Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel proved last year that a wealthy, vengeful person can drive a media company he doesn't like into bankruptcy, setting a precedent that ought to alarm anyone who cares about the First Amendment. That is one way to look at Thiel's financing of a successful lawsuit against Gawker Media, which led to the company's sale and the end of Gawker.com.
But Thiel rejects the premise that the case — in which a Florida court ruled that Gawker invaded the privacy of wrestling star Hulk Hogan by publishing part of a sex tape — could have broad and dangerous implications for the press.
“It basically stands for the narrow proposition that you should not publish a sex tape,” Thiel told the New York Times's Maureen Dowd in an interview published on Thursday. “I think that's an insult to journalists to suggest that's journalism now. Transparency is good, but at some point it can go in this very toxic direction.”
Indeed, the journalistic merits of the Hogan sex tape are difficult, if not impossible, to defend. And, as Thiel suggested, most news outlets would prefer not to be lumped into the same category as Gawker. The PayPal co-founder and Facebook board member made a similar point when he spoke at the National Press Club a week before the election of Donald Trump, whom he supported.
But when Thiel agreed to pay Hogan's legal fees, he almost certainly was thinking less about “an insult to journalists” than about an old wound of his own. It was a Gawker-owned website that outed him in 2007 under the headline “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.”
Thiel's sexual orientation was already an open secret in Silicon Valley, and the author of the story, who also is gay, attempted to use Thiel's success to show that the technology industry's subtle discrimination is “wrongheaded.” But the article robbed Thiel — who declared himself “proud to be gay” in a speech at the Republican National Convention in July — the chance to come out on his own terms. He never forgave Gawker.
The Times reported in May that “he funded a team of lawyers to find and help 'victims' of the company's coverage mount cases against Gawker.” Thiel did so anonymously; his financial support of Hogan remained a secret until after the wrestler won a $140 million judgment.
Thus, in broad terms, the story of Thiel and Gawker is that of a billionaire with a vendetta who managed to ruin a media company whose coverage he found objectionable. Many people — including many journalists — will agree that the coverage really was objectionable, but that is a subjective determination. What happens when a different billionaire with a different standard goes after a different news outlet?
If the complaint is bogus, a court will side with the news outlet. But fighting a lawsuit can still be damaging.
“It's not just money,” David A. Anderson, a former political journalist who is now a law professor at the University of Texas, told me in May. “It's the drain on editorial resources, and your personnel are tied up in depositions. Just the cloud hanging over you of a potential large judgment is itself a problem. So there are a lot of costs. Rich people can cause a lot of trouble for anybody, including media, because they can afford to tie you up in expensive litigation.”
Thiel's candidate, Trump, actively promoted legal action against media companies during the campaign.
“I'm going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,” Trump said last February. “We're going to open up those libel laws so that when the New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money.”
Thiel apparently isn't worried about any of this. He has no apologies: He maintains that the impact of his work against Gawker is “narrow” — and journalists surely hope he is right.