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May 27 2016
Attention Gawkers: Nick Denton Challenges Peter Thiel To A Debate We Should Already Be Having, Plus: Why I'm Not Against Outing Comments (0)

UPDATE: Pierre Omidyar, eBay founder, is backing Gawker in its appeal of the Hulk Hogan case.

Gawker CEO Nick Denton has challenged deranged billionaire Peter Thiel to a debate outside the courtroom, following the revelation that it was Thiel—long angry over Gawker's treatment of him—who has funded Hulk Hogan's so-far successful lawsuit against the site for publishing a portion of Hogan's sex tape.

Gawker insisted publication of a portion of the video was newsworthy, Hogan claimed it was a violation of privacy—and a trial ended with a ridiculous judgment: over $100 million for his embarrassment.

The case is interesting to me in that it goes to the limits of free press and free speech, and became much more interesting once Thiel's tyrannical touch was exposed. Do we really think it's okay that rich people should have the ability to squelch negative or unwelcome press? Are we becoming press-release junkies?

I tweeted about it and was alarmed to discover a highly regarded activist whose opinion is that Gawker could avoid being sued out of existence if they wouldn't out people. (Thiel was said to have been initially enraged by Gawker in 2007 when the site wrote about him being gay. It's worth noting that Thiel, an early Facebook investor who is still on its board, is a right-winger who has endorsed Trump, wants to create a Libertarian paradise, offers cash to kids who agree to drop out of school and various other charming things.)

This activist was shrugging off the battle between Denton and Thiel over her lack of support for outing, which implies that she believes people who publish information about public figures' sexual orientations should be vulnerable to lawsuits. I challenged her on this, but there was no budging; chillingly, she wrote (emphasis mine):

I don't believe there is any good in outing someone against their will. Especially people who can't impact policy

I actually don't think reports on celebrity marriages, divorces etc are news relevant to the wider public either.

I have actually talked about the problem with the idea that everyone that speaks in public deserves no privacy before today.

I'm sure a lot of people reading this would agree with some or even all of those statements, but consider what is being said by this writer and by those who continue to shrug off Thiel's thin-skinned meddling with the media, because this is how I wound up viewing the case through the lens of whether or not outing should be legal and acceptable in the press.

First, the argument is that in order to write something, it has to be for the greater “good.” That is Big Brother speak. That goes for the idea that everything written must be “relevant.” Who decides if it's relevant? I care about a lot of deep shit, but I'm also curious to know what Joe Manganiello does in bed, in case that information becomes the subject of an article or idle gossip. Should gossip itself be considered irrelevant and banned?

Second, the exception that it is okay to write something about a person who can, arguably, affect policy and not okay to write the same thing about someone who, arguably, can not is not stably moored in ethics; it's impossible for it to be defensible in each and every case since the person doing the writing will have different opinions and different degrees of passion about the policy in question. Are we talking about people impacting gay rights to any extent? Only people who are in positions of political power? If the latter, does a school board count, or does it have to be a state's senate? Only Congress? Every individual citizen actually has theoretical and often demonstrable power to affect policy, whether via voting or not voting, or via the telling of one's personal story in the media. Kim Davis had no power one day, and tremendous power the next.

The media has similar power, and if the media knows a public figure is gay and deliberately decides not to report on any related aspect of that because the figure is not formally out, then the media itself just played a role in impacting policy. Reporting it impacts policy in another way.

Third, I agree totally that our society has a callous and compartmentalized view of celebrities. I've heard people verbalize the sentiment, “You asked to be famous, now don't complain when people take your picture and bug you in restaurants and report on your sex life.” This statement is twisted because it's really, “You asked to be famous, now don't complain when heartless monsters like me take full advantage of you.” I do believe there are limits, but my argument for why sexual orientation should not be a verboten topic is—more so than the probability that outing everyone would lead to greater acceptance overall, which is one of those greater-good arguments—that it is not a piece of information an adult should reasonably expect to be seen as inherently private.

To expand on that (as I have many times in the past), I do not see the reporting of sexual orientation as being as irrelevant as, say, eye color. It's also not comparable to gender, since that is—more than 95% of the time, I would guess—visually identifiable, like whether a person is black or white (and again, there are people whose race is not immediately discernible, but they're not the majority). A public figure's sexual orientation does mean something, and reporting on it does take more than using your eyes, but the sexual orientation of a public figure is often discernible from outward clues that people around them, including the media, have access to—presence of a likely partner or partners, political statements, demeanor, and, yes, rumors. Gossip.

Personal matters of celebrities are already widely discussed in the media and amongst ourselves—who they date, break up with, marry, fight with, dislike, love, give birth to. Some of that info is provided, some of it is dug up and reported. If all of these personal things are not private, why is sexual orientation? My issue with people who reflexively reject outing is that they're creating gayness as a protected class in the public sphere (barring its importance in any legal cases), and saying that revealing such a personal thing could be damaging to the public figure and is none of our business. All of us, every one, already willingly consumes countless bits of information about public figures that are none of our business, and much of it is information that—if they had their druthers—public figures would rather we did not have access to.

So why is no one ranting about how wrong it is to report who Justin Bieber could be dating?

Granted, even with all the exposure that gayness has in the media today, many young people are still coming up with deep discomfort with their sexuality and/or their overall sexual orientation. Who knew Colton Haynes was staying in the closet, professionally/publicly, because of anxiety issues? Aggressively outing some people could lead to psychological damage, but so could reporting the intimate details of someone's divorce or the loss of a family member or their latest arrest. So could posting images of a public figure in a drunken stupor. But the media does report all of those other things, and I believe that as embarrassing as those things can be (and detrimental to a person's career and image), gayness—because  it is especially protected—becomes framed as even more potentially debilitating, as a negative. So instead of encouraging GOTCHA stories, recall how luridly the Chad Allen outing went in Globe, what I'm suggesting is that the media should report on sexual orientation in a matter-of-fact way. If the media did that, there would be no appetite for HERE ARE THE PHOTOS CHAD ALLEN PRAYED YOU'D NEVER SEE... Instead, the appetite would be for OMG, WHO'S THAT GUY IN THE HOT TUB WITH CHAD ALLEN?

There is a huge difference between those two approaches, as far as how his gayness is framed.

The effect of deciding that gayness is too private to report, too low of a blow, is similar to how people used to say they were against their offspring marrying someone of another race because other people just wouldn't accept it. It's passive concern-trolling, and it unintentionally helps to prolong the idea that gayness should be kept a dirty secret. Until someone comes out, then the same people often immediately say, “Ugh, I'll be happy when being gay isn't a news story.”

Sexual orientation is something every single one of us ponders about most of the people we meet, and the exposure public figures have only makes our curiosity about them greater. It's absurd to expect people not to be curious. I believe it's unconstitutional to legally restrict the media's ability to speculate on sexual orientation, thus capitalizing on the widespread curiosity. Most relevant of all, it is inadvertently anti-gay to frown on the media for reporting the sexual orientation of a public figure, and/or for reporting on issues that would lead to questions about their sexual orientation. (Most mainstream entertainment sites wouldn't publish photos of major stars taken in public with their partners if the stars were not out of the closet until the past few years.)

If you're one of those people who has said you wish being gay was not newsworthy, the only way to get to that day is to let it be the news story that it currently still is.