We may never know just why mogul Peter Thiel hates media site Gawker so much. The operating assumption is that Thiel hates Gawker for calling him out in 2007 for living in a glass closet and that fellow Facebook billionaire Sean Parker talked him into doing something about it. Whatever the reason, vendetta is the only way to describe Thiel’s $10 million investment in Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker.
As vendettas go, it’s been a success. Hogan won an absurd $140 million judgment against Gawker for leaking a sex tape. And defending Gawker isn’t always an easy task. As a site, it runs the gamut from snark to skeevy to hilarious and brilliant. High on the list of examples of the former was its story a year ago naming a high-profile married CFO for trying to arrange an assignation with a male escort. The story created a well-deserved Twitter storm and was eventually taken down.
Yet Thiel’s decision to secretly fund Hogan’s lawsuit is more than distasteful. It’s dangerous. Here are five reasons why Thiel’s attack on Gawker is a big threat, not just to the media, but to society in general.
1. Thiel is feeding a trend for rich people to buy the legal outcome they want
In a society where financial inequality is a huge problem, the one percent are using their money in attempts to drive pesky media out of business or at least tone down their reporting on the rich and powerful. Thiel is just one example of an out-of-touch billionaire throwing his wealth around to get what he wants. An even more disgusting example is the case of Mother Jones magazine, which was sued by a major Republican donor, Frank VanderSloot, after it ran an unflattering article about him (which included mention of VanderSloot’s antigay stance). The suit, which Mother Jones won decisively, cost millions and was clearly aimed at punishing the magazine and driving it out of existence. If you’re rich enough, you can bankroll nuisance suits that will force your target to fold and or least suffer substantial losses. Peter, there a hundreds of great causes that could do amazing things with a fraction of the $10 million you have sunk to defend Hulk Hogan and bring down a media company.
2. Thiel is deciding what’s the public good
In the realm of false equivalency, a lot of chatter about Thiel’s funding argues that the ACLU and the Sierra Club do that sort of thing all the time. But that’s a bogus (and laughable) argument. Those entities are organizations with a public mission. You may disagree with that mission, but the organization pursues legal cases consistent with it. It doesn’t underwrite a lawsuit in which it doesn’t have an ideological stake out of personal spite. Yet Thiel is acting like those organizations in using the legal system to determine what’s the public good. Problem is, in Thiel’s universe it’s whatever he sees the as the public good–for him first and foremost and for his business class.
3. Secrecy is not the same as privacy
One huge difference between the ACLU and Thiel is that the ACLU doesn’t hide its participation in lawsuits. Thiel, of course, lurked cowardly behind the scenes for a long time before fessing up. In his interview with The New York Times, Thiel makes a big point about how Gawker routinely violated people’s privacy. But Thiel seems to think that privacy and secrecy are the same thing. It’s one thing to have your personal information blasted across the internet, but it’s entirely another to be wealthy enough to shape the public agenda and expect that no one should know you’re doing so. It’s a troubling trend that is poisoning politics. In Thiel’s case, perhaps it’s a lingering affection for the closet.
4. It’s a dangerous precedent for the press
Thiel seems to think that Gawker is a unique case and that his actions have no implications beyond that single site. “It’s precisely because I respect journalists that I do not believe they are endangered by fighting back against Gawker,” Thiel told the Times. He couldn’t be more wrong. For a fact, news leaders across the country are shuddering at the outcome of the Hogan and praying that a higher court reverses it. Of course suits likes this send a chill through the media because they establish that rich people can bring suits for whatever personal reason they choose in those cases where judges fail to respect the literal meaning of the First Amendment and slap(p) these cases down before they cause ruin to speech.
5. Thiel is a hypocrite
Okay, this isn’t dangerous, just obvious. In a thudding irony, Thiel is a major funder of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Apparently, it’s only the journalists he likes. As perhaps the country’s highest-profile libertarian, Thiel should be allowing the marketplace to sort out free speech issues. If Thiel and Gawker have spend millions on expensive lawyers, remember that the courts–and taxpayers–must absorb the cost of frivolous score-settling lawsuits during a time when the the poor lack access to the legal system to address wrongs. As Nick Denton said, promote more speech, not less, which Thiel is quite capable of without resorting to litigation. But then again, why let the marketplace do the work when money can do it much more quickly? On one point, at least, Thiel is consistent. He’s going to the GOP presidential convention as a delegate for Donald Trump.
The lying, litigious Trump, of course, wants to make it easier to sue media for libel.