National Press Club

Reporters lament ‘Gawker effect’ on investigative journalism

October 22, 2017 | By Chris Teale |

After the multi-million-dollar lawsuit that forced news website Gawker to close last year, many reporters and news organizations worry about whether they will be sued as they pursue investigative pieces, a panel of experts said Thursday at the National Press Club.

Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post, Gawker founding editor Elizabeth Spiers and filmmaker Brian Knappenberger spoke after a screening of Knappenberger’s documentary film, “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press.”

The Netflix documentary details the libel lawsuit brought against Gawker by former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan and bankrolled by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel. The resulting judgment eventually bankrupted the company and forced it to close.

The movie also explores gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson’s purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and President Donald Trump’s attacks on the press both before and after he took office in January.

Since those events, Spiers said, she has come across journalists concerned about indemnification clauses, which protect individual journalists from being sued and gives them company protection.

Sullivan pointed to more recent stories, such as the sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein or the accusations that rapper R. Kelly holds young singers in an alleged “sex cult.” On both stories, multiple outlets had been offered finished articles by reporters, only to get cold feet and worry about the legal ramifications.

“It’s unfortunate that you have to be huge and have the very best lawyers to do the best kind of hard-hitting journalism,” Sullivan said.

Knappenberger said when he was shooting and reporting the movie, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, he ran into significant opposition to his project, including from those who wanted it to be shelved altogether.

“That chilling effect is very real,” Knappenberger said.

Sullivan said with Trump's labeling of critical coverage as “fake news,” threats to weaken laws that protect journalists and penchant for rallying his supporters to disdain journalists, reporters have to be better advocates for themselves.

While his threats have so far been empty, such as vowing to take away NBC’s broadcast license, the rhetoric can “undermine the way people think about the independent press,” she said. “That, I think, is just as dangerous.”

Journalists must stand up for their work.

“We have tended to say ‘Well, you know, we’ll just do good work and that’ll be enough,’” Sullivan added. “Well, maybe it’s not enough.”