P110: On Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the First Amendment

Hulk Hogan was awarded $140 million dollars in compensatory and punitive damages this week when a Florida jury sided with the professional wrestler and amateur racist in his lawsuit against the internet tabloid Gawker over the publishing of a video showing Hogan having sex with his friend’s wife. Gawker publisher Nick Denton was not amused, but supremely confident about their chances at appeal. Characteristically, Denton did not hold back in his response:

“Hogan did not sue us, as he has claimed, to recover damages from the emotional distress he purportedly experienced upon our revelation in 2012 of a sexual encounter with his best friend’s wife, Heather Cole (then Heather Clem). It turns out this case was never about the sex on the tape Gawker received, but about racist language on another, unpublished tape that threatened Hogan’s reputation and career.”

While there’s plenty of reasons to dislike Gawker — not the least of which is their gleeful publishing of celebrity sex tapes — this is an open and shut first amendment case and the fact that it even got to a jury is a travesty. And now that the decision was put to a bunch of average Floridians, Gawker Media is required to issue a bond, the cost of which could cripple or destroy the company. Yes, Gawker did this to themselves. Yes, the post in question was tacky and culturally unnecessary. That doesn’t mean it isn’t protected speech.

There’s lots of people running around out there saying that this decision doesn’t change the freedom of the press. That as long as you’re not publishing sex tapes, you have nothing to worry about. These people are wrong and they are letting their old-fashioned yearning for a more civilized age color their analysis. The fact of the matter is that every publication with less money than Gawker now has to reckon that reporting the news can get them shut down and held personally liable. The constitution won’t even get the chance to protect the hundreds of thousands of publishers writing, blogging, tweeting every day in this country. Lawyer and blogger Scott Greenfield puts it better than I ever could:

“Faced with the potential of there being someplace in America that a jury could be empaneled that would take offense to the editorial determination that something is newsworthy, decisions will be influenced. News will go unreported. Pictures will get buried. Information will never be revealed. You (and I) won’t know. And we won’t know what we won’t know.”

That’s what is at stake here, and just because you’ve never published someone’s sex tape doesn’t mean you won’t feel the chilling effects.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron


P109: Media Geeks Rejoice: Bill Simmons is Back

Mid-last month, we learned that Bill Simmons’s next venture, The Ringer, would be unveiled first as a newsletter. A week later, we learned that the site would live on Medium. This week, the first newsletter reached inboxes and it was all very Bill Simmons-y. It might sound like I’m damning with faint praise, but I mean that in all the possible ways you can mean it.

I’m a fan of Bill Simmons, a frequent listener to his podcast, and an eager observer of his burgeoning media company. I consider the 4 days I spent devouring The Book of Basketball on the beach in Punta Cana to be one of my most enjoyable reading experiences ever. I clearly enjoy tons of wordy prose with lots of pop culture references and running gags. So I know the voice, I know what to expect, and in the first issue of the newsletter:

  • Simmons delivered an enjoyable riff on how they settled on the name “The Ringer,”
  • Jonathan Tjarks had an interesting meditation on the makeup of Kentucky basketball teams from the past few years that didn’t really deliver on the awkward headline, and
  • Jason Concepcion revived the beloved Game of Thrones Q&A column, “Ask the Maester,” previously on Grantland (RIP).

As far as debut newsletters go, it’s a strong showing. Just as with the recent X-Files reboot, the first objective is surely was to give the fans a taste of what they’ve been missing. To me, though, the most interesting part is the fact that this newsletter exists at all. Here’s Simmons explaining the role of the newsletter in a recent episode of his podcast (quote starts at 12:16):

”We’re going to release this newsletter, I think, up to three times a week starting in mid-March. It’s not going to be a website jammed into a newsletter – we don’t want to flood your email box with 7000 words of text. We have writers we’ve already hired, we have people who are creative, and we’re not going to have a site for a few months so we wanted to have a place that people could go and read quicker takes and lists and fun stuff. And if something crazy happens in the NBA lottery, I’m going to need a place to write. So I think it’ll be a fun short term alternative until we actually have a site.”

My one beef would be the idea that this newsletter is a temporary bandaid. Yes, it’s important to have something out there while they build the site, but Simmons doesn’t have to look any further than his frequent podcast guest Lena Dunham to see the impact of a well-made newsletter. Smart money is that Simmons is playing these cards close to the vest. Keep an eye on this space.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron


P108: Set Adrift on Memory Bliss

It’s like when an episode of Serial starts off with an update to the real-time story.

It’s been a strange news cycle this week. I don’t really want to talk about Donald Trump and I don’t really feel like I have anything more to add to Hamza Shaban’s reporting on #AppleVsFBI so I thought I’d use this space to play a little “where are they now” with some of my favorite subjects from the last half-year or so.

I. Awl Y’all

Last week I fretted about some changes at The Awl but today they announced that they hired Silvia Killingsworth, managing editor of the New Yorker and a truly inspired choice to lead what I’m sure will continue to be my favorite Web Site.

II. Your Boy

The Ethan Crouch “Affluenza” case has had nothing of consequence happen since it came into my life in the waning hours of 2015, save the occasional blurry iPhone picture in the UK tabloids. This validates my prior ignorance of this story and makes me wish I could return to the old days.

III. These Are My Readers

The writers of Grantland have spread to the four corners of the web but none of their Nexts were as eagerly anticipated as the Next of founder Bill Simmons, who has announced that The Ringer will live on Medium. Something something Peter North reference.

IV. Dat Taupe Blazer Life

My biggest geekout of 2015, “What is Code?,” won an Ellie for best Single-Topic Issue. Author Paul Ford went on to launch an agency, podcast, and blog/newsletter in the last 7 months, not that I’m measuring myself against Paul Ford in a totally healthy way, nope not me.

In short: #turnturnturn. Maybe next week I won’t be overwhelmed with American Politics.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron


P107: Sometimes We Get Mad When Good Things Happen to People We Like

Big changes at The Awl today, as it was announced that the Last Independent Media Company was seeking new leadership following the appointments of current co-editor John Herrman, Slate’s Amanda Hess, and Greg Howard of Deadspin to the prestigious David Carr Fellowship at the New York Times. Admittedly, my initial reaction was less than enthusiastic – The Awl’s peculiar brand of sarcastic literary dystopia checks all my boxes – but with time I’ve come to find a couple silver linings.

The Times Just Got a Lot Better

Any publication would be thrilled to add Herrman, Hess, or Howard to their staff, much less all three. They write the kind of journalism that gets noticed, at least by one-man late-night newsletter operations:

This is a huge win for the Times and surely what they must have dreamt of when they created the David Carr fellowship. Seeing these writers on an even bigger stage will be exciting.

Seasons Change at The Awl

If I force myself to tamp down the signature Awl emotion of existential dread, I can envision a world where new leadership at the site brings a new vitality, much in the way that Herrman and Matt Buchanan did when they took the reins two years ago. If you weren’t around or interested during that transition, I’d recommend this great interview of Awl founder Choire Sicha on Glenn Fleishman’s dearly departed New Disruptors podcast. It is some super inside baseball publishing stuff but I figure if you’ve read this far why not. And if it doesn’t work out and The Awl goes away, I guess we’ll finally know the true cost of ad blockers.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron