Now, reporting from Forbes alleges that Silicon valley billionaire and pledged Trump delegate Peter Thiel — who has referred to Gawker writers as “terrorists” — has been secretly backing the suit. The New York Times also reports that Thiel is bankrolling the case. The revelation adds a twist to a case already tied up in questions over freedom of speech, and has big implications for how critical press functions in an age of billionaires.
Peter Thiel and Gawker
Thiel, while relatively unknown outside tech circles, is a famous and eccentric figure in Silicon Valley. He is a PayPal cofounder and was one of the earliest backers of Facebook. An extreme libertarian, he also funded a bid to make a man-made tech-utopia island to escape from government influence and a fellowship that requires students to drop out of school.
Thiel was targeted by Gawker more than once — notably, in 2007 the company published a post outing Thiel, who is gay (Thiel came out publicly a few years later). He’s previously referred to the now-shuttered Gawker site Valleywag as the “Silicon Valley equivalent of Al Qaeda.”
“I think they should be described as terrorists, not as writers or reporters,” he said of Valleywag in 2009. “On the other hand, it’s an interesting theoretical question, whether, if Valleywag went away, something else would fill in to replace it.”
It’s not unusual for a deep-pocketed investor to bankroll a case. Typically, the investor is aiming for a portion of the payouts. However, in this case Hogan’s lawyers made an unusual move that seemed likely to reduce the actual pot at the end, removing a clause that targeted Gawker’s insurance, rather than Gawker itself.
“It’s a very unusual thing to do, because the insurance company would have deeper pockets than Gawker,” said Larry Geneen, a risk management consultant told the New York Times.
Hogan’s case has already cost Gawker millions in legal fees, and recently a portion of the company was sold to an outside investor for the first time. Thiel’s deep pockets mean that he can afford to keep the case going long enough to bleed Gawker dry — regardless of who wins in the end.
Gawker CEO has said that the case is “make or break” for the company, and in a statement today said they hoped that in their appeal the court would reaffirm the laws protecting free and critical press.
Press in the age of billionaires
There’s an increasing number of powerful public figures with similarly near-unlimited wealth. Whether or not they win, cases like this can bleed news companies dry — which might make them less likely to publish news and criticism in the first place.
Thiel is a pledged Trump delegate, which is an unusual move for a Silicon Valley tycoon. However, in backing Hogan’s lawsuit Thiel shows one place he and his fellow bombastic billionaire agree — an antagonistic relationship with the media, and an attempt to suppress critical coverage.
Trump has a history of suing over coverage he doesn’t like. He has also said he’s in favor of “closing up the internet” — a nonsensical statement that is nonetheless troubling for everyone from tech billionaires to free speech advocates — both of which Thiel purports to be. Thiel is, ironically, a “primary supporter” of the Committee to Protect Journalists, an organization dedicated to protecting press freedom around the world.
Trump also frequently calls reporting he doesn’t like “dishonest” and slams negative coverage as lies on Twitter. He’s threatened retribution against Jeff Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post, for critical coverage by the outlet.
Though Trump and Thiel can theoretically bury critical coverage under mountains of legal fees, the standards for proving defamation are high. But Trump is not only a billionaire with a contentious relationship with the press, he’s the GOP front runner, and he’s said at least once that if elected president he wants to make it easier to sue media companies for negative coverage.
“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. We’re going to open up those libel laws” he said in a February speech.
Thiel’s backing of the Gawker lawsuit shows ways in which media coverage — whether muckraking and investigative or salacious and potentially unfair — is already open to attack from the wealthy and powerful. A Trump presidency could take it to a whole new level.
Author: Laurel Raymond