A Florida judge denied Gawker Media’s motion for a new trial and left intact wrestler Hulk Hogan’s $140.1 million verdict against the company as a new potential wrinkle in the long-running legal dispute emerged: A secret funder behind Hogan’s lawsuit.
Gawker said it intends to appeal Wednesday’s ruling, which, if upheld, would cripple the New York-based website financially. Gawker hasn’t paid Hogan while the case winds through the legal system.
Forbes magazine reported Tuesday that billionaire technology investor Peter Thiel — the target of Gawker stories — had bankrolled Hogan’s suit, which began after the gossip website posted a video of Hogan having sex with a friend’s wife in 2012.
According to people at Gawker, Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and a Facebook board member, has long been upset with the site’s coverage of him, particularly a 2007 story by a Gawker-owned site disclosing that Thiel is gay.
Thiel confirmed late Wednesday that he has spent as much as $10 million to secretly support Hogan’s lawsuit. In an interview with the New York Times, he said Gawker published articles that were “very painful and paralyzing for people who were targeted,” adding, “I thought it was worth fighting back.”
But it could make the wrestler’s legal action look as much like an effort by a wealthy businessman to gain a measure of revenge as a quest by Hogan to punish Gawker for invading his privacy.
It also suggests, perhaps ironically, that Gawker’s two most internally damaging stories have involved outing gay people as much as its post that exposed a heterosexual celebrity wrestler engaged in a sex act.
In addition to the 2007 post about Thiel’s sexuality in the blog Valleywag, a defunct site owned by Gawker, Gawker published a story last summer that alleged that a married executive at Conde Nast had been involved with a gay porn star. Amid widespread criticism, including the defection of an advertiser, Gawker took the unusual step of removing the story from its site. This led to the resignation of the company’s executive editor and the site’s editor in chief.
Gawker responded to Thiel’s alleged involvement on Wednesday by issuing a statement pointedly noting his involvement in funding the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of the news media around the world. Thiel, a California delegate for Donald Trump, has also invested in other journalism ventures, such as the tech website Pando Daily, and has made donations to James O’Keefe III, who has conducted “stings” against CNN, NPR and the defunct community group ACORN.
Gawker founder Nick Denton declined to comment Wednesday.
The website’s statement, without naming Thiel, acknowledged reports that “a board member of Facebook and a major funder of the Committee to Protect Journalists has been secretly funding a legal campaign against our journalists. We trust the appeals court will correct the outsized Florida jury verdict and reaffirm the law that protects a free and critical press, which is more embattled and important than ever.”
Denton, who is openly gay, has previously said Thiel threatened the publication following Valleywag stories disclosing his sexuality. “He was so paranoid that, when I was looking into the story, a year ago, I got a series of messages relaying the destruction that would rain down on me, and various innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, if a story ever ran,” Denton wrote in 2007.
Thiel later described Valleywag as “the Silicon Valley equivalent of Al Qaeda.”
Gawker has outed other public figures, such as journalist Anderson Cooper and Apple chief executive Tim Cook. “I make no apologies for this,” Denton said in an interview with Katie Couric last summer. He added: “Ultimately, it’s an editorial gut check, and there has to be a balance made of, what is the cost to this person of this story? What is going to be the pain? Because most good stories, most great stories, involve somebody getting hurt.”
Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, sued Gawker for invasion of privacy for posting a video of him having sex with Heather Cole, the then-wife of his best friend, Tampa-area radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge, a.k.a. Todd Clem. After a trial in March, a jury awarded $115 million in compensatory damages and $25.1 million in punitive damages.