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On Tuesday, nine Floridians met Gawker publisher Nick Denton, the latest individual to take the witness stand in Hulk Hogan’s $100 million invasion-of-privacy trial over the posting of a sex tape.
As millions throughout the state headed to the polls on primary day, many registering their preference for a presidential candidate who has promised to change libel laws, the loquacious Denton had the opportunity to introduce to the jury (six members, plus three alternates) his publishing endeavors, his much-discussed philosophies on digital media, and his thoughts on the controversial post about Hulk Hogan that has culminated in the ongoing trial proceedings. Denton, a British entrepreneur who once wrote for the Financial Times, told the jury that “the public’s right to know usually trumps a celebrity’s privacy.”
On direct examination by Gawker attorney Mike Sullivan, Denton discussed other stories that made a mark for the company around the time in late 2012 — a Gizmodo scoop about a new iPhone 4, a Deadspin feature about a hoax on football player Manti Te’o, Gawker’s coverage about the drug use of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford — and said the Hogan story in October of that year didn’t bring significant money to the company because there was no advertising for that story and the traffic spike didn’t lead to sustained new readership.
Denton said he didn’t personally play a role in publication of the sex tape, never saw a video excerpt before it ran, but gave perhaps the most full-throated defense of the Hogan story to date in the trial.
“With the benefit of hindsight, I believe it stands the test of time,” said Denton. “Judging it as a reader and as a former working journalist, [editor and writer A.J. Daulerio] clarified the situation and added new information about the participants of that evening. He made a contrast between an American icon and the man behind the icon. And he made a self-critical point about the public’s obsession with celebrity sex tapes and his own interest.”
Denton added he was comfortable with publishing a video excerpt. “There were passages that made me uncomfortable,” he said. “But as a whole, it was newsworthy, interesting and advanced our understanding.”
Sullivan asked why Gawker had to publish an excerpt of video itself and why that was important.
“The Internet is a hybrid of television and print,” responded Denton. “And in order to communicate to a younger audience, they expect there will be accompanying illustration, proof of what the writer is saying. … People say that a picture is worth a million words. If you are trying to communicate to a modern audience, pictures are essential.”
Denton gave the example that people most remember the end of Eastern European communism by images of the fall of the Berlin Wall. He also said that in this digital era, it’s difficult to maintain privacy, and that it’s important for editors and writers to sift through the noise to figure out what’s true. Denton tried to use the Bill Cosby scandal as an example, but Hogan’s attorneys interjected with an objection over relevance, and the judge wouldn’t allow that line of questioning.
“If the [Hogan] story hadn’t worked out, if it had proven to be false, which it didn’t, then I would have taken action,” said Denton.
Hogan attorney Ken Turkel brought an angry cross-examination that focused on Denton’s standard for news (if it’s true and interesting, it runs). At times, Turkel attempted to ridicule Denton. For example, concerning the Gizmodo iPhone story, Turkel pointed out that Denton had paid $5,000 for a prototype that had gone missing from Apple.
“At the end of the day, what you call a scoop was a story about stolen property, right?” Turkel asked.
“You can see it that way if you want,” Denton responded.
“Let’s talk, for a lack of a better word, your philosophy on privacy,” said Turkel, bringing up a 2013 interview published here (“Gawker’s Nick Denton Explains Why Invasion of Privacy Is Positive for Society“) as well as another interview with Playboy where Denton addressed privacy by stating, “I don’t think people give a fuck, actually” and “Every infringement of privacy is sort of liberating.”
Denton told the jury that he was embarrassed he had used the F-word, but hardly backed down from his perspective. “I think being our true selves, being open to our colleagues and friends and family, my personal view is that we are happier as a result,” he said. “I appreciate that not everyone shares my view.”
The gap between a person’s public persona and his or her private behavior is indeed interesting, added Denton, which caused Turkel to seize on this as an attempted justification of the Hogan sex tape post. Denton parried the aggressive questioning. “It was our way to show a highly unusual encounter,” he said.
Turkel asked Denton whether he would be embarrassed if his sex life became fodder for a news story, and the Gawker publisher admitted yes but was hardly giving an inch. Denton said his own sex life would probably be relevant given the stories that had run on his own news site.
In the most awkward part of testimony, Denton was asked to read salacious passages from Gawker’s Hogan story in the “most humanizing way possible.” And so, with a British accent, as gently as Denton could muster, the jury heard a play-by-play of Hogan having sex, lines like: “Then we watch Hulk stand up and clumsily attempt to roll a condom on to his erect penis which, even if it has been ravaged by steroids and middle-age, still appears to be the size of a thermos you’d find in a child’s lunchbox.”
Turkel wanted to entrap Denton by getting him to express some remorse, but Denton resisted the invitation to show any fallibility in publishing the sex tape.
“I think that a job as a journalist would be unbearable if one were to put on the shoes of the subject,” said Denton.
“Had you known that [Hogan] would have endured tremendous emotional distress as a result of posting the sex tape, you still would have published it, right? Turkel asked.
Denton answered, “Yes, probably.”
In Florida, jurors are allowed to submit questions to witnesses. At the end of Denton’s testimony, he got a notable one from the jury. Denton was asked about the video that was shown by Gawker — if it was gratuitous, would it be protected by the First Amendment? Denton opined it wouldn’t.
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