The geniuses of Silicon Valley are hacking every aspect of society to make it better — that’s what they constantly tell us, anyway.
From how we consume music and TV and news to how we get around, there’s almost no aspect of modern life that tech companies haven’t changed, sometimes radically. And there’s no doubt that many of these changes have brought about positive results for many people.
But now it appears one Silicon Valley titan is hacking democracy — hacking it to pieces, that is.
In recent days, tech billionaire Peter Thiel was revealed as the man funding a series of lawsuits against Gawker, a news site that is engaged in a lawsuit with Terry Bollea, a.k.a. Hulk Hogan. Thiel’s deep pockets not only ensured that Bollea’s case got as far as it did, his money also provided the backing for an array of lawsuits that look as though they’re designed to leave a smoking crater where the network of Gawker sites used to be.
Today’s the day Donald Trump apparently clinched the number of delegates he’ll need to be the Republican nominee. But right now, I’m more afraid of Thiel and his ilk. We all should be.
Chances are Trump won’t win in November. He is a threat to many things the majority of Americans hold dear, if the polls are to believed. But rampaging magnates like Thiel are an even bigger threat to democracy itself.
Let’s get one thing clear: I have no particular love for Gawker. Last year, like almost every other media person on the planet, I vociferously condemned one story in particular that I won’t rehash here because the rationale that allowed it to be published in the first place still nauseates me. That non-story embodied everything journalism should avoid, not embrace, in my opinion. And there have been a number of other pieces Gawker and its affiliated sites have published that I have found deeply troubling or misguided over the years. So I’m not here to tell you Gawker founder Nick Denton is an innocent lamb being led to the slaughter.
That said, Gawker funds and publishes a lot of really good, smart writing and worthy, tough-minded journalism as well, and it has done so since it snarked its way onto the media scene in the early aughts. It also has an array of blind spots and problematic practices, some of which Thiel and others have every right to object to, but every media company makes mistakes, sometimes big ones.
But the punishment Thiel clearly has in mind — the scorched-earth destruction of the entire company — in no way fits the crime he thinks it has committed. It’d be like you crashing into your neighbor’s car not once but two or three times, and in response, your neighbor, instead of lobbing some valid complaints and filing an insurance claim, burns down your house and runs over your dog. And then moves away and drops a bomb on the neighborhood.
Gawker isn’t innocent in this, nor is it Satan incarnate. But this isn’t about Gawker.
This isn’t about one mogul having a tantrum and scrubbing things he doesn’t like from the Internet, as the fictional Gavin Belson recently did on “Silicon Valley.” (Sidebar: Nothing about the Belson character feels even remotely fictional, which is one reason the HBO comedy is so funny — in a slightly scary way.)
This is about one of the fundamental pillars of democracy being threatened by entities with almost infinite power and resources. You know those superhero films in which unstoppable, power-mad villains in the midst of meltdowns decide to threaten entire planets? Yeah, that scenario doesn’t feel all that far-fetched, especially if you’ve spent a decade or two or three working in the media industry.
There have always been rich people who’ve gone after the media, sometimes for frivolous reasons, sometimes for good ones. But the fact is, there are more billionaires in this country than ever. If they all decide to go scorched-earth on journalism outlets they don’t like, well, say goodbye to a free press.
A thriving media ecosystem in which journalists and critics can speak truth to power on a regular basis is one of the foundations of a civil society. “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, as long as the press doesn’t make rich and powerful people angry.” Wait, I may have that excerpt from the Constitution wrong. Or do I?
If you think I’m being hyperbolic, I’m not. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos now owns the Washington Post. Magnate Sheldon Adelson is the owner of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which he appears to be gutting like a fish. And as many commentators have pointed out, Thiel has the ear of the most powerful man at any media company on Earth: Mark Zuckerberg.
Thiel is friends with Zuckerberg and is on the board of Facebook, which, in case you weren’t aware, holds the fate of many media firms in its clammy, data-driven hands. You haven’t seen frenzy behind the scenes at a media company until you’ve lived through a week in which Facebook changes its cryptic algorithms. Few things cause more newsroom ulcers than Facebook or Google altering the the ways in which their users engage with news content. Forget Oprah and Time, Inc: A small array of tech firms hold the keys to the media kingdom, they move in mysterious ways and they answer to no one.
And many of these tech firms believe it’s their mission to fundamentally change our society, which isn’t necessarily a bad impulse, but they’re coming from a culture in which secrecy is an ingrained survival instinct. They don’t like scrutiny and they think pulling back the curtain means giving away trade secrets. In short, many of these companies and the titans they’ve spawned want to build the future without being transparent about their motives, methods or endgames.
And the press? That’s merely something to be controlled. Not so much a pillar but a pet.
So what if, as Felix Salmon suggests, Thiel convinces his Silicon Valley cronies that nuking media companies that misbehave is not just a social good but an altruistic act? Yes, Thiel compared his grudge match against Gawker to a charitable cause. And that’s the kind of messianic thinking that makes me wonder if Thiel is merely trying to provide the next season of “Silicon Valley” with a satire-rich environment.
However, there is something much deeper and darker at work. You can dislike what some media companies do — that’s fine, we can take it. We know we make mistakes, and the kind of free and open exchange of ideas that allows people to squawk about stories they don’t like is a very good thing. All that debate and discussion has its effects. For example, Denton announced Gawker had changed its editorial policies after the outcry over the site’s reprehensible 2015 story. Media companies evolve, in part due to feedback, in part because of the times we live in. If they don’t keep pace with change, they’ll die. And too many good newspapers, news sites and valuable media resources have already bitten the dust.
And that’s why you are probably seeing many people who work in the media reacting to the Thiel revelation with a mixture of horror and terror. We already know that most news organizations are already facing an ever-shifting array of existential threats. Making money as a media firm in this day and age is not for the faint of heart. In general, margins are slimmer and less dependable than ever, and paying the bills via Internet advertising is a chancy game, made chancier by more consumers who install ad-blocking software. A lot of journalism-dependent companies are hanging by a thread, or maybe four threads on a good day.
You may sometimes think that news outlets of various kinds are falling into clickbait-obsessed spirals in response to the radical changes of the past decade. Some days I think that too. But I exited journalism school in the early ’90s, well before the Internet was really a Thing, and one fact has remained true since that time: The vast majority of journalists, critics and reporters in this game do what we do because we love it and we think what we do is important and even fun, and we’re not doing it in a spirit of destructive glee, nor do we think we’re going to make bank doing it.
Uncovering wrongs, spotlighting good works, championing and analyzing and criticizing, investigating and exposing without fear or favor — a functional society needs a lively press that is doing all these things, every day. To put it in tech-adjacent terms, it’s the kind of data set that leads to rational, informed choices.
But maybe Silicon Valley isn’t after educated citizens: Maybe the Peter Thiels of the world just want an array of obedient consumers. Good luck with that.