The Hulk Hogan verdict is very bad for journalism, even if the tape wasn’t ‘news’

Average citizen jurors (in Florida, no less) found the exploitation of Hulk Hogan — a flagrant-to-­incessant self­-exploiter — so distasteful they hammered the offender, Gawker, with a judgment larger than Hogan’s lawyers had asked for.

Considering everything else going on, the thought of the U.S. Supreme Court arguing a case involving Hulk Hogan seems strangely appropriate.

But the startling $140 million judgment(s) a Florida jury recently awarded the ex-­wrestler in what was defined as an “invasion of privacy” suit against the snarky (and popular) website Gawker — for posting a sex video of Hogan and a DJ’s wife — has serious people concerned about what this portends for journalism. (This being an age where everyone with a web address can be considered a publisher little different from The New York Times.)

Similar to the Hogan matter, a case here in Minnesota involving the reality TV show “The First 48” is also testing common definitions of journalism. For the show, the Minneapolis Police Department signed a contract giving producers access to work they are now being denied access to — on grounds the producers are journalists, protected by traditional shield laws.

Both cases prompt some basic questions, not the least of which are: What is journalism? And what do we mean by ‘newsworthy’? 

Soon after news of the first Hogan verdict broke last week, Jane Kirtley, director at the Silha Center for Media Ethics and Law at the U of M, filed ​a commentary for The Times’ “Room for Debate” blog​, saying, “Unlike in libel cases, which involve false statements that harm the reputation, plaintiffs who sue for invasion of privacy argue that the press should not be allowed to report truthful information about them without their consent. If their desire for privacy was the only consideration, public figures could suppress any embarrassing facts about themselves. But because the First Amendment requires balancing competing interests, juries must also decide whether the information is a matter of legitimate public concern – newsworthy, for short.”

In an e­mail, she amplified her thoughts, saying: “I [tried] to make the case that HH’s suit is dangerous because a victory could be extended to any famous person who wants to suppress unflattering material about himself. Make no mistake: Hogan did not suffer emotional distress. He did, however, recognize that his right to exploit the material personally was imperiled. It is all about control, as I see it. I am not defending Gawker’s editorial choices per se, though like it or not, they have a large audience for what they publish. I am, though, worried about the long-­term implications of this verdict for legitimate reporting on public figures. I would anticipate at least part of it will be overturned on appeal.” 

Kirtley’s colleague, Chris Ison, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for his work at the Star Tribune who now teaches at the U’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, echoed those thoughts: “I’m not a lawyer, of course, but it would seem that Jane is right that legally, the case could be bad for journalism if it stands,” Ison said. “Not because journalists should be interested in showing video of sexual activity. But I wonder if it could start defining what private facts about public people are newsworthy. Can we report on a political candidate having an affair? How much detail is OK to provide before it’s seen as an invasion of privacy? Is an extremely detailed description OK but not certain images? Gets pretty gray.

“To me, the clearer legal issue is whether you obtained the information legally. I want to be clear that, ethically, I would never support what Gawker did. Even if you think that an affair by Hulk Hogan, a very public figure, is newsworthy, the video, to me, is not. But millions of people seemed to think it was worth watching. Does that mean they found it newsworthy? Seems like a matter of opinion, and whether to broadcast it and view it was an ethical judgment, however misguided. Practically speaking, the big concern is that media that’s all about prurient interest or profit gets thrown into the same bucket as serious news media in the view of some of the public. That’s happening more, which discredits good journalism. But that’s about culture and ethics and opinion more than it’s about law, it seems to me.”

If not wiped out or reduced on appeal, the judgments against Gawker Media, which operates a handful of popular sites, (​Jezebel,​ Jalopnik​,​ Gizmodo​, etc.) have the potential to drive the company out of business, which only adds to the chill the case could cast over professional journalism. Not that, as Kirtley and Ison emphasize, a lot of professional journalists have much if anything good to say about how Gawker handled the story, or if the Hogan video can even be called a story.

Clearly, Gawker posted the video because it could. Its defense was that besides Hogan being a public figure, he has built a hefty slice of his persona on claiming to be some kind of super sex machine. (Adding to the overall squalor of the case, the woman involved was the wife of the notorious Tampa area shock jock, Bubba the Love Sponge. “Mr. Sponge,” as the Times might say, not only encouraged the tryst — one of several between Hogan and the missus, but filmed the episode and sat in a nearby room watching the action. Hogan of course claims he knew nothing about the camera.) 

It is an understatement to say the jury, which took only six hours to reach its verdict, was wholly unimpressed with Gawker’s defense. The takeaway being that average citizen jurors (in Florida, no less) found the exploitation of Hulk Hogan — a flagrant-to-­incessant self­-exploiter — so distasteful they hammered the offender, Gawker, with a judgment larger than Hogan’s lawyers had asked for.

Gawker Media’s founder and managing editor, Nick Denton, has responded to the judgment with a long post suggesting, among other things, that Hogan’s “true motivation” for filing suit was to scare Gawker away from posting recordings of him using racial epithets. Denton’s counterargument to the invasion-of-privacy claim is: “Celebrities, especially ones as public about their personal and sex life as Hulk Hogan, have a narrower zone of privacy than ordinary people. Regardless of questions about Gawker’s editorial standards and methods, self-promoters should not be allowed to seek attention around a specific topic and then claim privacy when the narrative takes an unwelcome turn. The benefits of publicity come at a price; and for someone like Hogan, whose whole life is a performance, it’s a full-time and long-term commitment.”

In a commentary at ​Bloomberg, Noah Feldman​, a Harvard professor of constitutional law, wrote: “It would be great if all First Amendment defendants were ​publishing ‘Ulysses.’ But in reality, free speech and free press rights are especially vulnerable when the defendant’s speech is nasty. So it’s time to crank up the constitutional engine and explain why the verdict against Gawker not only should be struck down on appeal, but why the issue shouldn’t have gone to a jury in the first place. The bottom line is simple: Hogan is a public figure who discusses his sexual prowess on Howard Stern’s radio show and more or less pre-­promoted the sex tape by ​talking​ about it on the gossip site TMZ. Gawker’s constitutional right to publish content the public wants to consume outweighs what little privacy interests a public figure like Hogan may derive from state law. Even a film clip counts as content under the First Amendment.”

Kirtley concurs. When I asked Ison and her if they could imagine the language a court or some legislation would have to use to separate journalism that is essentially prurience-­for-­profit from traditional reporting, she replied, “No court or legislation constitutionally could do that. The First Amendment does not exist to protect a ‘responsible’ press. As you know, I am in Europe this semester. They love drawing such distinctions. The First Amendment is not conditional in that way. Thank God and James Madison.” 

The “First 48” case here in Minneapolis isn’t about an invasion of privacy. But it, too, involves a questionable assertion of “journalism.” (Here’s ​Andy Mannix’s coverage of the flap for the Strib.)

As with Gawker’s motivations for running the Hogan video, Kirkstall Road Enterprises, the company producing the show for the A&E channel, would seem to have profits — not informing the public — as its priority. 

Ison though, advises a fuller consideration. “The issue with ‘The First 48’ show is an easier case to judge. Given that it’s a so-­called ‘true crime’ show, it would seem to be a form of journalism. The case is real, the footage is presumably all legitimate, as far as I know. I don’t follow the show, and obviously, these kinds of shows can sometimes get a bit fast and loose by adding drama, music, questionable narration and the like. But it seems to me that there’s enough journalism in a show like that, with information that’s of interest to the public, that privileges like shield laws legitimately apply. 

“This is getting to be a huge issue, of course. It’s getting very hard to define journalism these days. So much of what we see in various forms of media stretches the boundaries. And it’s hard to see how some of these kinds of shows can be compared to what we are used to seeing in mainstream news media. Then again, 30 years ago, who’d have considered TMZ legitimate news media? But it breaks stories all the time that traditional media follow. Along with junk. Kind of like the National Enquirer breaking the John Edwards affair. Sometimes journalism comes from strange places that you might not respect, but it’s still journalism.”

Says Kirtley, “I am always unhappy when media organizations cut deals with the authorities in exchange for access. Inevitably it is a Faustian bargain because independence (that is, who controls editorial decisions) can be compromised. I believe journalists’ shield laws should be interpreted broadly to include anyone who is doing ‘journalism’ that is, gathering information for dissemination to the public. But here in the U.S., at least, that has meant doing so independently. I don’t know the details in this instance, but I note that there have been cases where journalists have been seen to be so intertwined with the cops that they have been deemed to be ‘state actors.’ ”

With discussions of the Hogan case making comparisons to the surreptitious videotaping of sportscaster Erin Andrews (a public figure) and the hacking/distribution of nude photos of actress Jennifer Lawrence (ditto), there is a sense that, at the very least, the definition of “newsworthiness” needs a fresh interpretation in an era when a nearly limitless supply of purely prurient material is available for publishing, with constitutional protection, to a sub­group of consumers happy to regard it as “news.”

As for the Minneapolis cops who signed a contract to be videotaped, I’m not a lawyer, but I’m a little surprised they didn’t negotiate in a clause giving them full access to whatever Kirkstall shot. “It’s possible that ‘The First 48’ wouldn’t negotiate a deal that allowed MPD to have the video,” says Ison. “It would be like a newspaper reporter sending a draft of a story to a source before publication. The program apparently came close to doing that by agreeing to show the department a ‘near final’ episode, but that’s at least a little better than giving them a copy.” 

“I, too, am surprised that the cops didn’t do a deal” to give them access, said Kirtley. 

Maybe next time.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 03/24/2016 - 08:20 am.

    Ruin it for everyone

    What happened with Hogan and Gawker is a case of someone (Gawker) doing stupid things resulting in ruining it for everyone. It’s not just a matter of ethics. If Hogan was unaware that video was being made in a private location doing a legal thing, then no one has a right to the video, no matter how many people want to watch it. Gawker screwed up, and it’s possible that other “journalists” will also have to pay for it. However, I doubt it. It’s hard to apply what happened in that case to a ton of other situations. Hogan’s not an elected official, the act was not illegal, he was not informed of the video, etc. If any one of those variables is different, then the decision could very well be different. That being said, I would be careful throwing around the word “journalist” like that, or at some point “journalist” and “profitable voyeur” might mean the same thing.

  2. Submitted by Jimmy James on 03/24/2016 - 09:20 am.


    “Make no mistake: Hogan did not suffer emotional distress. He did, however, recognize that his right to exploit the material personally was imperiled.”

    This person is the director of media ethics?

  3. Submitted by Jim Boulay on 03/24/2016 - 12:04 pm.

    Gawker will win on appeal!

    The first amendment is stronger than this! There’s no way this will hold up! The average wrongful death jury award is around $960,000 yet this jury said Hulk deserved $150 million just for his privacy being violated?

    The Gawker article about the verdict raises many interesting points, including an FBI investigation into extortion by the party with the tapes. Gawker claims that it was the racist rant that Hulk made that he was really trying to cover up. After the racist rant became public the WWE wiped any mention of him completely from their website, hall of fame and any mention of his name on their shows. I actually like the Hulkster but somone of his celebrity shouldn’t be sleeping with his best friend’s wife! Even if the guy is OK with it! And Hulk knew Bubba had the cameras. He admits it in the FBI interviews. They weren’t hidden! And it is NEVER kosher to rant and use the N word against ANYONE!

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/24/2016 - 12:42 pm.

    Get a grip

    Every time one of these rulings against “journalism” is issued we see these slippery slope alarms… today Hulk’s sex tapes… tomorrow we won’t be able to report on Church sex abuse!

    To begin with let’s recognize that journalist are the only people in the country that don’t have to qualify for the “shield” laws they enjoy by applying for or obtaining any kind of credentials or permission such as a license or permit. Any putz with keyboard can be a journalist and no journalist is accountable in any meaningful way to any professional body or licensing board. Depending on the employer a journalist may not even be minimally accountable or subject to any kind of discipline whatsoever. This is why journalist end up in court… there’s no one else to complain to.

    The journalism profession always undermines it respect and self respect when proffers absurd arguments like one that proposes that “public” has interest in whether or not Hulk Hogan is the sex machine he claims to be. The notion that public figures forfeit all privacy is likewise a fatuous and self serving proposition that simply commodifies EVERYTHING so that “news” outlets can use it to make money. Or did you think Gawker is just in this for the mere satisfaction of knowing that they’ve unmasked Hogen’s claims of sexual prowess? Do you imagine all these news organizations that are wringing their hands over the “principle” of freedom of speech are non-profit’s just trying to get by? Please, get a grip.

    Somebody somewhere has to recognize that American’s have a right to privacy and journalist are not entitled to reveal anything they can get their hands on. Obviously journalist themselves cannot be trusted to make these judgments, and since there’s no one else capable of issuing such rulings we’re stuck with the courts.

  5. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 03/24/2016 - 04:43 pm.

    I remember the days when a woman who was raped couldn’t present a court case if she hadn’t been a virgin before the rape.

    Same with the Hulk here: because he’s a vulgar blowhard who vaunts his sexual prowess, he can’t sue someone for publishing a video of one of his private sexual encounters?

    I read all these pained and eloquent journalism-professor protests about freedom of speech and the free press, and I have to side with the jury: this was a pornographic video of a private act, filmed secretly and published–for no newsworthy purpose–by a scumbag “news” outlet. “Gawker,” indeed.

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