Summer means my return to semi-regular blogging! Join me as I experiment with a weekly rundown of stories I found interesting.
Was Hulk Hogan a pawn in a billionaire’s vendetta against a media company? It’s not a wrestling storyline. This week, we learned that Hogan’s lawsuit against online tabloid Gawker was anonymously financed by Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist who was a co-founder and CEO of PayPal and sits on the Facebook board of directors. Why? Because Gawker outed Thiel as gay in 2007.
#HulkvsGawk is promising to be a fixture of media law classes for years to come. To review – Gawker publishes a portion of a sex tape featuring wrestler Hulk Hogan and the wife of someone named Bubba the Love Sponge (who filmed the video, and sure seems like the person who leaked it). Hogan sues for invasion of privacy. Gawker counters that the way they presented the content and Hogan’s prior public statements about his sex life made it newsworthy. Jurors side with Hogan and award him $115 million in damages.
Gawker is appealing and will likely see a significant reduction in damages, if not a reversal of the ruling (it is very hard for a media outlet to lose a First Amendment case, even one as salacious as Gawker).
This week, Gawker founder Nick Denton suggested someone in Silicon Valley was bankrolling multiple suits against his company, including Hogan’s. Forbes reported the person to be Thiel, and a few hours later, he confirmed in an interview with The New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin.
This has got the media world talking. Thiel is being painted as an evil caricature – The Atlantic went with a Bond villain; Denton chose comic books. It’s the only recourse the press has at its disposal. Endless litigation against the press by people of means is a brutal way to chill speech. The choice is often silence or bankruptcy (even if not guilty, fighting the lawsuits can drive a publication out of business). This is exactly why Donald Trump’s desire to “open up” libel laws to more easily sue news organizations, while vague bluster that’s easier to say than to do, still caused consternation. Thiel, it’s probably relevant to mention, is a vocal Trump supporter.
Though many states have anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation) statutes, they aren’t particularly effective. But there’s also not much that can be done to change what Thiel is doing. While there are sinister reasons to finance lawsuits (some particularly terrible companies exist to do just that, in exchange for a percentage of the damages), it’s also how advocacy groups like the ACLU support petitioners who could never afford to bring a civil rights case before a court.
Sports Illustrated legal analysis Michael McCann does a good job putting this case into a larger context.
My impression was that Thiel’s attempt at anonymity exacerbated the backlash. Gawker isn’t exactly beloved, and most people aren’t cool with invasions of privacy (even if they clicked). But we also don’t like shadowy rich people secretly destroying enemies through the courts (thus, all the Bond villain stuff).
Baylor has finally admitted to what ESPN’s Outside the Lines has been reporting for months – that the university, at best, turned a blind eye to sexual assaults by its football players. The results of an external investigation commissioned by the university suggest it was worse – that the sexual assaults were not only ignored, but that they were actively covered up by members of the football staff. Head Coach Art Briles was fired, and university president Ken Starr (yes, that Ken Starr), was demoted to a previously vacant, meaningless administrative position (ah, tenure).
Baylor is a Baptist university, and one of only a handful of religiously affiliated schools to achieve prominence as both a research institution and major-conference athletic program. And they traded morality for touchdowns, leaving their own female students as victims in the process.
The Buffalo Bills announced a new media policy for offseason practices. It was a little ridiculous, preventing reporters from, among other things, mentioning the play, the players involved in said play, or basically any bad outcome (dropped passes and interceptions mentioned specifically).
There are two things you can count on in sports – coaches don’t like having media around and reporters are a snark-filled species. Combine those two things, and you get some beat reporters having fun on Twitter with the new rules.
I covered training camp for the New Orleans Saints about a decade ago. Even as a nobody affiliated with nobody outlets, I had excellent access (to everyone but Reggie Bush… they let that dude be a diva). Recently, however, the Bills aren’t alone. Other NFL teams have tried to clamp down on access and dissemination (the Cowboys got some negative press for doing so last season).
Sports leagues and media covering them have a symbiotic relationship. Media need content to attract audiences; sports leagues need media exposure to attract audiences. The NFL, however, has become the exception. Pro football has become such a ratings giant that the league has no reason to cater to media partners, which kowtow to the commissioner just to stay in the Shield’s good graces (quick examples from ESPN and NBC).
This is a Paul Finebaum-esque silly story about crazy sports fans that wound up being about an understaffed local newsroom working within a media conglomerate’s disparate systems network. Color me intrigued.
I would never want to cover the SEC – especially in a market that is divided between two conference schools. That’s where the Jackson, Miss.-based Clarion Ledger finds itself. When the Mississippi State baseball team clinched the regular season conference championship, this is the headline the paper ran:
Now, a bit of context – MSU clinched the title by beating Arkansas. That same day, Ole Miss beat Texas A&M, helping the Bulldogs win outright, instead of sharing the regular season crown with the Aggies. The headline shifted the focus away from the team winning a championship – undoubtedly the most newsworthy event. Even worse, that focus landed on the team’s in-state rival.
That didn’t sit well with Bulldog fans. They perceived it as more bias from a paper that was in the tank for the rival Rebels. Of course, Ole Miss fans believe the exact opposite, but that’s just how fans perceive media.
So, an avalanche of criticism fell upon the paper, which wound up apologizing and running a note from the editor explaining how the headline made it to print. How could someone at Mississippi’s largest newspaper not understand the nature of the state’s biggest sports rivalry?
Because the headline was written by Gannett staffers in Nashville. Yep. Read on to understand why shrinking newsrooms suck for local news coverage.
This guy flipped a water bottle and became Internet famous:
Even better? The observation he made a few days earlier:
The spelling bee is vicious. Children stand up in front of judges and the world to face a list of words specifically designed to be impossible. Then, when they get it wrong, they get the bell.
Perhaps it’s no surprise the Scripps National Spelling Bee Twitter account is similarly cold-blooded. They bell-rung this dude straight out of the Twittersphere.
Nothing intentional here on NBC’s behalf. Just a hazard of live shots in front of protests. Bad luck on a crowd pan. Expect more of this through the summer, as support for and protests against Trump and Clinton escalate.
Remember, these are the two most unfavorably viewed presidential nominees as far back as we can look.
Parks and Recreation
I visited San Francisco for the first time last summer. After the business portion of the trip, my tourist day began at Mission Dolores Park. It’s beautiful, and people-watching at its finest. This week, local media reported a city plan to charge patrons to reserve plots of grass.
In a city with the highest rent in the nation and a spiraling homeless crisis (prompting a media partnership to get something done), charging rent to sit at a park doesn’t send the best message. Not surprisingly, the program was scrapped one day after the news broke.