​Gawker and testing the limits of free speech

TESTING THE LIMITS of free speech is often thankless, and expensive, as the website Gawker learned this past week. A jury awarded the wrestler known as Hulk Hogan $115 million in damages for a lurid tape Gawker posted back in 2012. The jury reconvenes tomorrow to consider PUNITIVE damages on top of that. The case puts Gawker's founder and his brand of journalism into the spotlight. Erin Moriarty of "48 Hours" reports our Cover Story:

Nick Denton is not a household name -- but he is the bane of those who are. Denton is the founder of Gawker Media: a collection of seven online blogs that feed on sensational stories, often having to do with celebrities.

"I think [Gawker] is a good name, a famous name," said Denton.

"But it means to stare stupidly," said Moriarty.

"It means to stare. 'Stupidly' might be in one of the definitions. We have a little bit of a sense of humor about what we do, too."

And with the Internet largely unregulated, Denton and his crew have been able to "gawk" at just about anything, until one of their celebrity targets took them on in a St. Petersburg, Florida, courtroom.

Terry Bollea, who wrestled professionally under the name Hulk Hogan, sued Denton and Gawker for invasion of privacy. He says his life has not been the same since 2012, when Gawker posted a portion of a sex tape featuring Bollea.

"I was completely humiliated," he said. "It turned my world upside down."

There is a lot at stake. Bollea sued for $100 million. Denton's entire digital media company is at risk - and, some fear, so is freedom of speech on the Internet.

"I have a phrase, 'Nothing is ever as good or bad as it seems at the time,'" Denton said. "And I think often tests bring out the best in people and in companies."

Just days before the trial began, Nick Denton seemed confident.

"It's a good story," he said. "It's true. It's a matter of public concern. He's a very public figure, so if we were gonna have a story to go to trial, I'm actually pretty glad it's this one."

Since 2002, the British born, Oxford-educated Denton has built Gawker Media with stories just like this. There have been posts about a Toronto Mayor's drug use; Hillary Clinton's private email server; the accusations against Bill Cosby; and of course, the Hulk Hogan sex tape.

But, Moriarty asked, is it really news? "Or is it just entertainment appealing to our most voyeuristic instincts?"

"We find it interesting," Denton replied. "And that particularly story, millions of people found interesting.

"Gossip is the version of news that the authorities or the celebrities or the officials don't want people to know; it's the unauthorized version. I think people have a right to know the unauthorized version as well as the authorized version of news."

There are also Gawker's Internet pranks. Denton's crew created havoc by getting Republican candidate Donald Trump to repeat this quotation on Twitter:

The problem? Fascist leader Benito Mussolini said it first.

Trump defended his retweet on "Meet the Press": "It's OK to know it's Mussolini. I love -- Mussolini was Mussolini, it's OK. It's a very good quote, it's a very interesting quote. I saw it, I know who said it, but what difference does it make whether it's Mussolini or somebody else? It's certainly a very interesting quote."

Tormenting public figures may seem an odd career choice for a journalist who once worked for the lofty Financial Times. But Denton says, as a gay man and a Brit trying to make it in America, he has felt like an outsider.

"And then if you're an outsider, there are fewer social consequences to running the kind of stories that Gawker ran in the early days, or that journalists, or good journalists run," he said. "Some of those stories make you unpopular. And if you care less about being accepted by an establishment, then you are more likely to run those stories, more likely to allow journalists fuller freedom."