The celebrity gossip site Gawker shut down publication this month, ending a 13-year reign as a pioneer in online news and a lightning rod for controversy over journalistic ethics, privacy, and free speech. However, the site’s death knell sounded five months earlier, when Kenneth Turkel delivered a closing argument that would lead to a hammer blow of a verdict against the site’s parent company. Gawker Media. Bollea v. Gawker Media LLC, 2012CA01244.
Turkel, of Bajo, Cuva, Cohen & Turkel, represents Terry Bollea, better known as wrestler Hulk Hogan. The wrestler sued Gawker, its founder Nick Denton, and former editor A.J. Daulerio over the site’s publication of a clip from a sex tape featuring Hogan and Heather Clem, wife of Hogan’s friend and DJ, Bubba “The Love Sponge” Clem.
Hogan argued the Clems filmed him without his knowledge and the clip’s publication, which included a snarky blow-by-blow description of events by Daulerio, violated his privacy. Gawker countered that the story was newsworthy because Hogan frequently bragged about his sexual exploits.
Hogan sought $100 million and the trial spotlighted the tug-of-war between celebrity privacy and journalism. During a three-week trial, Hogan’s legal team painted Gawker as a site far more interested in revenue than reporting and out to publish the most salacious stories possible, without regard for privacy.
“Do you think the media can do anything they want?” Turkel asked jurorsin his closing argument, letting the question hang in the air as he detailed Gawker’s alleged violation of journalistic ethics, and its staff's pride at being “rulebreakers.”
“That’s the whole premise of how they do things there,” Turkel said. “We’re going to break the rules. We’re not going to commit journalism.”
Jurors responded with a $140 million verdict. The award sent Gawker Media into bankruptcy, shuttering the company’s flagship site and spinning its other publications to Univision in a fire sale of the failed company.
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