lot of those conversations,? DeRogatis said, referring to the snarky and risk-taking website that was put out of business last summer after a lawsuit brought by Terry Bollea, also known as Hulk Hogan. The invasion-of-privacy suit was bankrolled by billionaire Peter Thiel, a confidant of President Trump.

?Nobody wanted to take that risk.?

Nobody wanted to take that risk. To break a major story about a celebrity potentially holding women against their will. Argue all you want that Gawker was about sex and privacy, or that Gawker was sleazy — none of that changes that the case created real chilling effects. It provided the rich and famous with a clear path to try to silence publications or scare them away from publishing true stories. And it put the fear of such attacks deep into the hearts of many media publications, including those with experienced legal teams.

As Sullivan concludes in her piece:

Plenty of people were disgusted by Gawker?s airing of the Hulk Hogan sex tape and, as a result, not unhappy to see the site go out of business. But some of them would be less pleased to know that a story like the R. Kelly reporting ? or many others that we don?t know about ? might never see the light of day.

But it’s probably worse than that, because at least the Kelly piece was published. We’ll probably never know about a variety of other — potentially important and newsworthy — stories that aren’t getting published at all out of a fear over these kinds of lawsuits. Even when the reporting is solid and the reporters and editors and lawyers all believe the story is protected speech, just the threat of these kinds of lawsuits can scare away many publications and completely kill important stories. This is why having a strong First Amendment matters, and it’s why verdicts like the Hogan one against Gawker can cause so many problems even if — actually especially if — you disliked Gawker. We should be even more serious about protecting the free speech rights of those we disagree with, as they often need those protections the most.

Filed Under: , , , , , , ,
Companies: buzzfeed, gawker

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “How Hulk Hogan & Peter Thiel Almost Made Sure That The Story Of R. Kelly's 'Cult' Stayed Unpublished”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
40 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

So, can Buzzfeed start a separate shell company, create a new news site, like, I don’t know Fuzzbeed, make it an LLC, run the story there and then link to it from the original site. If it gets sued into oblivion, it shuts down, the story gets the benefit of the Streisand Effect throughout the trial, a few bucks are lost, but the original Buzzfeed stays safe? Just spitballing here.

Machin Shin says:

Re: Re:

Actually kind of an interesting idea….. basically just take a page out of Hollywood accountant’s playbook. Every story is published under its own company. That company borrows funds from the main company and has to pay them back. If anyone sues they have to sue the branch that is at least on paper always well in the red and has no money.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Your plan will make things even worse. Now, instead of a well-funded, experienced legal team already in place to handle the consequences of reporting that afflicts the powerful each reporter will be on his own.

David and Goliath is a fairy tale. In the real world, Goliath crushes David. And that’s exactly what will happen in your utopia.

Anonymous Coward says:

"a disaster for the First Amendment" -- NO, wasn't gov't suppressing speech! I'm told (other times) is COMPLETELY different when private!

Get this straight: the First Amendment does NOT give anyone LICENSE to insult and defame other persons! All common law is otherwise. Nor does it shield anyone from suit just by calling the needless publication of intimate personal information “news”. — AS PROVED. I DON’T NEED TO ARGUE, KID. THAT’S THE LAW.

Yet, here’s The Masnick again arguing the case after a jury SETTLED it the right way! Sheesh. That’s enough on his key assertion, as anyone rational can see.

To go on and blame ONE unrelated and clear defamation case for POTENTIAL suppression of actual news well within public’s NEED to know, is a NEW LOW. Especially with more of his fake attempt at Populism.

Without making unusual and extreme effort to defame, Gawker would still be in business, and Masnick wouldn’t be at risk for millions. The legal system works pretty well to tamp down egregious cases that civil society need not tolerate.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "a disaster for the First Amendment" -- NO, wasn't gov't suppressing speech! I'm told (other times) is COMPLETELY different when private!

NO, wasn’t gov’t suppressing speech!

Oh, I’ve been told many times that it was a government court case. I didn’t know I was being lied to. Thanks for coming here to correct that lie with your truth telling!

Anonymous Coward says:

“the case created real chilling effects”

Maybe those chilling effects were needed. Just as young children and the government routinely push and pull at their boundaries to see what they can get away with today, journalists and the rest of the world do, too. Sometimes those testing their limits or pushing their boundaries go too far, resulting in backlash thereby reinforcing those limits. Textbook psychology.

Pest (profile) says:

Re: No chilling effects.

As usual, Masnick defends Gawker despite, e.g., their well-documented harassment of rape victims using “muh First Amendment”.

If the reporter covering R. Kelly was so concerned about him having a harem of adult women well over the age of consent, why didn’t he just call the police? No lawsuit there, amirite?

It’s because he’s not concerned about the women, he’s concerned about his ability to make money off clickbait by publicizing the activities of consenting adults. And if that’s your primary motivation then, yes, you should be afraid of being sued.

Try harder, Mike. No chilling effects here worth worrying about.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re: No chilling effects.

As usual, Masnick defends Gawker despite, e.g., their well-documented harassment of rape victims using "muh First Amendment".

I guess I missed the part where Gawker went bankrupt for harassing rape victims.

If the reporter covering R. Kelly was so concerned about him having a harem of adult women well over the age of consent, why didn’t he just call the police?

Are you suggesting that reporters should only report on things where they have sufficient evidence to get an arrest?

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re:

What Gawker did was sleazy, yes. But do not dare to argue that sleaziness is not worth protecting under the First Amendment. Larry Flynt didn’t go to court so he could protect popular, “clean”, and otherwise “acceptable” speech.

Any court ruling or law that causes people to back off from publishing speech—especially speech talks about the rich and powerful—must be held in high suspicion. This goes double for any person, group of people, or organization with which you disagree. To do otherwise is to create a special right for the rich and powerful: The right not to be embarassed.

No one in the entire free world has, or should have, that right.

Nic says:

What link?

I really fail to see this supposed link that made publications get cold feet with the Gawker ruling. The Gawker ruling punished Gawker not for talking about something but for publishing a sex tape it knew damn well wasn’t legally obtained.

And that story regarding a cult and publications getting cold feet is about publications being afraid of getting sued for slander. Meaning, that the explosiveness of the story meant that it could have gone very badly for them if it turned out the details of the story were incorrect/false.

But Gawker ruling or not, that’d still be the case. You’re drawing a parallel with two cases whose only commonality is that celebrities are involved.

Whether it be 10 years ago or today, if for example, someone approached a publication about a story that x major politician was snorting coke every day while embezzling funds to pay for that habit, no one would publish that unless it could be 100% sure it was true. Publications getting cold feet unless they’re damn certain they’re on solid legal footing is perfectly normal and has nothing to do with Hulk Hogan.

Nic says:

What link?

I really fail to see this supposed link that made publications get cold feet with the Gawker ruling. The Gawker ruling punished Gawker not for talking about something but for publishing a sex tape it knew damn well wasn’t legally obtained.

And that story regarding a cult and publications getting cold feet is about publications being afraid of getting sued for slander. Meaning, that the explosiveness of the story meant that it could have gone very badly for them if it turned out the details of the story were incorrect/false.

But Gawker ruling or not, that’d still be the case. You’re drawing a parallel with two cases whose only commonality is that celebrities are involved.

Whether it be 10 years ago or today, if for example, someone approached a publication about a story that x major politician was snorting coke every day while embezzling funds to pay for that habit, no one would publish that unless it could be 100% sure it was true. Publications getting cold feet unless they’re damn certain they’re on solid legal footing is perfectly normal and has nothing to do with Hulk Hogan.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: What link?

The Gawker ruling punished Gawker not for talking about something but for publishing a sex tape it knew damn well wasn’t legally obtained.

Which was one of multiple suits against Gawker that Peter Thiel financed in retaliation for Gawker outing him.

Gawker reported an accurate and legal, but unflattering, story about a man who was rich and powerful. He responded by using his wealth to destroy Gawker financially.

It’s not about a single suit, or the outcome of that suit. It’s about the greater context in which that suit was brought.

Life says:

Re: Cults still legal?

If you had to choose the easy life of sex with famous rapper and not following societal norms surrounding relationships or annoying parents and Walmart wages where would you go?

Wow there’s a loaded question. heh.

Being mid fifty’s, male, with long blond hair, sex with famous rapper would be anything but HIDEOUS and ABNORMAL not, EASY dawg.

The parents are only annoying when your young, after they DIE you will miss them, which is why you should behave that way right now, today knowing that it will happen and things WONT GET BETTER.

Wallmart Wages, where to go.. hmm, I started out mowin lawns, but I did find myself in a pickle once, and a FRIEND taught me something.

tools needed:
Truck
ladder
5 gal buckets
garbage bags
hoses
(BUSINESS CARDS)
physical strength and common sense like never before, you as a contractor without a license want ZERO COMPLAINTS from the home owners.
(FLYERS)
phone answer machine

Your now a

“GUTTERS CLEARED – CALL US FOR FREE ESTIMATES”

You will knock on doors, and pass out flyers and business cards and people will call your machine, you will call them back, schedule, go bid jobs and work and make money until you find a homeowner who wants MORE CONSTRUCTION – boom your starting to make references now, might want to start taking the STATE CONTRACTORS LICENSE TEST.

Spin Repeat.
continue the defiance path and treat your parents like **** and regret it when your 50 and a drunk.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...
Loading...