As Gawker Media prepares for a court-ordered bankruptcy auction to sell off its assets to the highest bidder, the billionaire venture capitalist who helped drive the company under wrote in a New York Times opinion piece saying he is happy to have played a role in its failure—and he would happily do so again, if necessary.
Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who helped create the online payment company PayPal (pypl) and was also one of the earliest investors in Facebook(fb), was revealed as the financial backer of former wrestler Hulk Hogan after Hogan won an unprecedented $140-million Florida court judgement against Gawker in March.
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Unable to pay such a massive penalty—which amounts to almost three times its annual revenues—Gawker was forced to seek bankruptcy protection. The company is now engaged in an auction to sell the company’s assets, a process that began today with bids from multiple companies. (Here is a list of the most likely bidders).
In his New York Times essay, Thiel said that he was “proud to have contributed financial support” to Hogan’s case, which involved a video clip that Gawker published from a sex tape the wrestler made with a friend’s wife. Thiel went on to say that he will continue supporting Hogan, since Gawker has said it intends to appeal, and that he would “gladly support someone else in the same position.”
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In fact, while the billionaire doesn’t mention it in his op-ed piece, he has also reportedly been involved in financing several other lawsuits against Gawker that haven’t gone to trial, some of which have even less legal merit than the Gawker case.
Although Thiel implies in his essay that the Gawker story about Hogan’s sex tape would not have been published by any right-thinking journalistic outlet, and that the First Amendment doesn’t and shouldn’t protect such behavior, two higher-court judges ruled before the Hogan decision that the Gawker piece was clearly covered by the Constitution’s free-speech protections.
Gawker CEO Nick Denton just challenged Peter Thiel to a debate. Watch Fortune’s video:
In an interview with the Times in May, Thiel said that he funded Hogan’s lawsuit and others as part of a multi-year campaign to try and bankrupt the company. “It’s less about revenge and more about specific deterrence,” he wrote. “I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people, even when there was no connection with the public interest.”
Since his identity as Hogan’s backer was revealed, Thiel’s crusade against Gawker has been decried by a number of prominent journalists and defenders of a free press, who note that a billionaire bankrupting a media outlet as part of a personal vendetta raises serious questions about free speech.
In his New York Times essay, however, Thiel argues that there is a line that media should not cross that involves publishing images or other information that could destroy someone’s privacy, when that information is not in the broader public interest. Thiel says he himself was a victim of the blurring of that line when Gawker outed him as a homosexual in 2007 without his permission.
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The billionaire investor says a free press is “vital for public debate,” but that journalists must “exercise judgment” when it comes to invading a person’s privacy, and 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,” Thiel writes.
Thiel, who also supports the idea of creating autonomous islands on which people could live and create their own laws, said he is in favor of a bi-partisan bill called the “Intimate Privacy Protection Act,” which would make it illegal to distribute explicit private images without a person’s consent, and would involve criminal penalties for those who profit from doing so.
Last month, I spoke at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland because I believe our country is on the wrong track, and we need to solve real problems instead of fighting fake culture wars. I’m glad that an arena full of Republicans stood up to applaud when I said I was proud to be gay, because gay pride shouldn’t be a partisan issue. All people deserve respect, and nobody’s sexuality should be made a public fixation.
Unfortunately, lurid interest in gay life isn’t a thing of the past. Last week, The Daily Beast published an article that effectively outed gay Olympic athletes, treating their sexuality as a curiosity for the sake of internet clicks. The article endangered the lives of gay men from less tolerant countries, and a public outcry led to its swift retraction. While the article never should have been published, the editors’ prompt response shows how journalistic norms can improve, if the public demands it.
As an internet entrepreneur myself, I feel partly responsible for a world in which private information can be instantly broadcast to the whole planet. I also know what it feels like to have one’s own privacy violated. In 2007, I was outed by the online gossip blog Gawker. It wasn’t so many years ago, but it was a different time: Gay men had to navigate a world that wasn’t always welcoming, and often faced difficult choices about how to live safely and with dignity. In my case, Gawker decided to make those choices for me. I had begun coming out to people I knew, and I planned to continue on my own terms. Instead, Gawker violated my privacy and cashed in on it.
It didn’t feel good, but I knew it could have been much worse. What I experienced would be minor in comparison with the cruelties that could be inflicted by someone willing to exploit the internet without moral limits.
As the competition for attention was rewarding ever more exploitation, Gawker was leading the way. The site routinely published thinly sourced, nasty articles that attacked and mocked people. Most of the victims didn’t fight back; Gawker could unleash both negative stories and well-funded lawyers. Since cruelty and recklessness were intrinsic parts of Gawker’s business model, it seemed only a matter of time before they would try to pretend that journalism justified the very worst.
Sure enough, in October 2012 Gawker did something beyond the pale: They published a sex tape without the consent of the people in the video. Unfortunately for Gawker, they had targeted someone who was determined to fight back. Terry Bollea is better known as the wrestler Hulk Hogan, a fact that Gawker claimed justified public access to his private life. Mr. Bollea disagreed. At first he simply requested that Gawker take down the video. But Gawker refused. It was getting millions of page views, and that was making money.Continue reading the main story