OK. Here’s the back story if you don’t already know it; the Reader’s Digest version is that PayPal billionaire, Peter Theil has recently fessed up to funding Hulk Hogan‘s lawsuit of Nick Denton‘s Gawker, who years ago “outed” and annoyed Theil. There’s a LOT more but that’s the gist of it. Yesterday came this open letter from Denton,
Nearly a decade ago, after you had opened up to friends and colleagues, a gay writer for Gawker shared an item with the readers of Valleywag, a section for news and gossip about the rich and powerful of Silicon Valley. “Peter Thiel, the smartest VC in the world, is gay,” wrote Owen Thomas. “More power to him.”
And more power did indeed come to you. Your investments in Facebook and other companies have given you a net worth of more than $2 billion. You have tapped some of that fortune to support gay groups such as HomoCon. It is now clear that gay people are everywhere, not just in industries such as entertainment, but at the pinnacles of Silicon Valley power.
I thought we had all moved on, not realizing that, for someone who aspires to immortality, nine years may not be such a long time as it seems to most of us. Max Levchin, your fellow founder at Paypal, told me back in 2007 you were concerned about the reaction, not in Silicon Valley, but among investors in your hedge fund from less tolerant places such as Saudi Arabia. He also warned of the retribution you would exact if a story was published about your personal life.
Your revenge has been served well, cold and (until now) anonymously. You admit you have been planning the punishment of Gawker and its writers for years, and that you have so far spent $10 million to fund litigation against the company. Charles Harder, the Hollywood plaintiff’s lawyer who has marshaled your legal campaign, is representing not just the wrestler Hulk Hogan on your behalf, but two other subjects of stories in suits against Gawker and its editorial staff.
You told the New York Times that you are motivated by friends who had their lives ruined by Gawker coverage, and that your funding is a “philanthropic” project to help other “victims” of negative stories. Let us run through a few examples so that people can actually read the articles you find so illegitimate, and make their own judgment about their newsworthiness.
Sean Parker, a partner in your Founders Fund and an early backer of Facebook, is one of the friends who was covered extensively on Gawker’s Valleywag. Those stories, some of them by me, helped define the colorful character played by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network, the David Fincher movie about the founding of Facebook. Parker was stung more recently by criticism from his neighbors of the disruption to 10th St. in Manhattan when the street was dug up to get a Fios line to Bacchus House, the famous party venue where Parker had been planning to live. Valleywag covered that story, as well as his lavish and controversial wedding in the redwoods near Big Sur.
Hulk Hogan was the first client represented by Charles Harder in a suit against Gawker. As we now know, the famous wrestler and entertainer sued over snippets of a sex tape apparently in order to shut down reporting of a racist rant against a black man dating his daughter.
Ashley Terrill, also represented by Harder, is suing Gawker for $10 million for defamation. She is a reporter who offered information about the conflict between the founders of two dating apps, Tinder and Bumble, who herself became part of the story after claiming she was being harassed and surveilled by agents of Tinder co-founder Whitney Wolfe.
Shiva Ayyadurai is a Massachusetts entrepreneur who says he invented email—about a decade after email was actually invented. A story on Gizmodo, Gawker’s tech property, said straight out that his claims were false, as did the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Represented also by the lawyer you hired, Ayyadurai is suing Gawker for $35 million for defamation, though not the other news organizations that made the same point.
Peter Thiel—that is, you. Yes, Gawker has often been critical. Our writers have derided your views on female suffrage, mocked the libertarian separatist vision of offshore seasteads free of government interference, and questioned some of the businesses you have backed. There is much more. They don’t find you very likable.
I can see how irritating Gawker would be to you and other figures in the technology industry. For Silicon Valley, the media spotlight is a relatively recent phenomenon. 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.
And I can see how tempting it would be to use Silicon Valley’s most abundant resource, a vast fortune, against the harsh words of the writers of a small New York media company. We have our devices; you have yours.
Among the million posts published by Gawker and other properties since the company was founded, there have undoubtedly been occasions we overstepped the line. In offsetting the fawning coverage of tech luminaries and others, sometimes our stories swing too far for my taste toward snark.
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.
A.J. Daulerio, author of the 2012 story on Hulk Hogan, is out of work and unable to pay the $100,000 in punitive damages awarded by the jury. In the Ayyadurai and Terrill complaints, Harder cynically paints author Sam Biddle as an abuser of narcotics, basing this claim on Biddle’s own writing about his struggle with anxiety and depression, and the physician-prescribed medication he takes to treat his mood disorders. John Cook, our executive editor, is accused of negligent hiring and retention.
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.
The world is already uncomfortable with the unaccountable power of the billionaire class, the accumulation of wealth in Silicon Valley, and technology’s influence over the media.
You are a board member of Facebook, which is under congressional investigation after our site Gizmodo reported on the opaque and potentially biased way it decides what news sources are seen by its billions of users.
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.
You were the basis for the affectless venture capitalist in the HBO show, Silicon Valley; with this diabolical decade-long scheme for revenge, you are redefining yourself as a comic-book villain.
This story will play out in the press and the courts. Both are adversarial forums, in which each side selects facts and quotes to undermine the reputation and credibility of the other. We are confident of our arguments on the newsworthiness of our Hogan story, once it reaches the appeals court. Your main proxy, Hulk Hogan, has his.
We, and those you have sent into battle against us, have been stripped naked, our texts, online chats and finances revealed through the press and the courts; in the next phase, you too will be subject to a dose of transparency. However philanthropic your intention, and careful the planning, the details of your involvement will be gruesome.
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.
We can hold the discussion in person with a moderator of your choosing, in front of an audience, under the auspices of the Committee to Protect Journalists, or in a written discussion on some neutral platform such as Medium. Just tell me where and when.
At the very least, it will improve public understanding of the interplay of media and power. Considering the amount spent on lawyers, $20 million between us at this point, there should be some public benefit.
In the meantime, here are some more pointed and immediate questions.
Have you or your representatives paid Hulk Hogan personally in addition to covering his legal expenses?
You say that you are operating much like a contingency lawyer, so does that mean you will take a third of any final judgement, or more?
You said you were funding several cases. Specifically, can you confirm you are funding Charles Harder’s work for Shiva Ayyadurai and Ashley Terrill?
Is your goal to bankrupt, buy, or wound Gawker Media? If you were to own the company after a final judgment in the Hogan case, what would your editorial strategy be?
You say that Gawker is not a legitimate news source. Do you take the same view of the other properties—Gizmodo, Deadspin, Jezebel, Kotaku, Jalopnik and Lifehacker?
As a Facebook board member, how have your own views on politics and news influenced your contribution to corporate decisions?
When you say your aim is deterrence rather than revenge, whom do you aim to deter?
You said you wanted to even the legal playing field for people without your resources. If Gawker Media was forced to sell the company to pay a bond or fight these court cases, would you and your agents seek to block that transaction?
Is Sean Parker the friend you mentioned that persuaded you to pursue this campaign?
And lastly, I understand that you give codenames from Tolkien for all your projects. What’s this one?
(Let me guess: Mordor.)