The 'Gawker Effect' Is Chilling Investigative Reporting Across The US

from the this-is-a-problem dept

When the jury verdict against Gawker came down a year and a half ago, we warned of how problematic it was. We pointed out that it was a big deal even if you absolutely hated Gawker and wanted to see them destroyed. Because, as we noted, the playbook used against Gawker could be used against lots of other publications.

And it’s clearly impacting a number of others as well. A couple months ago, we wrote about how the “Gawker Effect” had made it very difficult for a huge investigative piece on R Kelly “holding women against their will” by Jim DeRogatis (a music reporter who has broken a number of R Kelly related stories over the years) to find a home to get published. Lots of publishers wouldn’t touch it, not because the reporting wasn’t solid, but because they didn’t want to face the possibility of libel lawsuits, no matter how silly.

This is happening more and more often these days, including over important stories. Over at the Columbia Journalism Review, Kim Masters has a thoughtful, but depressing, article about how this “Gawker Effect” nearly killed another key story about sexual harassment in Hollywood — involving Amazon exec Roy Price (who runs Amazon’s Hollywood efforts) allegedly sexually harassing Isa Hackett, a producer on the Amazon hit show “The Man in the High Castle.” The article was eventually published at The Information (behind a paywall). Last month, there was an article at Recode speculating that other publications passed on the story because Price, like Hulk Hogan (and like Harvey Weinstein and like Shiva Ayyadurai, the plaintiff in a lawsuit against us), employed lawyer Charles Harder. In the Recode piece, The Information’s CEO, Jessica Lessin is quoted as saying that other publications passed because of threats from lawyers:

Lessin, referencing the Masters story, wrote that ?we recently published a version of a story that three other publications passed on after very high-priced lawyers promised to sue them.”

The Recode piece also quotes people from other publications who argued that there were other reasons for passing — including that the earlier versions of Masters’ story didn’t have enough on-the-record sources. For what it’s worth, one of the publications that passed — the Hollywood Reporter — recently made new headlines in this story by getting an interview with Isa Hackett, in which she revealed more details about Price’s behavior towards her.

In the CJR piece, Masters shares more of the details of what happened behind the scenes, and how pressure was applied, via legal threats, to try to kill the story. It’s at least marginally troubling that she notes it wasn’t just Charles Harder who was making the threats, but also well-known lawyer Lisa Bloom. Bloom was, somewhat famously, also part of Harvey Weinstein’s “legal team” which struck many people as odd, since her reputation was for representing the victims of sexual harassment and assault, not the other side. A few days after the Weinstein stories came out, Bloom said she was no longer working for Weinstein (also, recently, Harder claimed he has also stopped working for Weinstein despite earliler promising a lawsuit). She told the Hollywood Reporter, she worked with him to “change the way these stories go.” And, more specifically to avoid the pattern of “when the story comes out, attack the accuser, deny, deny, deny, and fight like hell” because, as Bloom told THR: “I know how damaging that is to them, how hurtful, how scary. It?s emotionally devastating.” Over the weekend, she told Buzzfeed something similar:

?All I can say is, from my perspective, I thought, ?Here is my chance to get to the root of the problem from the inside. I am usually on the outside throwing stones. Here is my chance to be in the inside and to get a guy to handle this thing in a different way.? I thought that would be a positive thing, but clearly it did not go over at all.?

But Masters notes that Bloom and Harder together threatened the reporting she did on Price:

People in Hollywood and the media world were surprised my byline ended up in The Information, given that I worked at The Hollywood Reporter. (My editor there, Matthew Belloni, said in a Recode article about my difficulties getting the story published that ?any suggestion that a story on this topic didn?t run because of outside pressure would be false.?) THR did allow me to shop the story elsewhere, but it came with a guaranteed threat of litigation from Price?s attorneys. Over the weeks that would follow, as I began searching for a home for my scoop, Harder and Bloom convinced every publication that considered my story that they weren?t just threatening legal action but would indeed sue.

Perhaps that threat was so convincing because Harder had handled Hogan?s devastating suit against Gawker with backing from billionaire Peter Thiel. In her zeal to protect her client?who has yet to address any of the allegations in my piece publicly?Bloom claimed that I had turned on Price after he rebuffed my demand to have Amazon underwrite The Business, the public-radio show that I host on KCRW. I can?t guess who concocted that allegation, but I assume the idea was to establish a potential argument that I had behaved unethically and had a personal grudge against him and therefore didn?t care what the facts were. (Since Price is a public figure, his only hope of prevailing in court would be to argue that I published information I knew to be false or acted in reckless disregard of whether it was false.)

When I first read the claim in an email from Bloom, I was angry, but I also laughed because it was ridiculous. I?ve never discussed underwriting with anyone, even internally at KCRW. I don?t know the first thing about it. I?m told Bloom insisted she had proof, though of course none was produced. My editor at THR told her that the story was false, but she repeated it to other publications nonetheless. (Bloom on Thursday said she no longer is working with Price.)

Masters admits that the earlier work didn’t yet have the full on-the-record statement from Hackett, which was necessary to make the piece publishable, but does note how much the legal hounding from Bloom and Harder made it that much more difficult to get a publication to go with the piece.

By the time I was done, I had talks with more than six publications and went through legal review at three. The anxiety is always high when there?s a threat of a lawsuit around a story, but this time, it seemed off the charts. At one point, an attorney reviewing the piece only sputtered when I asked her to explain what, exactly, was legally problematic with portions of the story that she wanted to delete. She literally could not construct a sentence to explain her reasoning.

There’s a lot more in Masters’ piece that is worth reading and that highlights just how damaging the Gawker Effect has become. Again, even if you absolutely hated Gawker and cheered its demise, you should be concerned with what it has wrought. Masters hopes that with the Weinstein story getting so much attention it will help “change the environment” and encourage more people to come forward, and to embolden more publishers to publish these kinds of investigative reports.

However, there’s still a missing piece here. Masters is right that these legal threats are a problem, and hopefully the attention brought about from exposing sexual harassers will embolden more publishers to publish these articles, even in the face of coordinated legal threats — but what we still really need are stronger anti-SLAPP laws in various states (some of which still have none, and many of which have very weak ones). Or, even better, a comprehensive federal anti-SLAPP law. Such a law would allow publications to have more confidence in publishing such exposes of bad behavior by the rich and powerful, since they could push back against bogus legal threats by noting that filing a lawsuit probably won’t get very far, and almost certainly would force the plaintiff to pay legal fees. We’ve been calling for such a federal anti-SLAPP law for nearly a decade, and I hope we’re not still calling for one a decade from now. Masters’ story is yet more evidence that Congress needs to act, now.

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Comments on “The 'Gawker Effect' Is Chilling Investigative Reporting Across The US”

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Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Of whom are we afraid, said the corpratocracy?

The dichotomy is that corporations are more afraid of their investors than the potential to defend a frivolous lawsuit. Your spending money on WHAT?

Thank you Wall Street. What could we do without you, or better stated, what could we do if the model was investing in the next quarter century rather than just the next quarter?

Anonymous Coward says:


POWER has stopped more reporting than potential lawsuits. It’s inconceivable that anyone learns much about Hollywood without turning up how the press there is totally controlled by the studios. I knew it in high school, never having left the Midwest.

This whining seems based on the desire to draw clicks with low amounts of evidence — the repeating of innuendo like the Trump-Russia assertions that Techdirt ran for months — and now making excuses: if you have the goods (or bads) on someone it’s always been contingent on whether sufficient to win a lawsuit. If not sure, don’t publish!

Anonymous Coward says:


Yeah, it’s TOO BAD weenies can’t publish just whatever they want to damage reputations without fear of consequences. Everything you netwits do requires immunity from settled law, doesn’t it? And you throw a fit when don’t get that privilege.

7th try to get in ONLY after put a space in the name! Always more difficult to get into his articles…

Anonymous Coward says:


Reminder: it’s the new length limits at Techdirt that cause me to sprawl in 3 comments rather than one. Again, blame Masnick, because there’s definitely a length limit on subject lines and body.

And of course Techdirt won’t state any guidelines so I can only go by experiments, and then after wasting my time, I’m pleased to inform you of how Techdirt is manipulating input behind the scenes.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Oi.

Body length has never been an issue for me. I have plenty of long-enough-for-their-own-article comments here, and I have never once been dinged by the spamfilter for length. Perhaps your comments are being held back because the spamfilter recognizes them as spam—either because you use Tor, you legitimately spam your comments numerous times in a bid to have them published on a blog you apparently hate-read, or a combination of both.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:


Good question! Although the rest of your senseless outburst is both hilarious and sad.

And the answer is: The same thing: Power. Any story that was not so insanely egregious that it had to be published was simply buried. If there was even much of a story, journalism-wise, to run with. Why don’t these things come out? Probably for the same reason that victims are afraid to speak today, same as ever. Only there was enough of a change with the avenues the internet provides for both wider peer-to-peer communication and journalistic opportunities of various sizes, and growing trend of victims of power speaking up. Of course, we have been seeing the growing backlash against victims speaking, and the victimization of those who spoke about anything (even trivial shit) that groups with more privilege just don’t like. (Although sometimes they seem to like it fine, as long as they heard it from one of their own first.)

How about you go whine senselessly in a closet and play go filesystem check yourself until you might actually form a proper thought on why you don’t like the things you don’t like. What is your evidence for… wtf ever you are on about?

Anonymous Coward says:

let me get this straight...

a bunch of people cheered on a corruption and supported it because it was destroying something they hated, but did not realize that it was going to be used against them later.

Joker Laugh

It is just the way humans are. Finding their fates on the very paths they take to avoid them. And the more you try to tell them that they are making am mistake… the more they call you names, a troll, and try to shut you up. And when you come back and laugh in their faces… OMG do they get bent!

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

There does need to be a federal anti-slap law.
As insanely rich people can sit in the background & finance vendettas there will be less reporting of serious issues because it upset someone in power.

Look at the coal dork who has done everything possible to punish people dared report the truth about him.

Along with an anti-slap law, I think someone needs to remind state bars that there are ethical concerns for a lawyer to state they have evidence on the record & not have to back it up.
Lawyers are perceived as being truthful and on the side of the law. Making a public statement to just try and spin public perception should result in a hearing.

Of course one might wonder if Ms. Bloom as a soul anyways to jump to the very vigorous defense of high powered people. Everyone is entitled to representation, but that representation should not be allowed to take free shots & threaten to try and keep the truth from being reported.

Dickbags are entitled to a defense, they are not entitled to spend cash to threaten people into silence. There are laws to protect them from false stories, but when they are just being used as a weapon to keep the story from being printed (true or not) there needs to be a way to balance the game board. Your rights shouldn’t be based on do you have enough money to protect them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Subscribe to your local newspaper

It’s inexpensive. It’s vital. Your local newspaper, which is very likely struggling to survive, is the one that will turn over some rocks that nobody else has even noticed…and find some interesting things under them. They’re the ones who’ll break the story about corruption in your local police department or bribery on your school board.

And even though there are plenty of things to find fault with at the Washington Post and New York Times and so on, imagine how bad things would be if they weren’t researching, writing, and publishing every day.

Make no mistake: the free press is under full attack from the rich and powerful, from assholes like Thiel and Harder to…well, other assholes like Trump. The tactics vary, but the underlying strategy is to take out the press any/every way possible.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Re: Subscribe to your local newspaper

Local newspapers have generally been crap since long before the internet, and suffered from die-off and mergers into giant corporations. Hell yeah, support a real independent newspaper that actually runs good stories if you can find one. (There are some, I am sure.) But randomly supporting local papers (if they are, in fact, even decently local)that showed no signs of reversing the dumbing-down trend since ages ago won’t do any good, although they will happily take your money.

On the other hand, supporting local journalists who do quality work is probably cheaper and easier.

Anonymous Coward says:

Gossip should be protected speech now? I don’t buy that. It is good to see a ‘Gawker effect’ among those who deal with loose pens.

There are more satisfying ways these errant pens are shut up though. If you remember the reporter who was arrested for aggressively crossing VP Pense’s security line during the first round to fix the ACA problems. He and his team were pushing the absurd notion that rape victims wouldn’t get care under the new republican fix. His team got several articles printed and passed by the onion organization of truth AP. It took his arrest to get his articles ignored. The republican fix was bad, but the absurd notion a criminal rape was somehow an ACA issue was beyond real.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“Gossip should be protected speech now?”

If true? Yes.

Here is the definition of Gossip to help you understand.

noun: gossip

casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.

Did you catch the important part… where it states “details that are not confirmed as being true.”

Gossip ≠ Untrue

Try to avoid ignorantly using words to imply things they actually do not mean!

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’m surprised you don’t shake your pom-poms for the silencing of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the journalist who led the Panama Papers offshore tax evasion expose.

She also wrote an expose of the Maltese Economy minister and his consultant visited a brothel in Germany while on government business. Her son is also a journalist and wrote stories linking Maltese politicians to the Panama Papers.

Both have been written about here. Both faced defamation lawsuits for reporting the truth. For doing what you hate so much.

She was assassinated yesterday by a car bomb in northern Malta.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“Gossip should be protected speech now?”

Tough one. Between neighbors? Yeah, old ladies are gonna do their thing, and I don’t think anyone should be going around policing that.

However, gossip /presented in the context of news/ should definitely be shut down with the harshest of penalties. This shit ruins people’s lives and it can be spread all over the place without a single shred of evidence.

Some woman with an axe to grind cries rape on Twitter or the news, doesn’t matter if she didn’t even bother reporting anything to the police and never will, that guy is gonna be named and shamed by every major media outlet. He’ll lose his job, his friends and his family. He’ll be dodging public violence for the rest of his life.

Investigative reporting is a science. One that I fully support. Gossip, however, is a quick attempt to sell a person’s reputation, safety and future for money, without consent. If there’s evidence, it’s not gossip. Simple as that. And no, “I listened and believed” does not count as evidence. Get a damn rape kit and don’t take 30 years to act on it.

Marty McFly says:

Supposing this is even true...

It shows just how cowardly and uninsightful journalists are in general. I cannot speak for everyone, but if some journalist were subject to such a lawsuit for which I become a juror, I will protect you for practically any activity at all.

As long as it’s journalism. As long as it’s not solely for prurient interest. If you’re some jackass paparazzi taking pictures of a starlet’s un-pantied snatch as she gets out of the limo, I don’t consider this journalism. If you want to do a story on Hulk Hogan’s leaked sex tape… again, no protection there.

A political scandal? Something the public needs to know? I’ve got your back.

Maybe that’s what the public’s trying to say here, instead of “we’re trying to shut down all investigative reporting”. And maybe though they’re saying it, maybe journalists are just too cowardly to listen. Or maybe there just aren’t any real journalists out there.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Supposing this is even true...

Maybe that’s what the public’s trying to say here, instead of "we’re trying to shut down all investigative reporting".

"The public?" I don’t see the public saying anything of the sort.

If the public didn’t want the news to report on this kind of thing, tabloids wouldn’t sell, TMZ wouldn’t get any hits, shows like ET wouldn’t get aired in primetime, and major newspapers wouldn’t have entertainment sections, because no one would buy ads in them.

I – and, I’m sure, a lot of journalists – would be for a world where people paid more attention to the top stories and less to the Entertainment section. However, pretending that that’s the world we live in isn’t helping matters.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Supposing this is even true...

Maybe it comes down to what people think “need to know” means? I sure as hell don’t know what people think that means.

In the days where past things you used to talk about and believe in (and maybe don’t currently) can be used to silence you and make you lose your job, I don’t know what people think they need to know.

When people accused of rape are made into pariahs and the victims made into heroes, before a court case determining the facts has even seen the light of day, I don’t know what people think they need to know. (Don’t publish the victim’s name, they don’t need the notoriety, and don’t publish the accused’s name until a conviction, please.)

If we’re going to judge based on our beliefs and others’ claims, then we’ve gone back to mob justice. Whoever inflames the most people, they get to tie the noose for the person they accused, whether or not they were guilty.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Supposing this is even true...

I mean, do you know what you just said? You said:

“If I am on a jury, I will decide based on my own personal opinion of the subjective value of the content in question, not with regard to the letter of the law and the actual question of first amendment rights.”

Please stay away from juries.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Supposing this is even true...

Do you have a reading comprehension problem? I mean, I understand you’re from the United States, where that’s a bit of a given, but come now.

The comment you’re reacting to merely suggested that the law implement a temporary publication ban on the identities of the accused until a guilty verdict has been reached. That’s it. Absorb that for a second, will you?

The details are still available. “A {rape/shooting/robbery/etc.} happened at {time/date/city}, police are looking for witnesses to come forward.” “In <jurisdiction> court today, a person stands accused of the rape/shooting/robbery you may remember us reporting on back in <date>.” “The defendant has the following evidence going for and against them. Please make your ruling based on this data, not on race, gender, nationality or other irrelevant factors that could easily bias you.”

There are already several Asian countries that bar the press from identifying the accused before a conviction, requiring even technically-public data such as mugshot photos to have the eyes in the photo black-barred. These countries are not descending into dictatorship and many of them enjoy a good relationship with the U.S.

Nowhere did that comment suggest tearing down the First Amendment. Nor did it suggest the person making the comment doesn’t know how to follow a judge’s instructions on how to behave in a jury.

This isn’t about First Amendment rights, it’s about people today thinking they have the right to shout “FIRE!” in a public theater, since people today seem to have a child-like understanding of what the First Amendment really means. No context, no nuance, no complexity. Free speech is just speaking freely, simple as that, right?

Please stay away from keyboards. Of course, you’re free to ignore that advice.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Supposing this is even true...

it’s about people today thinking they have the right to shout "FIRE!" in a public theater

But they do. You can literally stand up in the middle of a theatre and shout “fire” without being arrested for doing so. And by the by, the legal ruling that first brought up that long-discredited example of “unprotected speech” went in favor of the government being allowed to censor what would later be ruled protected speech.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Supposing this is even true...

_(Don’t publish the victim’s name, they don’t need the notoriety, and don’t publish the accused’s name until a conviction, please.)_

Due process for all. Even one false accusation is too many. Let the truth be determined in a court of law before the personal details of either side are released to the press.

John William Nelson (profile) says:

Gawker didn't lose because of libel; it lost because of invasion of privacy

The Gawker case was not about libel. It was about invasion of privacy. Not to say the that defending a spurious libel claim is cheap; I know Techdirt has first-hand experience in this. However, the risk of a terrible verdict is hitting in a libel claim is far lower than in an invasion of privacy claim, especially when that claim is over invasive videos such as sex tapes.

MyNameHere (profile) says:

Effect this

The Gawker effect? Really?

What the whole Gawker lawsuit did was remind many “news” organizations (you know, the ones that are fast with rumor, short of absolute facts) that they can be held liable for crossing the line. Online journalism has gotten a pretty easy ride of it for almost two decades now. It took Gawker to go over the line and prove that there are in fact limits.

Gawker did what no media outlet should do, which is overdo it. They didn’t just tell the story of Hulk Hogan and his sexploits (as they were) but rather used it as a spring board to make it personal and offensive. Running the entire video (rather than just a few neatly censored screen shots) is one of those points where it was no longer about telling the story, but about rubbing his face in it and “taking down” a famous person, mostly for promotional value it seems.

Gawker went to far, got their corporate dick slapped in the dirt, and everyone around them went “whoa, there is a limit after all!”. Everyone includes lawyers who love to litigate, Mr Harder apparently being one of them. He has proven that, if nothing else, he is willing to go to the end of the battle with clients who can afford to get there.

So now, if you are a website writing a story about sexual shenanigans, you have to think for a second: Is this third hand information and innuendo enough to take the risk with? Are we reporting “Rose McGowen says she was raped” or are we reporting “someone said that they heard someone that told a story about someone getting raped”.

The Gawker effect, more than anything, is to make these online sites consider their sources and their material before running it. They found out that they aren’t any more special than any other form of media.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Effect this

Considering the trolls who supported Shiva also support Harvey Weinstein because 1. Charles Harder is helping him, and 2. Masnick criticized Weinstein…

Seems like MyNameHere would be very fine with it. Anything to prevent figures in authority and power getting what’s coming to them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Effect this

Actual trolling does get flagged – if you build up enough of a reputation by your own actions, users are quick to notice. Even if out_of_the_blue doesn’t use his telltale moniker anymore his style of writing is very easily identified. Also the tangents he goes on like suggesting that people who play and livestream videogames are suicidal as a whole.

You chose to flirt with Hamilton when he posted here and be the permanent contrarian no matter how ridiculous the contrarian position is. Same for your relentless worship of policemen. Cop beat up an unarmed person? Obviously must be a problem with parents, or kids, or an entitlement society!

Why not reconcile how you truly feel? It’s not healthy to keep everything in. First James Comey, now Hamilton. Imagine if Charles Harder’s reputation were to take a hit because of Harvey Weinstein…

MyNameHere (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Effect this

They should be afraid of running stories that are either not true, misleading, or based on flimsy sources. For that, they could get sued.

The difference is pre-Gawker, online companies seemed to act pretty invincible. Since then, many sites have tightened up and you see less speculative articles and quite a bit more with some meat on the bones.

There will always be nuisance lawsuits, but some of them are valid. Honestly, I think Hogan was in the right with his lawsuit, no matter who was funding it or who was arguing it. Gawker did him wrong and continued to do harm after the fact as well. It was ugly, and needed to end up in court.

So if a site / news organization takes a step back from a poorly sourced story or sits on something for a couple of days until they have confirmation, it’s probably better anyway.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Effect this

Gawker did what no media outlet should do, which is overdo it. They didn’t just tell the story of Hulk Hogan and his sexploits (as they were) but rather used it as a spring board to make it personal and offensive. Running the entire video (rather than just a few neatly censored screen shots) is one of those points where it was no longer about telling the story, but about rubbing his face in it and "taking down" a famous person, mostly for promotional value it seems.

I agree that Gawker went a step too far when it published the sex tape. I disagree, however, with the notion that “taking down a famous person” should justify censorship.

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