Gawker, the legendary blog that is shutting down today after nearly 14 years, was better known for covering New York’s power elite than for posts about Israel and Palestine. But the site, now stupidly destroyed by the undercover machinations of Peter Thiel–the sociopathic tech billionnaire who poses as a guardian of privacy while he heads nightmare surveillance monster Palantir–published some memorable, even brave, items about the Middle East.
Gawker started as an irreverent gossip site focused on media and NYC microcelebrities, but evolved into a national news site after a pivot by owner Nick Denton in 2008. In the Facebook era, it grew into a reliable news channel for a large millennial audience that often avoids traditional news channels. Especially in recent years, Gawker used that position to keep that audience informed about world events.
During the deadly Gaza summer of 2014, many Palestine activists followed the destruction in real time, on Twitter. Probably not too many of the young readers who get their news by following Gawker in their Facebook feeds had a similar media diet. Gawker items, like one on sister site Sploid by Jesus Diaz showing before-and-after pictures of the devastated Gaza neighborhoods like Beit Hanun, made sure those readers knew what was happening. Under a series of UN satellite images, Diaz reposted lengthy open letters from David Byrne’s blog, including a plea from Brian Eno to stop the massacre, and finished with a moving video from Save The Children.
The same day, Aug. 5, 2014, Gawker’s futurism site io9 ran an item on an Israeli scientist’s use of data visualization to show the non-overlapping information worlds of Israel and Palestine supporters on social media. A few weeks earlier, Gawker Media’s auto site Jalopnik discussed using data analysis to untangle claims about civilian casualties.
Gawker ran Gaza stories nearly daily that summer. Often they were simple aggregation, news rewrites that told readers about Israel’s ground invasion and withdrawal, Kerry’s attempts at a cease-fire, Israel’s destruction of an apartment tower in the hours before the cease-fire took effect. A July 30 item by Allie Jones called out the US for avoiding blaming Israel while condemning an attack on a Gaza school used as a UN shelter.
Not all Gawker’s posts from that summer would please those of us who advocate for Palestine. But even items that flawed by false equivalence that poorly fit the one-sided IDF slaughter made sure Gaza’s suffering was not erased. Coverage itself is a statement–if you don’t believe me, see what stories you can find in mainstream outlets right now about Israel’s 50-plus F35 strikes on Gaza last night.
And since Gawker was never an activist site, it had more power to break through the bubble portrayed in that io9 data-viz story–for example, when an Adam Weinstein post drew immediate attention to NBC’s decision to withdraw Ayman Mohyeldin from Gaza immediately after witnessing Israel’s gruesome execution by airstrike of four preteen boys with whom he’d just been kicking a soccer ball on a beach. Gawker was still closely watched by media professionals even after it deemphasized insider gossip, and the high-profile signal boost for Glenn Greenwald’s story on The Intercept made it harder for NBC to silence its well-sourced reporter.
One of Gawker’s best pieces on Gaza, by John Cook, now Gawker Media’s executive editor, came a year and a half earlier, during Israel’s 2012 relatively brief “Operation Pillar Of Cloud” that killed 167 Palestinians. Among them were 10 members of the al-Dalu family and two of their neighbors on Nov. 18–news I heard about within minutes. It was the first conflict many of us followed over social media.
A few days later, Cook posted an essay–“This Is Not A Human Shield“–that should be memorized by anyone who ever has to rebut pro-Israeli justifications for slaughtering civilians:
By launching rockets from densely populated civilian areas, we are told, Hamas is guilty of using “human shields.” It is deliberately conducting military operations near civilians in order to deter Israel from responding, for fear of killing civilians. There is one problem with this formulation: Israel has not been deterred. The humans are not shielding Hamas. The Israeli Defense Forces are killing them. They’re not “human shields.” They’re just dead.
Yes, I can find problems with the essay, easier to spot after 2014. Cook calls out “Hamas’ utter lack of moral and legal precepts with respect to civilian casualties,” an indictment which soldier testimony from 2014 shows applies far more accurately to Israel. He gives IDF credit for taking “steps that it views as mitigating civilian casualties, for instance by dropping leaflets warning of imminent strikes,” but that was before the 2014 operation showed the world just how performative Israel’s often-useless warnings to civilians really were.
Still, the moral clarity and bravery of the posting by Cook–recently revealed as the target of an antisemitism smear attempt by ex-Fox News chief and serial predator Roger Ailes–shines through. “You don’t get to call them shields after you’ve decided to kill them.”
In its characteristic style Gawker mocked Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton’s ridiculous attempt to upend the Iran deal, and called Andrew Cuomo’s thought-crime blacklist of BDS supporters what it is: a blacklist. Ashley Feinberg caught Israel’s ambassador copping to apartheid and reported on Israel’s banning of a book that would undermine its segregated system. Thanks to Feinberg, Gawker’s readers were made aware when a NJ high-schooler was sent to her principal’s office for criticising Israel on Twitter. These items were all the more powerful for appearing mixed in with the celeb news and guides to millennial dating.
Gawker changed my own life in ways I won’t go into here, introducing me to lifelong friends and current business associates. (I wrote some election coverage posts for them in 2008, including one you should read because it foretold why fact-checking doesn’t damage Trump.) Even more, it transformed the narrative voice of digital media. And no matter what you think of Gawker, it’s appalling that a news organization can be literally terminated by a 10+-year stealth campaign by a tech-fascist like Thiel, an over-the-top lunatic who thinks the blood of millennials will achieve his goal of eternal life.
Even in its vampire-weakened state, Gawker Media will employ 95% of its current staff, according to guarantees by new owner Univision, and all of the sites other than flagship Gawker.com will continue to publish. Most of the Gawker.com writers are being transferred to sports-plus site Deadspin.
But Gawker’s audience of 15 million will be dispersed. And how likely is it that Deadspin will have the same mandate to cover breaking news (like Israel’s next assault on Gaza), particularly since Univision is owned by Haim Saban, who has been quoted saying “I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel”? (Never what any good journalist wants to hear about their new owner.)
Thiel’s successful bid to shut Gawker is also scary since it can’t have escaped the notice of Israel, who loves using foreign countries’ legal and political system to deprive locals of their free-speech rights to criticize or boycott Israel–preferably in ways that, like Thiel, don’t leave fingerprints.