Peter Thiel is an eccentric libertarian and successful tech investor who has had a lot of crazy ideas: that Methuselan life spans are just around the corner, that America’s best and brightest should live together on man-made islands floating around the sea, that Donald Trump would be a good president. A multibillionaire, he has the ability to support these ideas. His vast fortune means that he is free to ignore any evidence that his ideas are stupid and that he does not have to tolerate those who disagree with him. That’s one of the great things about being superrich: Your wealth serves as a shield—and, if you want, a bludgeon.
This week, the world learned of Thiel’s latest expensive, crazy idea: destroying Gawker Media. As Forbes first reported, Thiel secretly bankrolled a lawsuit against Gawker Media brought by the wrestler Hulk Hogan, spending a reported $10 million on his plot, in addition to the funding of other lawsuits. (In 2012, Gawker posted an excerpt of a homemade sex tape featuring Hogan—who from 2005 to 2007 starred in a reality TV series called Hogan Knows Best that portrayed him as a devoted family man—in flagrante with a woman who was not his wife.) The lawsuit has been successful: In March, a jury handed down a $140.1 million verdict that will bankrupt Gawker Media if it stands. On Wednesday, a Florida judge upheld that verdict. And on Thursday, multiple outlets reported that Gawker Media founder Nick Denton may be seeking to sell the company—though it’s unlikely that anyone would want to buy the company before the Hogan suit is ultimately resolved.
What made Thiel so upset with Gawker Media? In 2007, the Gawker Media site Valleywag ran a story reporting that Thiel “is totally gay, people.” Gawker Media was founded on the principle of saying the things that people in certain privileged circles all know to be true but for whatever reason don’t care to share with the public. Former Valleywag editor Owen Thomas, who wrote the story in question, on Wednesday told Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times that many people already knew that Thiel was gay at the time the story was written and that he believes Thiel “was out and not in the closet.” But Thiel was enraged by the story and others from Gawker that, in his opinion, “ruined people’s lives for no reason.” He vowed to get Gawker, ostensibly to stand up for his own notions of privacy. But his actions suggest he was out for a corpse, and now Thiel is on the verge of seeing this particular scheme come true.
All of this should matter to you, even if you’re neither a tech entrepreneur nor a journalist. Thiel’s newly revealed revenge plot is an epochal wakeup call that should concern everyone. Granted, rich people have tried to counteract and forestall news coverage they dislike for generations, usually by pulling their advertising from the outlets in question, occasionally by purchasing those outlets (calling Sheldon Adelson), and often by suing. But it takes a special kind of vindictiveness to devise a long-term scheme to punish a news outlet, pursue the scheme in secret through the courts, and then appear proud of one’s actions once exposed. Thiel’s lawsuit-funding will have a chilling effect on journalists and journalism, not least by asserting the power of the richest and least accountable among us to define what constitutes acceptable discourse and to punish those who violate these arbitrary standards. That’s something none of us should tolerate.
Reasonable people can disagree on the merit and propriety of Gawker’s practice of writing about the sexualities of powerful people. The problem here is that Thiel has bought the right to decide where that line should fall and who is allowed to cross it.
“I refuse to believe that journalism means massive privacy violations,” Thiel, who has donated to the Committee to Protect Journalists, told the Times’ Sorkin in an astonishing interview on Wednesday. “It’s precisely because I respect journalists that I do not believe they are endangered by fighting back against Gawker.” Yes, there’s no better way to show your respect for journalists than by funding a brutal lawsuit that, if successful, will cause dozens and dozens of them to lose their jobs. Irrespective of whether you like Gawker Media and appreciate its blunt, impudent style of journalism, its employees are without question journalists. The stories published on the website’s network are factually based. When its reporters get stories wrong, they cop to their errors.
Gawker Media occasionally screws up, as all journalists do, but most of its controversial stories are products of an aggressively public-spirited editorial philosophy that’s the polar opposite of Thiel’s ideal of enforced niceness. The Gawker Media sites have long been reflexively suspicious of and adversarial toward those whose money or social status shield them from outside scrutiny, and its best stories—Deadspin’s ongoing coverage of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and his inept efforts to protect the league’s reputation in the face of numerous, often self-inflicted scandals; Dave McKenna’s outstanding coverage of creepy Sacramento mayor and former NBA star Kevin Johnson; Gawker’s coverage of the sexual-assault allegations against Bill Cosby—hold these people to account. Gawker Media’s coverage of Peter Thiel and his entrepreneurial colleagues, though often rude, has served as a necessary corrective to the fawning profiles and news-release regurgitation that too often constitutes tech coverage in America, a reminder that these companies are run by people—fallible, self-centered, often stupid people.
Gawker’s ressentiment is not always a virtue, and it has led it to sometimes go after people who do not deserve its scrutiny. Righteous zeal in excess can be a bad thing. But it’s much, much worse to surreptitiously spend $10 million to bankrupt and destroy a news organization against which you hold a grudge. Speaking to the Times’ Sorkin, Thiel justified his vendetta, saying, “It’s not like it is some sort of speaking truth to power or something going on here. The way I’ve thought about this is that Gawker has been a singularly terrible bully.” Thiel is contorting the definition of bully to mean someone who makes me feel uncomfortable. But good journalism is often the act of making powerful people feel uncomfortable, and in this era of vast wealth disparities, few people are more powerful than the Croesan tech executives who hope to change the world by creating widgets, apps, and floating man-made islands.
If Thiel was spending $10 million in secret to get rid of a problem, what other problems are he and other tech plutocrats spending money on to eliminate? The under-regulation of the tech industry—the way that many “disruptive innovators” operate free from constraints that hamper their more established competitors—isn’t just a function of legislative inertia. Big tech companies have well-funded lobbying offices in Washington and elsewhere, and like all rich entities, everywhere, always, they are accustomed to throwing money at their problems. As Felix Salmon pointed out at Fusion, Thiel’s success with the Gawker lawsuit has essentially given other billionaires a blueprint for how to get rid of any journalist or critic in their way.
Our polity benefits when sites like Gawker, which aren’t dependent on relationships and access, surface these issues and hold them up to scrutiny. This is not bullying. This is acting in the public interest. Peter Thiel is acting in his own interest. His success means that there may now be fewer people around with the guts and resources to question him and his ilk.
Disclosure: One Slate editor is married to a Gawker editor. One is married to a lawyer who represented Gawker in the Hulk Hogan trial. One is a former Gawker Media executive editor. None of these Slate staffers worked on this story.