According to recent news reports, the Hulk Hogan sex tape lawsuit that threatens to bankrupt Gawker media was anonymously funded by Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley billionaire, early investor and board member of Facebook, and Libertarian supporter of Donald Trump. According to reports, Thiel decided to wage proxy legal warfare against Gawker because he was mad at them for publishing a story in 2007 saying that he was gay (Thiel is openly gay, but in 2007 he had not yet formally gone public about his sexual orientation).
This story is amazing on multiple levels:
1. Peter Thiel is RUTHLESS. He stayed angry at Gawker for YEARS and kept biding his time, waiting for them to do something that might make themselves vulnerable to a lawsuit—and then he sprung into action!
2. Peter Thiel is DIABOLICAL. Hulk Hogan’s lawyers deliberately did some legal maneuvering during the trial that would exempt Gawker’s insurance company from having to pay for the settlement—presumably at Thiel’s direction, they were deliberately trying to kill the company by exposing the company’s own assets.
3. Peter Thiel is PETTY. Now that Gawker is facing a $140 million court judgment, Peter Thiel went to Stage 2 of his plan, by going public as the financial backer of the Hulk Hogan lawsuit—thus laying down the gauntlet to any prospective buyers or investors to warn them not to go near Gawker. This is cold-blooded shit! (Side note: how petty do you have to be to set this kind of elaborate evil plan into motion, YEARS later, against a shitty gossip website that most people don’t even pay attention to? Peter Thiel’s a billionaire! His time is INFINITELY valuable! Instead of spending time secretly managing Hulk Hogan’s sex tape lawsuit, he could have just ignored Gawker and stuffed his ears with $100 bills and spent his time doing cannonballs into his private Olympic-sized swimming pool full of champagne! I can’t even fathom this level of pettiness. I almost have to admire that kind of attention to detail, and that kind of long-term lust for revenge. Maybe being petty is what makes people truly great!)
What does this all mean? First of all: Gawker is screwed. Even if they eventually get this $140 million verdict overturned or reduced on appeal, Peter Thiel is not going away. He can keep tormenting Gawker forever, until they go bankrupt. Former Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio (who originally approved the Hogan story to be published, and whose disastrous testimony at the trial made him look like the least sympathetic defense witness since Jeffrey Dahmer) got slapped with $100,000 in punitive damages that Daulerio will have to personally pay.
Now, I don’t want to bend over backwards to defend Gawker’s conduct: they were a bunch of sleazy morons for publishing the Hulk Hogan sex tape when he didn’t want them to; they probably were legally wrong to do what they did, and they probably deserved to lose big in court.
But the bigger story here is the possible chilling effect that this precedent could have for media coverage and freedom of the press. What troubles me about this story is not the fact that a clickbait gossip site got sued for posting a sleazy sex tape—it’s the idea that a vindictive billionaire can use a loophole in the court system to secretly wage legal battles by proxy, without his name and influence being known until after the fact. It’s scary that a rich, powerful man can use such sneaky, underhanded tactics to destroy a media organization for petty, personal reasons. As Felix Salmon writes in Fusion:
“If Thiel’s strategy works against Gawker, it could be used by any billionaire against any media organization. Sheldon Adelson, Donald Trump, the list goes on and on. Up until now, they’ve mostly been content suing news organizations as plaintiffs, over stories which name them. But Thiel has shown them how to go thermonuclear: bankroll other lawsuits, as many as it takes, and bankrupt the news organization that way. Very few companies have the legal wherewithal to withstand such a barrage.”
In a worst-case scenario, if the types of tactics that Thiel used against Gawker are able to stand, no media organization will be safe. Any billionaire could use his unlimited resources to bankrupt any media organization he disapproved of, by funding third-party lawsuits that were totally unrelated to the billionaire’s own life or business.
Aside from the merits of the Hulk Hogan case (and again, Gawker acted like a bunch of stupid scumbags), what Thiel is doing is an absolute perversion of the justice system. But I also have no idea how to stop it. Sure, rich people using the courts to get what they want is nothing new; but this idea of billionaires secretly funding lawsuits and acting like puppet masters behind the scenes just feels even more wrong. If someone is suing you, you deserve to know who your adversary really is. If you’re being sued, you should have a right to know who is funding the lawsuit against you; it seems like that’s part of the legal principle of having the right to face your accuser in court. Maybe plaintiffs should be required to disclose the sources of funding for their legal fees? If political campaigns are required to disclose the names of people who donate to fund the campaign, shouldn’t a lawsuit (a matter of public record) be held to the same standard?
And no matter how you feel about Gawker’s conduct against Peter Thiel or in the Hulk Hogan sex tape case, there’s also an important First Amendment principle at stake here: Media companies should be able to fearlessly question, antagonize and even offend rich, powerful people without fearing that they’ll get torpedoed years later by an unrelated lawsuit bankrolled by the rich guys. It was especially cunning of Peter Thiel to do this to one of the least-sympathetic, least-defensible media organizations in America, so everyone would be laughing at how screwed those idiots at Gawker are, while overlooking the larger implications of Thiel’s scheme. (See? This man is DIABOLICAL.)
Of course, it might turn out that this Gawker case is not THAT big of a deal—maybe Gawker is a one-time anomaly: A gossip site that made itself exceptionally vulnerable to a ruinous lawsuit, and that happened to run afoul of the wrong petty, vindictive billionaire. Maybe everything will be fine. But even if that’s the case, I don’t like what it says about America—because apparently, we’re now officially living in a country where our legal rights only exist depending on the whims of billionaires, and our only recourse is to hope that the billionaires are friendly billionaires like Warren Buffett, and not evil billionaires like the Koch brothers.
I hate these Silicon Valley modern day robber barons, by the way—with their self-serving “philanthropy” and their boundless optimism and their blithe indifference to wealth inequality and their sanctimonious bullshit about how their companies are making the world a better place while also, oh by the way, making themselves even more incredibly rich. I’m so glad that your latest app is making life better for rich white people in San Francisco! Good job, guys! The rest of us are out here living in the real world where unarmed black people can still be murdered by police with impunity! Do you have an app for that? No? Social justice and equal rights under the law are not very “monetizable,” are they? You’re not interested in solving society’s most intractable problems; you’d rather make a mobile app to help rich jerks hire underpaid part-time help to walk their Corgis: “It’s like Uber for dog walkers!”
And the worst thing about today’s Silicon Valley rich guys like Peter Thiel is that they act like THEY—the richest, most privileged, most-rewarded and unquestioningly admired rich people in history—are the “victims!” I miss the days when rich guys were VICTIMIZERS. I miss the days when rich guys were purely, unapologetically EVIL—when rich guys would hire Pinkerton goons to make the streets run red with the blood of the working man, and then play croquet amidst the piled-up corpses of striking coal miners. Compared to the real blood-soaked bastards of American capitalism, like John D. Rockefeller, today’s Silicon Valley billionaires are a bunch of thin-skinned weenies.
Anyway, I’d like to close by saying: Peter Thiel, please don’t sue me or Paste Magazine for publishing this. But especially don’t sue me. I don’t have any money; I’m just a humble freelance writer trying to pay the bills and hopefully someday I can help send my kids to college so they can have a more stable career than me, with dental insurance and paid vacation and multiple pairs of pants. Oh wait, you’re on the record as being very anti-college. Never mind! I’m going to send my kids to, uh, Libertarian Camp, and they can start their own businesses right after high school, selling Ayn Rand action figures. (Please don’t sue us!)
I’m sure that deep down, you’re not a bad guy, Peter Thiel. I’m sure you’re actually a warm hearted, visionary genius, and not a cold, joyless, money-grubbing automaton who has never known true human love. (Please don’t sue us!)
And I’m sure your libertarian political philosophy is actually very wise and principled, and not an inhuman, self-serving, laughably pseudointellectual dreck pile that has never worked, and will never work, anywhere in the real world! I’m sure you have great judgment about politics—after all, you funded the work of James O’Keefe, the conservative activist who made those controversial videos to “expose” the ACORN group a few years back—I’m sure he’s actually a crusading journalistic truth-teller, and not a creepy fedora-wearing College Republican dimwit! (Please don’t sue us! Please!)
And you’re a pledged delegate for Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention! Oooh, good for you! I’m sure a wealthy Silicon Valley grandee like you will feel totally comfortable hanging out in Cleveland for three days with a bunch of working class whites from the Rust Belt! Hey, if there’s one thing Republican convention-goers love, it is: gay people from San Francisco! And I’m sure Donald Trump is actually a very smart, statesmanlike person who is going to lead America into a new golden age of entrepreneurial brilliance, and not the worst thing to ever happen to this country. Hey, someone like you who was right about PayPal and Facebook is surely 100% right about absolutely every other major issue facing the world! (Please don’t sue us!)
So anyway, thank you, Peter Thiel, for standing up to the bullies at Gawker. With your help, America will remain a shining beacon of liberty where pro wrestlers can say the N-word in the privacy of their own homes while having sex with their best friend’s wife on camera. Penn Jillette and all the other Libertarian heroes of America salute you!
(Ugh. Penn Jillette is the worst. Even if I didn’t know anything else about Libertarianism, and all you told me about Libertarianism was, “Penn Jillette is a Libertarian,” I would still hate Libertarianism.)
In conclusion: Peter Thiel is awesome, and please don’t sue us. No really, DON’T sue us. I love you, Peter Thiel.
But Penn Jillette sucks.