When we heard this week that billionaire PayPal cofounder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel, a Trump delegate, was the one who’s been bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, here’s how we framed it:
“Let’s get ready to rumble! In this corner, weighing in at 11.7 million unique monthly global readers and an annual revenue of roughly $45 million, Nick Denton and Gawker Media. And in this corner, weighing in at 322lbs, the Hulkamaniac himself, Hulk Hogan…and billionaire gay libertarian Peter Thiel!”
Well it turns out we were onto something — in an open letter published on Gawker Thursday, Denton addresses Thiel directly for the first time in public, and among other things, challenges him to an “open and public debate.”
“For Silicon Valley, the media spotlight is a relatively recent phenomenon,” Denton writes. “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.”
Later, he argues, “But this vindictive decade-long campaign is quite out of proportion to the hurt you claim. Your plaintiff’s lawyer, Charles Harder, has sued not just the company, but individual journalists…Peter, this is twisted. Even were you to succeed in bankrupting Gawker Media, the writers you dislike, and me, just think what it will mean.”
“Now you show yourself as a thin-skinned billionaire who, despite all the success and public recognition that a person could dream of, seethes over criticism and plots behind the scenes to tie up his opponents in litigation he can afford better than they.”
Denton goes on to suggest there is an alternative to the messy court saga — one you might expect Thiel, a libertarian torch-bearer, to be more on board with:
I’m going to suggest an alternative approach. The best regulation for speech, in a free society, is more speech. We each claim to respect independent journalism, and liberty. We each have criticisms of the other’s methods and objectives. Now you have revealed yourself, let us have an open and public debate. The court cases will proceed as long as you fund them. And I am sure the war of headlines will continue. But, even if we put down weapons just for a brief truce, let us have a more constructive exchange.
Thiel was outed nine years ago by Denton’s media network; donating $10 million to Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit has been his retribution. He’s called his potential takedown of Gawker, “one of my greater philanthropic things that I’ve done.” (Boy, now we are really scared of his other causes.)
As Vanity Fair points out, that’s “more philanthropic, it seems, than the money he has donated to the free press nonprofit organization Committee to Protect Journalists.”
Denton has the right approach–more debate, not less. We’d pay to see Thiel publicly defend his views on outing, which he seems to totally misunderstand, probably because he came out late in life and spend so many years in a closet of his own making. First, let’s be clear, the Gawker journalist who wrote about Thiel’s homosexuality does not consider the story “outing” because when he wrote it almost a decade ago, Thiel was already open about being gay to a large circle of friends and colleagues, who discussed his sexuality with a broad range of other people outside that circle. (Queerty editors knew about it before Gawker had the guts to write about it.)
Here’s what the Gawker writer, Owen Thomas, says:
I did discuss his sexuality, but it was known to a wide circle who felt that it was not fit for discussion beyond that circle. I thought that attitude was retrograde and homophobic, and that informed my reporting. I believe that he was out and not in the closet.
That is exactly right. Even if the story were to be considered an “outing,” the motive was hardly malicious. In Thiel’s case, who would not want a brilliant entrepreneur and billionaire to be part of our team, one who could make a difference to young people struggling in their own closets? Because of his retrograde views on gay identify, Thiel mistakes a compliment, or at least a challenge to be better, for a personal attack. In fact, Thiel seems to have missed the last half century of LGBTQ history, in which the debate over outing, over private acts and public declarations, was essential to the stunning progress we have made toward full legal and social equality. Thiel, as a privileged, white billionaire, seems to see himself as above that debate, instead of clearly benefitting from it. It’s time he came down from his castle and joined the rest of us in a movement that libertarians in particular should support: Freedom.
But there’s something else about Thiel’s past that makes his position on speech and privacy particularly galling. As a student at Stanford in the late 1980s, Thiel was far less concerned about the privacy of his fellow students, particularly gay ones, and Thiel was suddenly a staunch advocate of speech. In one horrible incident, Keith Rabois, a friend of Thiel, was widely condemned for screaming, outside the residence of a dorm supervisor, “Faggot! Hope You die of AIDS.” In his 1995 book, The Diversity Myth, Thiel wrote, “Keith did not deserve the months of public condemnation and ostracism.” Rabois was forced to leave Stanford as a result of the incident, but Thiel was loyal to his friend, no matter how vile his behavior, later hiring Rabois as a vice president at PayPal.
The journalist who practically invented outing, Mike Signorile, puts it best in HuffPo:
Thiel has a lot confused here. Simply saying that a public figure who’s out and open to many people is gay is not wrong — nor is it even considered legally libelous, defamatory or an invasion of privacy in 2016 — or comparable to these cases. Claiming otherwise is, as Thomas says, just plain homophobic. Reporting on a public figure who has been open to many people as gay, and is out in public as such, is not the equivalent of reporting on private sexual activity, but rather is equivalent to reporting on a characteristic akin to religion or ethnicity, and certainly if someone has not gone to great lengths to hide such facts. And that’s why Thiel had to go and find other cases, such as Hogan’s, in order to take action against Gawker. If he tried to sue Gawker himself for his supposed “outing” it would surely be thrown out of court.
Denton is right. Peter, halt your funding of this dangerous lawsuit, and start talking publicly–and openly.
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