Reality Check w/ John Tracy: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and the future of online news
When does a celebrity stop being a celebrity?
That question was answered for a New York-based website recently — An answer that came with a $140 million price tag.
You’re probably familiar with the story: Former pro-wrestler Hulk Hogan sued the website Gawker for posting a video clip of Hogan having sex with the wife of his then-best friend.
The so-called best friend had given consent.
He also recorded the main event with hidden video cameras, without Hogan’s knowledge.
Gawker considered the video legally defensible because it considered Hogan a public figure who had talked openly about his sex life. Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, argued the posting was an invasion of his privacy.
The case was considered a litmus test between the right to privacy versus freedom of the press. In the end, the jury found in favor of Hogan, with a $140 million judgment against the website and its owner, who is appealing the case.
As a journalist for 25 years, it might surprise you to learn that I believe the jury got it right, because I don’t think this case had anything to do with journalism.
Gawker passes itself off as a journalistic website. But Gawker is to journalism what reality shows are to reality. There’s very little relationship.
Gawker posted Hogan’s tape without notifying the former wrestler or giving him a chance to comment or object. That was standard practice for the website, according to its former editor, who in deposition said celebrity sex tapes are newsworthy in all cases, with the possible exception of those involving children under the age of four.
The comment was meant to be flippant but the jury saw a level of arrogance that outweighed any argument on journalistic grounds.
Gawker’s lawyer told the jury the verdict will send a chill down the spine of publishers throughout the country. Hardly. Legitimate news organizations don’t even get close to the line that Gawker crossed.
And the impact on Gawker? The website says it has re-tooled away from covering the sex lives of celebrities and is now focusing more on politics. Well, at least on the sex lives of politicians.
John’s opinions are his own, and not necessarily those of Denali Media or its employees.
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