A continuing and seemingly inevitable financial decline along with a lack of trust fed by White House attacks have been the focus of concerns about the state of journalism. But two recent stories demonstrate that journalists and editors are also struggling to deal with legal challenges and safety concerns.
In her Sunday column for The Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan raises the issue of “the Gawker effect.” Sullivan examines why three separate media organizations declined to publish Jim DeRogatis’s shocking story about R&B legend R. Kelly and the young women allegedly under his control. The story eventually found a home at BuzzFeed.
Gawker, of course, was forced into bankruptcy after losing a lawsuit brought by Terry Bollea (known professionally as Hulk Hogan), that was secretly financed by billionaire Trump-backer Peter Thiel. As DeRogatis talked with outlets about getting the Kelly story published, “Gawker came up in a lot of those conversations,” he told Sullivan. “Nobody wanted to take that risk.”
Sullivan concludes that fear of a Gawker-like fate “can result in self-censorship at any stage of a story’s development, maybe before it ever gets out of a reporter’s notebook, or in the hour before planned publication.”
The issue of self-censorship also surfaces in a story about the real-world effects of online harassment that Carlett Spike and I reported for CJR. In talking with journalists who had received death threats, had their addresses posted on social media, and had watched their families targeted, we heard a lot about resilience in the face of intimidation, but also admissions that there are times when some writers think twice about whether a story is worth the abuse.
“The internet is real life, and things that happen on the internet have real-world consequences,” BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel told us. “That’s been true for years, but the toxicity of the current political climate combined with the speed and volume at which things are happening makes it especially volatile right now.”
Below, more on these threats to the media.
- Brian Knappenberger, director of Nobody Speak: The Trials of the Free Press, a documentary about Gawker’s demise, spoke last month with Mother Jones’s James West.
- As Gawker was being shuttered, Tom Scocca warned that its death should serve as a warning to the rest of the media. “Gawker always said it was in the business of publishing true stories,” Scocca wrote. “Here is one last true story: You live in a country where a billionaire can put a publication out of business.”
- BuzzFeed’s Warzel writes that Twitter is still failing in its attempts to deal with abuse on its platform. “Even with a sharper focus on abuse in 2017, a concerning number of reports of clear-cut harassment still seem to slip through the cracks,” he writes.
- Last year, conservative columnist Bethany Mandel received so much anti-Semitic abuse and threats to her family that she purchased a gun for self-defense.
Other notable stories
- An international famine that’s been called the worst humanitarian disaster since WWII is slowly unfolding across a band of countries stretching from Nigeria to Yemen, yet only 15 percent of American voters say they know “a lot” about the issue. The Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Ford explores how a 20-million-person crisis goes unseen.
- The New Yorker’s Sam Knight profiles Sadiq Khan, London’s first Muslim mayor.
- On the latest episode of The Kicker, CJR’s weekly podcast about journalism, Meg Dalton has an interview with The Outline’s Leah Finnegan, who has written critically about the media’s approach to covering drugs and addiction.
- For anyone concerned about The Washington Post’s editorial independence, Steven Pearlstein’s look at whether Amazon is too big provides an assurance that Jeff Bezos’s business practices are not off limits to critical coverage.
- The New York Times’s John Leland has a great profile of the rise and fall of gossip columnist Liz Smith.