Peter Thiel killed Gawker once. Now it looks like he may kill it again.
Reuters reports that the venture capitalist has put in a bid to buy the defunct news site, which became defunct after he bankrolled a lawsuit that drove it into bankruptcy in 2016. If Thiel succeeds, he will own Gawker’s archives and all the nasty things its writers said about him. Then, he can delete them.
This is scary. And, of course, it has divided the Internet. Some think Gawker fed all of society’s worst voyeuristic impulses while tearing away at journalistic values, or at least that the outlet’s clickbaity catering to the prurient negated any more serious work it produced. Others maintain that Gawker could have saved media if media had listened — that the norms it challenged needed a good knocking around and that the website skewered people in positions of power who’d gone unskewered too long.
The thing is, it doesn’t matter. No one should want Gawker gone — at least, not this way.
Thiel’s secret financing of multiple suits against Gawker was legal. But that shouldn’t erase the squeamishness brought on by a billionaire leveraging his wealth to obliterate a media outlet, all as part of a personal vendetta. (Thiel did not respond to request for comment.)
That vendetta is complicated. Thiel claims that Gawker outed him as gay. The author of the “outing” article claims Thiel was out already, but that those who knew assumed the information should remain restricted to certain circles. That attitude was “retrograde and homophobic,” the author argues, and it merited an exposé.
But more about Gawker’s coverage may have rankled Thiel than, as he put it, the website’s “creepy obsession with outing closeted men.” Gawker’s tech-focused website Valleywag trained a skeptical and often searing eye on Silicon Valley culture. It reported on what tech titans said they were about and what they actually did.
Thiel was a titan, so he was also a target. Thanks to the lawsuits he funded, Gawker had to stop bothering him. If he gets his way again, any trace of that troublesome writing may be erased. This starts to look an awful lot like book-burning.
Some have constructed elaborate symmetries between Thiel’s crusade against Gawker and, say, Adolf Hitler’s disappearing a German newspaper when it went after him and his troops in the early 1930s, or Southern racists vowing to destroy the Northern press if it wrote about state officials’ violent responses to desegregation in the 1950s and ’60s.
But you don’t have to think that hard to come up with a more current comparison.
“I think they should be described as terrorists, not as writers or reporters,” Thiel once said about the staff of Valleywag.
There’s a difference between those mainstream media and a scrappy rule-breaker such as Gawker. And there’s a difference between the president attacking the media and a private citizen doing the same thing.
But while we worry, and we’re right to, about Trump undermining the free press, Thiel so far has accomplished more actual destruction and might accomplish more still. Americans shouldn’t stop taking the president to task. But they should also pay attention to another menace: rich guys with guillotine blades to grind and the money to bring us down.