For most of his life, Alex Pareene gave little thought to Hulk Hogan’s penis. Pareene grew up in south Minneapolis, studied at New York University, and, before he was even drinking age, entered the swirl of Manhattan media. By 2015, at age 30, he was the editor-in-chief of Gawker, the news and gossip website known for its acerbic takedowns of political and cultural personalities.
“It was a dream opportunity, a job I’d always wanted,” Pareene says. He wasn’t worried that Hogan was suing Gawker for publishing a few seconds of a video showing him having sex with the wife of his friend Bubba the Love Sponge. Hogan, after all, is a public figure who has frequently bragged about his sexual prowess. His friend legally changed his name to a contraceptive. This is America.
Then, last March, a Florida jury sided with Hogan, awarding him $140 million in damages. Pareene and his coworkers tried to stay calm. “We kept thinking, well, you know, something will happen to save us in the end,” he says. “We had originally thought that even if we lost the Hogan case, we could raise money for the judgment. Then it was, well, maybe we could win on appeal. And then eventually it was clear we would be bankrupt.”
Univision bought the company at a bankruptcy auction last summer and kept Gawker’s affiliated websites alive, including Deadspin, Jezebel, and Gizmodo. But Gawker itself was finished. Pareene moved to Deadspin, a wry website about sports, where he now edits and occasionally writes political and cultural commentary. But developments in the Hogan case left him embittered.
Several months after the jury decision, Forbes revealed that Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, had secretly given $10 million to support Hogan’s lawsuits against Gawker. Whatever remorse Gawker staffers may have felt about their publication’s history of unsparing revelations quickly turned to anger toward Thiel, who had been outed by Gawker years before in a story headlined “Peter Thiel is Totally Gay, People.”
“I think there was a sense that we were paying for our sins at first, but the Peter Thiel thing threw that out the window,” Pareene says. “Suddenly our downfall wasn’t that we had flown too close to the sun but that we had pissed off this rich guy.”
Thiel had campaigned for Donald Trump, who floated the idea of loosening libel laws, among other attacks on the media. When Trump won in November, many commentators speculated that it would be open season on the press. For Pareene and his former Gawker colleagues, that battle is a foregone conclusion.
“Economic factors are already making an independent press a dicey proposition,” Pareene says. “But the incoming administration and the idea that a billionaire with endless resources can put a publication out of business is scary. It doesn’t give me a lot of hope for the future of an adversarial, independent press.”
From ‘Buck Hill’ to Brooklyn
Pareene’s writing first drew attention in the mid-2000s, when he began a blog called Buck Hill, named for the modest ski slope in Burnsville. He was at NYU then, and not much of a skier. In fact, the blog title was more inspired by the Replacements’ song “Buck Hill,” a surf-style send-up with no lyrics other than shouts of “Buck Hill!”
“I was maybe at Buck Hill a few times,” Pareene says. “But I always thought it was funny that this unimpressive hill was the only skiing option for everyone there at the time.”
Pareene’s blog, in Gawkerian style, skewered newsmakers: a city councilman proposing to make New York nightlife safer (“Oh Christ. … Can’t we just ban grad students?”), a Minnesota legislator proposing to fine welfare recipients for smoking (“If you hate the poor this much, wouldn’t you want them to smoke themselves to an early grave?”).
Pareene had grown up near Lake Nokomis with liberal parents and an admiration for Paul Wellstone — “a model for what politics should be,” he says. “Growing up in Minnesota, especially in Minneapolis, you get a solid grounding in old-fashioned liberalism, not the limousine variety but the wholesome Scandinavian variety. It was a community of really dedicated liberal activists, and I knew a lot of them in high school.”
At South High School, he became a theater kid, wrote for the school newspaper, and interned at the erstwhile alt-weekly The Pulse. His journalistic ideas tended toward fly-on-the-wall observations. “I had this crazy idea one summer that I wanted to be a bellboy,” he says. “I thought it’d be fun to write about. So I asked all the best hotels in Minneapolis to hire me. None of them wanted to.”
He went to NYU to study playwriting, but he dropped out after an unexpected job offer. He had cold-emailed the editor of Gawker, who looked at Buck Hill, saw a kindred soul, and hired him.
He was soon named the co-editor of Wonkette, Gawker’s political gossip site, in 2006. He was 20. He didn’t know anyone of consequence on the entire Eastern Seaboard.
“When I came here, Gawker was a thing you read to make it sound like you were a hip New Yorker,” he says. “I’m fresh off the boat from Minneapolis, and I read it like I cared what happened in the Condé Nast cafeteria. I was really making it up, trying to sound like I knew what I was talking about.”
After a few years, he moved to Salon, where his pointed take on politics earned him a following. (In a memorable appearance on CNBC, he remarked on Chase CEO Jamie Dimon’s ability to hang onto his job: “If you managed a restaurant, and it got the biggest health department fine in the history of restaurants, no one would say, ‘Yeah, but the restaurant’s making a lot of money. There’s only a little bit of poison in the food.’”)
When Pareene returned to Gawker as its editor, he jokingly promised to make it “20 percent nicer.” In New York media circles, Gawker had always been the scrappy outsider. Pareene, after all, is a college dropout from Minnesota. “I like to think my background gives me a bit more perspective than some of my colleagues in the industry who were born and raised on the East Coast,” he says. “I didn’t go to a boarding school, or a prep school, I didn’t know anyone in New York. In my case, meritocracy actually worked.”
But the Hogan trial was an early sign that such distinctions were lost on much of America, that the chasm between urbanites and everyone else was real. Gawker may have been anti-establishment in New York, but to the Florida jury, Pareene says, it was “part of the indiscernible elite.” It may as well have been owned by the Clintons.
‘A total joke in political circles’
Over the years, Pareene has called Donald Trump a “fictional television clown tycoon,” “a living freak show,” and “a weird attention-hungry idiot.” But it was during the 2012 Republican National Convention that he really got under Trump’s skin.
Trump had alluded to a “very, very major” surprise at the convention that would be “unique and interesting,” and Pareene predicted that the surprise was “just going to be some idiotic video where Trump ‘fires’ a [President Obama] impersonator.”
He was right. Trump responded by calling Pareene “a lightweight reporter” and “a total joke in political circles.”
Now, of course, Trump is the president, and poking fun at him is no longer mere sport. A few days before Trump’s inauguration, Pareene became a father, a development that made a Trump administration all the more concerning to Pareene, even as it excused him from obsessing over it. He had even been thinking more about Minnesota. Perhaps he and his new family could spend summers here.
But the break didn’t last long. Before a week was up, he was back to tweeting about politics: “My wise five-day-old son just said ‘hoping our institutions save us from authoritarianism is dangerously naïve’ (I have not slept in 5 days).” As Pareene rebuilds his platform in the wake of Gawker, he doesn’t want to take it for granted; he knows how quickly it can be lost. “I’ll be writing a lot about Trump and the media,” he says. “It’s a necessity in the incredibly bizarre world we live in now.”
Minnesota at Large is an occasional series featuring Minnesotans making an impact outside the state.