Craig Sunter / CC BY-ND 2.0

Billionaire Peter Thiel’s $140 million triumph over media site Gawker is part of a trend in which the rich use the media to retaliate against journalists who expose and criticize them.

“Thiel’s provocation isn’t the oddity the media is treating it as,” writes Damaris Colhoun at Columbia Journalism Review. “It’s merely the latest case of powerful interests trying to silence a journalist.”

Targets of media have always sought to retaliate, but the means of fighting back has reached mass scale. An entire industry has been created, some of it underground, some of it wide open, all of it aimed at discrediting a journalist’s critical take. Companies and interest groups, often coached by aggressive PR firms, are investing in bare-knuckled strategies to give their media rebuttals more teeth and a wider audience. They launch negative online ad campaigns against particular journalists and master the art of ensuring their stories reach Google’s top rankings. In some cases, the goal is as explicit as ruining a journalist’s reputation, so that when someone types the writer’s name into a Google search, a page full of humiliating, defamatory content appears. 

These techniques are well advanced from the print era’s more transparent, and contained means of challenging reporters in the past. Dull, poorly read advertorials or letters to the editor have turned into a tidal wave of tweets, fabricated stories, or entire “media watchdog” sites.

At a time when blue chip companies from Chevron and General Electric to Alibaba are staffing “newsrooms” with actual reporters—a phenomenon The Financial Times described as the “corporate invasion of news”—it makes sense that executives feel empowered to bypass the media altogether. They have a lot to lose from bad press, from stock-price declines to regulatory investigations, and much to gain by controlling it. They’re not only finding a willing audience, but also an effective way to recast the narrative, and in some cases silence the journalists they target. 

The CJR article tells how one scrutinized financier understood “that the best way to get your version of the story out there is to make it appear as real as possible: to not only draft a news item, but to simulate a newsroom, hire reporters, build social media expertise, and mimic the look of a news site”; how journalists are pressured to work for false reporting sites because they need the income, and “jobs in journalism are hard to come by”; and how well-funded smear operations have damaged honest journalists’ reputations and livelihoods.

Continue reading here.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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