Gawker: The internet bully

Nick Denton's media empire is an intellectual online fraternity that invites people to their parties only to make them buy the booze

Earlier this week Gawker lost “thousands of dollars” in advertising after a poorly worded tweet was posted by one of its writers. Sam Biddle, one of the more sarcastic employees among the sarcastic throng at Gawker Media, tweeted out a joke:

He immediately followed it with:

Naturally, the Twitterverse pounced. While the issue goes into convoluted gamergate territory, it didn’t make Gawker, the intellectual fraternity of the internet that invites people to their parties only to make them buy the booze, look good. Adobe pulled its sponsorship in response to the uproar, which was followed by multiple posts by site editors attempting to explain the situation, apologizing and admitting they “fucked up.”

Was Biddle’s tweet really a joke? Probably. But it’s no secret that Gawker is the bully of the internet. It regularly takes down “weaker” competitors—the textbook definition of bullying. In the high school hallway that is the New York media scene, Gawker Media is the Biff Tannen-type, shoving whoever they want into a locker.

The art behind Gawker’s ridicule is that they make fun of people and media sites without being overtly cruel. While BuzzFeed seems to be their favorite punching bag, The New York Times enjoys a steady stream of bashing, and Gawker writers openly hate direct competitor Vice. Gawker is now long-established, and its snark is often smart, but it still postures like it’s the underdog, a pose that works since its enormous audience essentially looks like better-informed redditors.

Gawker depicts its actions as an internet watchdog role, an upstart taking on the bigger guys. But it really just looks jealous of competitor traffic, despite bringing in around 60 million unique visitors a month.

Look, for example, at its coverage of Shepard Smith. Gawker repeatedly claimed the Fox News anchor was gay despite lacking concrete evidence. Attempting to out someone who doesn’t want to be? That sounds like bullying to me. (David Carr seemed to agree).

Then there’s the case of BuzzFeed’s Benny Johnson. Once it was known the former politics editor plagiarized dozens of stories, Gawker practically celebrated his near-public firing. Johnson was rightfully let go, but the tone and the vitriol aimed at him was overwhelming. Gawker justifies it because Johnson did something wrong, so it can’t be bullying…right?

Ultimately, Gawker benefits by making other writers look stupid. BuzzFeed is desperately trying to become viewed as a credible news source, and Gawker is happy to depict its staffers as a listicle-making trove of idiots.

Gawker, which occasionally reminds readers that it is proudly a tabloid, might slowly put an ends to its cruelty-laced posts. Editorial director Joel Johnson seems to be looking to create a more partnership-friendly environment free of feuds.

“I don’t like feuding or sniping at BuzzFeed,” he told Capital New York.

Not all of Gawker’s writers are bullies. Its vertical Gizmodo is rarely bloodthirsty, and Lifehacker is downright charming. The well-liked Caity Weaver is funny, but never heckles, and she’s arguably the most talented writer on-staff. Others also refrain from the sites’ tormenting tone. But then there’s Deadspin, which openly admits they can say horrible things about anyone in sports.

Gawker employs some of the best writers on the internet. They should harness it, instead of being nasty.

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Sarah Grieco is CJR's digital media editor. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahgrieco.