In an attempt to get ahead of the news of the Gawker bankruptcy sale, Facebook mega-investor Peter Thiel took to the New York Times to explain his central role in the ruination of Gawker as an independent media voice.
Thiel himself triggered the bankruptcy by funding the lawsuit of Terry Bollea, otherwise known as Hulk Hogan, against the media company for posting what the professional wrestler claims was a sex video intended for private consumption only. (We don’t know or question Bollea’s motives; Queerty readers are well aware celebrities sometimes distribute self-erotica as a publicity ploy.)
Presided over by a right-wing judge, a Florida jury awarded Hogan $140 million, enough to bankrupt Gawker, the inimitable content site that was among the first companies to translate journalism to a huge digital audience. Like many online content businesses, it has struggled to come up with a business model to match its enormous reach. (Thanks to Thiel, that business model just got a lot harder.)
In the article, the PayPal founder justifies the suit on the grounds that it’s payback for Gawker’s invasion of his own privacy. In 2007, Thiel was outed by the site in what appeared to the rest of the world an entirely favorable post that the author, a gay man, and his heavily gay and pro-gay audience could only see as a compliment. For this young audience, sexual orientation is about as relevant a matter as handedness, which makes Thiel sound about a generation older than he actually is. At any rate, who wouldn’t want a fabulously successful Silicon Valley investor playing for their team? He was another brick in the wall against bullying and violence still routinely visited upon LGBTQs, not to mention a role model for a generation of openly gay entrepreneurs.
Thiel, however, writes that the article “didn’t feel good” and began looking for a way to take down Gawker (and, apparently, the unwitting victims, its writers and editors).
Boo-hoo. The poor billionaire, forced to face, in public for the first time, the truth about being gay that others had spent decades, often at great personal cost, making not only acceptable but even laudatory.
Out of Gawker’s tens of thousands of articles, some of which are clearly groundbreaking, Thiel cherry picks three to justify his crusade–his own outing, the Hulk Hogan post, as well the reprehensible invasion of the privacy of a closeted male media executive who allegedly arranged a liaison with a male escort. (After a public outcry, Gawker removed the post.)
Thiel puts it this way:
A free press is vital for public debate. Since sensitive information can sometimes be publicly relevant, exercising judgment is always part of the journalist’s profession. It’s not for me to draw the line, but journalists should condemn those who willfully cross it. The press is too important to let its role be undermined by those who would search for clicks at the cost of the profession’s reputation.
Of course the real problem is that Thiel actually did draw his own line–without consulting a single real journalist–anonymously, via a cowardly third party lawsuit, until he was outed for his role in the case.
The question is: Who decides? For Thiel, the only plausible answer is those who have the resources to fund lawsuits against the most vulnerable media companies, a group of people limited to Thiel and perhaps a few dozen other deep pocketed ideologues. The supposedly liberty loving Thiel, who somehow still manages to call himself libertarian, has discovered a First Amendment end run, a strategy he promises to pursue on behalf of newly minted victims. (We’re awaiting the day he funds a lawsuit on behalf of a poor person.)
Meanwhile, media companies without the revenue to defend lawsuits shake in their boots and self-censor, the very definition of a chilling effect. In an era when election coverage often seems limited to disgusting and hair-brained Trumpian personal attacks and Twitter flame wars, Thiel should be using his resources to create more and better speech, not less.