On Wednesday, Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel spoke with the New York Times, confirming reports that he had secretly funded Hulk Hogan’s invasion of privacy lawsuit against Gawker Media, which netted Hogan (real name Terry Bollea) a $140 million damages award and sparked rumors that the media group could go out of business. More unrelated cases have been brought against the company and its writers by Hogan’s lawyer, Charles J. Harder. Hogan himself is suing the blog again, this time for allegedly leaking a transcript, which included him making racist remarks, to the National Enquirer. It is unclear if Thiel is funding these cases as well.
Now, CNN reported, Gawker has hired bankers to prepare a potential sale as a “contingency” plan if these new lawsuits bleed too much money from the company.
Though Thiel, who co-founded PayPal and was an early investor in Facebook, has a long history with Gawker — Valleywag, a former arm of the network, outed him — he claims the funding wasn’t driven by revenge.
“It’s less about revenge and more about specific deterrence,” Thiel told the New York Times. “I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest.”
Gawker founder Nick Denton disagrees. On Thursday, he posted an open letter to Thiel, in which he wrote, “Your revenge has been served well, cold and (until now) anonymously.”
In the letter, Denton offered his opinion as to why Thiel in particular is funding this litigation:
I can see how irritating Gawker would be to you and other figures in the technology industry. For Silicon Valley, the media spotlight is a relatively recent phenomenon. Most executives and venture capitalists are accustomed to dealing with acquiescent trade journalists and a dazzled mainstream media, who will typically play along with embargoes, join in enthusiasm for new products, and hew to the authorized version of a story. They do not have the sophistication, and the thicker skins, of public figures in other older power centers such as New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
Finally, he asked Thiel to publicly debate him concerning his criticisms of Gawker. Thiel once called Valleywag “the Silicon Valley equivalent of al-Qaeda,” and on Wednesday he told the New York Times, “The way I’ve thought about this is that Gawker has been a singularly terrible bully.”
Denton wrote, “At the very least, it will improve public understanding of the interplay of media and power. Considering the amount spent on lawyers, $20 million between us at this point, there should be some public benefit.”
Thiel has not responded.
The revelation that Thiel funded the lawsuit has sparked debate across the Internet, and, surprisingly, many traditional media outlets and personalities seem to be siding with Gawker. The headline of Jack Shafer’s piece for Politico magazine might say it best: “Peter Thiel Does the Impossible! Nobody’s ever sympathized with Gawker before.”
While that’s certainly hyperbolic, Denton and the Gawker empire have long come under fire from traditional mainstream media outlets for knowingly eschewing many of the basic tenets of journalism.
For example, when discussing ethics in a 2010 interview with the New Yorker, Denton said, “Is there Gawker ethics? I mean, I guess there’s Gawker ethics. It’s a dangerous thing to talk about.” Two years earlier, he told the Guardian, “With a blog you can throw the rumor out there and ask for help. You can say, ‘We don’t know if this is true or not.'” The site has employed this strategy over the years by, for example, publishing posts questioning the sexuality of public figures like actor James Franco or Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and journalist Anderson Cooper.
Now, many of those same outlets seem to be pulling for Gawker.
To many, the key element in this debate isn’t if Gawker was right but what it means for journalism if billionaires can effectively shut down media companies with lawsuits.
Fishbowl NY wrote a story headlined, “Peter Thiel Is a Proud Opponent of Free Speech.” Timothy B. Lee wrote in Vox, “Even if you think Gawker stepped over the line in publishing the Hogan sex tape — and personally I do — there’s still a lot of reason to worry about the prospect of wealthy people using lawsuits as a weapon against people they don’t like.” Variety’s Maureen Ryan echoed this sentiment, writing, “Let’s get one thing clear: I have no particular love for Gawker. … But the punishment Thiel clearly has in mind — the scorched-earth destruction of the entire company — in no way fits the crime he thinks it has committed.”
There have always been rich people who’ve gone after the media, sometimes for frivolous reasons, sometimes for good ones. But the fact is, there are more billionaires in this country than ever. If they all decide to go scorched-earth on journalism outlets they don’t like, well, say goodbye to a free press.
Trump is a big fan of suing media companies. In fact, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee said in February that as commander-in-chief he will “open up” federal libel laws to make it easier to sue news outlets like The Washington Post and New York Times.
“You don’t have to change the law to make life difficult for your critics, particularly if your critics don’t have the money to defend themselves,” Lyrissa Lidsky, a law professor at the University of Florida who specializes in First Amendment and media law, told The Post. “It’s one thing to know that you can litigate a libel case and win, but the litigation costs can be enormous before you get that victory. So if you can’t finance the cost necessary to win, then you’re as effectively silenced as if the law were against you.”
Thiel, though, pointed out that not everyone can afford to defend themselves and their interests in truthful reporting or personal privacy by pursuing suits for alleged wrongdoing against the media.
“I can defend myself. Most of the people they attack are not people in my category,” Thiel told the New York Times. “They usually attack less prominent, far less wealthy people that simply can’t defend themselves.” He said that “even someone like Terry Bollea who is a millionaire and famous and a successful person didn’t quite have the resources to do this alone.”
Whether Denton and Thiel debate this in public remains to be seen, but there are certainly compelling arguments on both sides.