WGA East-represented writers and editors at Gawker Media are accusing their new corporate owners at Univision of abandoning the principles of good journalism by deleting six stories from its archives that are the subject of defamation lawsuits.
Univision bought the digital media company last month for $135 million after Gawker declared bankruptcy when a jury awarded Hulk Hogan $140 million in an invasion of privacy suit that had been underwritten by right-wing billionaire Peter Theil, who Gawker had outed as being “totally gay” back in 2007.
At the time, many on the staff were happy that someone had bought the distressed company, even though its flagship Gawker site was shuttered. “We could not have picked an acquirer more devoted to vibrant journalism,” Gawker founder Nick Denton said of the Univision acquisition.
Gawker Media’s WGA-represented bargaining unit isn’t so sure about that now, however. On Friday, UniModa, the Univision entity that acquired Gawker’s assets, removed six archived posts – all of which were the targets of defamation suits – that had appeared on Gawker Media-owned sites Deadspin, Jezebel and Gizmodo. In place of each post is a now a note that tells readers: “This story is no longer available as it is the subject of pending litigation against the prior owners of this site.”
Two of the deleted posts were about a guy who claimed to have invented the Internet; two more were about former Major League Baseball pitcher Mitch Williams; one was about conservative writer Chuck Johnson; and the other was about a lawyer who was acquitted of rape.
In a statement, Univision said: “Following our acquisition of assets from Gawker Media, we have decided to take down select articles that are the subject of pending litigation against the prior owners. At this time of transition, the decision was based on a desire to have a clean slate as we look to support and grow the editorial missions of the acquired brands.”
In a memo to his staff, Gawker executive editor John Cook noted that Univision interim CEO Felipe Holguin and general counsel Jay Grant had proposed deleting the posts “because they are currently the subject of active litigation against Gawker Media, and that UniModa had been authorized only to purchase the assets, and not the liabilities, of the company.”
Under the terms of the WGA East’s contract with Gawker Media, which was ratified by the staff in March, language was added to “safeguard editorial independence” by requiring that removing stories from the site needs “a majority vote of the CEO, the executive editor and the general counsel.”
That rule was followed in the present case, with the CEO and general counsel voting to remove the posts, and the executive editor reportedly voting against it. Even so, that didn’t stop the WGA-represented staff from expressing their displeasure.
“We condemn this action by Univision’s executives in the strongest possible terms,” they said in a statement. “It sets an alarming precedent both for our relationship with our new owners and for the business of journalism as a whole. It is unacceptable for a publisher to delete legitimate and true news stories for business reasons.”
The statement added: “Univision has said that it bought Gawker Media because it believed in the work that our publications do. That work, for well over a decade, was only possible because we knew that our company leadership would defend it if it came under frivolous legal attack.”
But Univision’s “first act on acquiring the company,” they said, “was to delete six true and accurate news stories from our archive, because those stories had been the targets of frivolous or malicious lawsuits. This decision undermines the foundation of the ability of Gawker Media’s employees to do our work. We have seen firsthand the damage that a targeted lawsuit campaign can do to companies and individual journalists, and the removal of these posts can only encourage such attempts in the future.”
The staffers said they “now face the task of trying to rebuild trust with Univision and find a resolution that will allow us all to once again do the work that we were all hired to do without fearing that our parent company might fail to support us when we need it most.”
Tn a separate statement, the guild said that “though UniModa has offered assurances that it is committed to robust, fearless journalism, this move seems to belie that claim. We hope to continue the productive relationship we established with management at Gawker Media, but the decision to remove these posts casts a significant pall over UniModa’s claimed commitment to the core values of our members employed by UniModa.”