Earlier this year, a jury voted that Gawker Media invaded the privacy of former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan by publishing a video of him having sex with the wife of his former best friend. The 62-year-old Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, was awarded $140 million in damages, sparking rumors that the media group could go out of business.
The case lasted for more than three years, and the appeal is expected to last several more. Dan Abrams, the former co-anchor of “Nightline,” noted in his blog Law Newz that the trial could easily have cost Hogan $3 million before any appeals process, and the wrestler wasn’t even favored in the suit. “I couldn’t help wonder, how the heck did this case not settle?” Abrams wrote.
After all, Hogan’s financial issues were well-documented. In 2011, for example, he was reportedly living in a rented house after selling a mansion he owned in Florida for $6.2 million, which was $19 million below its asking price, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Not to mention Hogan is suing Gawker again, this time for allegedly leaking a transcript, which included him making racist remarks, to the National Enquirer.
Abrams had a theory:
Gawker has long been one of the most detested and despised media entities in the country. Particularly by the rich and powerful. So what if someone was encouraging Hogan and his attorneys not to settle. What if said person wanted to see Gawker suffer even at significant cost to him/her? We received a tip that certain Tampa lawyers believe a benefactor agreed to cover Hogan’s legal fees in some capacity. I have no idea if it’s true but it sure would explain a lot of the seemingly inexplicable in this already bizarre case.
Gawker’s founder Nick Denton didn’t believe this theory until recently, when Hogan’s lawyer Charles J. Harder brought several more cases, not connected with Hogan, against the site’s properties and writers, the New York Times reported.
“My own personal hunch is that it’s linked to Silicon Valley, but that’s nothing really more than a hunch,” Denton told the New York Times. “If you’re a billionaire and you don’t like the coverage of you, and you don’t particularly want to embroil yourself any further in a public scandal, it’s a pretty smart, rational thing to fund other legal cases.”
That person would appear to be Peter Thiel, one of the co-founders of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, who is reportedly worth $2.7 billion.
On Tuesday evening, Forbes reported an anonymous source close to Thiel confirmed that the billionaire has been secretly paying for the expenses incurred by Hogan’s lawsuits against Gawker. Early Wednesday morning, the New York Times confirmed this, also receiving its information anonymously.
A spokesperson for Thiel declined the opportunity to comment, Forbes reported.
Thiel is not publicly connected with Hogan in any tangible way, but he certainly has a long history with Gawker Media, which has traditionally been a gossip blog. If Abrams’ theory holds water, he wouldn’t be the most surprising person to bankroll suits that could put the company out of business.
Though Gawker tends to focus on New York culture, it has spawned various sites with different areas of coverage such as Deadspin (sports), Jezebel (feminism) and Gizmodo (technology). From 2006 to 2011 and from 2013 to 2015, it operated Valleywag, essentially a West Coast version of Gawker. It mostly covered gossip in Silicon Valley.
On Dec. 19, 2007, Valleywag publicly outed Thiel, a then-closeted homosexual in a post bluntly titled “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people,” which is still available on Gawker.com. The Gawker empire has also accused Thiel of claiming women shouldn’t be allowed to vote, of being potentially anti-immigrant and of sneakily avoiding paying his taxes.
In a 2009 interview with Reuters’ PEHub, Thiel said, “Valleywag is the Silicon Valley equivalent of Al Qaeda.”
It’s terrible for the Valley, which is supposed to be about people who are willing to think out loud and be different. I think they should be described as terrorists, not as writers or reporters. I don’t understand the psychology of people who would kill themselves and blow up buildings, and I don’t understand people who would spend their lives being angry; it just seems unhealthy.
There is nothing illegal, or even particularly unusual, about a third-party covering legal fees. In fact, the American Lawyer noted that third-party funding, known as litigation funding, is becoming more common.
When asked for comment by Forbes, Denton denied having knowledge of Thiel’s involvement.
Recently, Thiel made headlines for being “The only living Trump supporter in Silicon Valley,” as the Guardian hyperbolically put it.
The case in question might have effects beyond those directly involved. As Stuart Slotnick, a defense attorney with the New York firm Buchanan Ingersoll Rooney, told The Washington Post, it could “make editors think twice before they publish. It’s not limited to surreptitiously recorded sex tapes. The verdict is significant because it could stop [publication] of surreptitious recordings of any nature.”
“It could have some implications for newsgathering,” said David Hudson Jr., a First Amendment scholar at Vanderbilt Law School, told The Post. “I think it sort of ratchets up the notion that the public is very [protective] of privacy.”