Litigation Censorship, Gawker, and the End of the Free Press

I am super grumpy today. Angry. No—thoroughly pissed off at billionaire bully Peter Thiel’s vendetta litigation financing that resulted in today’s bankruptcy filing by new media journo Gawker Media. Thiel plunked down, admittedly, at least $10 million to back Hulk Hogan’s breach-of-privacy lawsuit, which resulted in a $140 million jury judgement against the blog network for releasing the former faux wrestler’s sex tape.

Gawker had asked the presiding judge to set aside damages during the appeals process. Denied. The amount due exceeds the company’s assets, precipitating the Chapter 11 filing that will effectively end the media company as we know it now. Gawker is on the auction block, where Ziff Davis already has an offer. 

Thiel, who wasn’t man enough to sue Gawker directly, deserves dis-respect. Clandestine litigation finance bullying against a news organization is an attack on free speech and should concern everyone—regardless their opinion about Gawker. Thiel’s victory, using Hogan as a proxy, is dangerous. The entrepreneur fouly innovates beyond tech to the courtroom, showing other white, wealthy men that litigation financing can silence or even destroy media organizations that report things about which they disapprove.

Gawker blog Valleywag outed Thiel in 2007—one of several stories, but the most significant, that set him on the road to surreptitious revenge. Writing for The Guardian today, Nicky Woolf captures my sentiments: “Bankrupting Gawker over a grudge isn’t justice—it’s censorship“.

Strangely, I see similarities between Thiel and Gawker founder Nick Denton. Both men are gay. They obsess about changing the world—one through technology and politics, the other by disclosing dirt about technology and politics (among other industries). They’re Type A, unapologetic personalities.

Additionally, both claim to be working for the public good. Thiel unabashedly tells the New York Times that supporting Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker is “one of my greater philanthropic things that I’ve done. I think of it in those terms”. He accuses the media company of “getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest”. I laugh, because—setting aside caustic, gutter, tabloid editorial style—the Gawker newsroom hugely serves the public interest.

Many among the tech elite are accidental successes, spurred forward by insular culture of venture capitalist funding and exploitation, alongside fortuitous timing. As a tech reporter of more than 20 years, I have much experience witnessing the over-sized heads on San Francisco-area entrepreneurs’ little shoulders. Valleywag, before being shuttered, punctured over-inflated egos—something Thiel admittedly resents.

In a tight-knit business community where conflict-of-interest is a way of life, and that includes some media organizations intertwined with venture capitalists, Gawker serves the public interest—not as the bully Thiel asserts, but as the scrappy dog biting bullies like him.

Some evidence comes from the blog network in superb, example-filled “Here’s What Gawker Media Does“, posted June 2nd. From Wired, today: “These 10 Stories are Exactly Why We Need Gawker“, by K.M. McFarland.

Denton’s newsroom is the wonder of new media for holding accountable the bastions of capitalism and entertainment who live in stratified air of unaccountability. The Untouchables. Like the best old-media tabloids, Gawker prioritizes scoops, illuminating secrets cowering like vampires in darkness. That editorial style serves the public interest. Or did.

Gawker’s days are numbered now. Branded sites like Gizmodo may continue in name under new ownership, but declawed and defanged. You won’t find many potential buyers willing to take the same risks, particularly with the inherited legal liabilities and the threat Thiel and other litigation financiers pose to all media sites following the Hogan verdict. I worked for Ziff Davis, for example, and rightly worry that under new ownership Gawker will become an apirition haunting the cemetery of defiant, investigative tabloid journalism—where billionaire bully Thiel dances on its grave.

Fuck you, too.

Photo Credit: Ben Raynal