On Peter Thiel and Gawker

My inbox and timelines have been flooded all day with Peter Thiel/Gawker related posts and emails, and below are some unadulterated thoughts — in no particular order, and replete with typos.

The censorship-via-lawyer problem is what most people are talking about right now, and rightly so. The notion that Thiel or any one percenter could wage a war of attrition against a media outlet with the intent of destroying it for slights real or perceived should be horrifying to anyone who believes that freedom of the press is a necessary condition for an open society where corruptions of power can and should be exposed. But as someone who (for the second time in my career) is operating as an entrepreneur and not a journalist, my first thought on reading the Forbes article this morning was unrelated to journalism.

My first thought was that this must make any entrepreneurs working with Thiel a bit nervous.

The whole situation reads like the plotline from an Evelyn Waugh novel — if Waugh had lived long enough to be exposed to two of our most American of cultural exports: professional wrestling and grainy sex tapes. You have Thiel biding his time for ten years, assembling a legal team, looking for as many opportunities to sue Gawker as possible, and then moving forward with the legal equivalent of a nuclear assault that would be financially implausible without Thiel’s extraordinary levels of wealth and Gavin Belson-y inclination to utterly destroy his enemies. And then you have Gawker, which has been, to put it charitably, inconsistent in the way it defines what is and isn’t newsworthy and invariably tends to be defined by its occasional bad judgment or bad taste rather than its occasional admirable displays of bravery or willingness to cover abuses of power and hypocrisy.

Which sometimes pains me as the founding editor of Gawker, though when I was writing it (2002–2003), it was a very different site. It was New York-centric, far less celebrity focused, and I wasn’t publishing sex tapes. If anything, I probably would have paid good money not to ever have to think about Hulk Hogan’s sex life. (And there have been stories Gawker has done that I wouldn’t have. I thought the Conde Nast CFO story was appalling.) My era of Gawker was mostly interested in insider media stuff, and even then, it just wasn’t that scandalous.

But this new situation disturbs me even without my connection to Gawker.

On the one hand, you have to admire Thiel’s sheer and apparently unending determination to make Denton and Gawker pay for coverage he didn’t like — it’s Olympic level grudge-holding. But the retribution is incredibly disproportionate in a way that seems almost unhinged. It would be hard to argue that Thiel was materially damaged by Gawker’s coverage in the way that he’s now trying to damage Gawker. His personal finances haven’t been destroyed and even the most egregious things Gawker has written haven’t put literally everyone who works for Thiel out of a job. (What did Lifehacker ever do to Peter Thiel?)

Even if Thiel wants to argue that Owen Thomas’s 2007 notorious “Peter Thiel is Totally Gay, People” post had a cataclysmically negative emotional toll for him, trying to destroy the entire business via abuse of the U.S. legal system still seems so epic in its vindictiveness that I couldn’t help but wonder whether this kind of asymmetrical reaction is just part and parcel of what you can expect in Thiel’s orbit generally, if you choose to do business with him.

I honestly don’t know if that’s the case. I hope it’s not. I’ve never met Thiel, though I do get invited to his Dialog conference every year, so it’s conceivable that we’re in similar orbits at least some of the time. And I never go to the conference, but admittedly not for any lack of interest. Thiel has been described to me by mutual friends as brilliant and mercurial, and brilliant/mercurial is, well… kind of my type. (Ask Nick Denton, who could also be described that way.) And he would have been someone I’d have been curious to meet, in part because I am convinced that he’s smart, provocative, and thinks in a very long term way about big thorny problems.

But there’s interesting-fun-mercurial and there’s the kind of mercurial where you start to worry about being anywhere near the blast radius when the person blows up, for of being completely incinerated — maybe even unintentionally. And that’s where I wonder what he’s like as an investor in situations where he’s actively involved. If you have a disagreement with him, is the result a reasonable adjudication of the conflict, or is there always a possibility that even small things could result in total annihilation?

And because I know there’s someone somewhere reading this and thinking “well, what the fuck is wrong with total annihilation when someone screws you over?”, here’s what I’d say: there’s a reason why proportionality is an important concept in the ethics of warfare and I think there’s a parallel here. I don’t want to go into Just War Theory/jus en bello rules of engagement or whether it’s a morally correct military doctrine, but if we didn’t largely hew to it, we could easily end up in a “because we can” cycle of foreign policy that allows wealthy powerful nations to catastrophically and relentlessly attack weaker ones for minor offenses. Disproportionate response facilitates tyranny.

And maybe Thiel thinks that “because I can” total annihilation is appropriate. He is, after all, backing a Presidential frontrunner who views “because I can” as a overriding personal and professional ethos that justifies all manner of morally questionable “spirit of the law” violations.

Maybe Thiel exhibits the same kind of gleeful nihilism. Again, I don’t know. But as someone who will likely be fundraising next year for an analytics product that’s squarely in Thiel’s wheelhouse, these are the questions I was thinking about this morning, in addition to the obvious First Amendment issues. As an entrepreneur: how would I feel about working with someone who would do this?

I would like to think that I would know more about whether this sort of thing is typical of Thiel’s behavior because there would be enough evidence of it one way or the other in tech press. But I don’t think there would be. A lot of self-censoring happens in the tech industry because people fear blowback — and in a way that I haven’t experienced in finance or publishing. Entrepreneurs genuinely worry that capital markets won’t be accessible to them if they express any kind of criticism, or talk about the bad things that happen in the industry. (I am not of that opinion, obviously, but as the former CTO of a big tech co told me a couple of weeks ago with a bit of an eyeroll, “you’re not normal anyway, Spiers.”)

Another factor: I think Thiel aside, tech press is largely fawning toward successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, and mostly unintentionally. Journalists who haven’t worked in tech themselves are sometimes genuinely and sincerely enamored with the promise of what they’re looking at and are so dazzled that they fail to ask the questions they should. Some of them are lazy and it’s always easier as a journalist to write the glowing lightweight story, where no one’s going to press you to nail down the facts and you won’t get any blowback from sources or subjects. Ultimately, this has created a sense of entitlement in the industry where denizens of Silicon Valley expect the media to actively support them and any negative portrayals are met with real anger and resentment, even when they’re 100% accurate. And it’s never the media’s job to support the industry — that’s PR. It’s the media’s job to cover it, the good and the bad. But if you’re not used to being covered, and that would describe 99% of the tech industry, the scrutiny can be uncomfortable.

Even comic scrutiny. I’m floored at how many of my colleagues vociferously hate the HBO show, Silicon Valley, because they view it as an indictment of their career choices and take it very personally, seemingly oblivious to the fact that satire by definition seeks to caricature the negative — ideally in the hopes that making it more prominent and pointing out the absurdities will result in some improvement. Silicon Valley doesn’t say that everything in Silicon Valley is horrible and corrupt. It says that this is what the downside of a boom looks like, and sometimes it can be horrible and corrupt, and sometimes it’s just hilarious.

I think when Valleywag was good, it did that, too, and there’s a place for that kind of coverage. I don’t think outing a tech executive serves that purpose, but if you write down the entire value of the Gawker properties on the basis of their worst posts, you fail to appreciate what it does that’s good and why that kind of journalism is necessary.

I certainly wouldn’t expect Thiel to appreciate that under the circumstances, but I also wonder if he knows what kind of signal completely firebombing Gawker sends. I’m know it’s satisfying to send an epic Don’t Fuck With Me message when you’re angry, but looking at it from an entrepreneur’s perspective, it’s hard not to look at the situation and read the message as, I Have No Sense of Proportionality and Might Go Completely Apeshit On You For The Slightest Infraction, Or If Godforbid We Just Have A Simple Misunderstanding.

It seems unreasonable to me. But then I’m not the kind of person who shows up with a gun when what the enemy really deserves is a good solid wedgie.

  • Rich Goldstein

    Was not in the U.S. during the early days of Gawker. How much of the glee other media outlets are expressing at the company’s loss do you think is based on it having covered the media (another industry that, like Tech, is unaccustomed to being covered and vengefully histrionic about even the mildest criticism)?

    • I don’t really see any glee coming from media outlets. I’m seeing some coming from SV sycophants who worship Thiel and random Hulk Hogan fans.

      • David

        It’s a money issue, Ms. Spiers.

        To make more money, Gawker broke rules of journalistic integrity. To protect itself from being held accountable, it hired numerous lawyers to both: (1) ensure that the cost of suing Gawker would be in the tens of millions, and (2) ensure that losing a lawsuit against Gawker would cost further millions of dollars, by legally arguing that the lawsuit loser should pay Gawker’s legal fees.
        My favorite saying is, “Never try to convince someone of something when their salary requires them to not understand it.”

        But I believe you’ll understand that Gawker’s *POSSESSION* of all that money made it believe it could get away with horrible behavior. Thiel and Hulk Hogan just used their money, to remove Gawker’s money. And I hope other media outlets will realize that a similar fate could happen to them.

        The American public is smart enough to know the difference between “free media speech” coupled with good behavior, honesty, and a desire for truth and “free media speech” coupled with lies, manipulation, and the advancement of a pro-liberal agenda.

        We accept the former, reject the latter – and classify Gawker as the latter.

  • David K.

    So if someone like Hogan can’t afford to fight back against Gawkers egregious and un-journalistic behavior they should just suck it up in the name of “freedom of the press”? Gawker has broken laws and acted in a despicable and capricious manner for years, that they are finally being held accountable in part thanks to someone whom they have harmed in the past with their complete and utter lack of journalistic ethics should be celebrated not critiqued. These morally bankrupt cowards have hidden behind the 1st Amendment to peddle their crap and inflict harm on real people to line their pockets, not out of any sense of journalistic desire. While individual Gawker staff members may be genuinely interested in journalism, its clear to anyone paying attention that the organization itself is not. Abuses like the ones Gawker properties routinely make do harm to genuine journalism and if they fold because of this or other lawsuits the world is better for it.

  • JDubsFL

    Tell you what Elizabeth: try and live with the specter of potentially having “journalists” camped outside your home shooting inside while you are engaged in intimate acts IN THE PRIVACY OF YOUR HOME…then tell us if you still find the behavior of Hogan and Thiel to be “unreasonable”. Everything you have stated above is tenuous on the grounds that you would expect some degree of privacy once you step across the threshold into your sanctuary…or are you going to argue that journalists have free reign to your privacy and to think otherwise is censorship?

    • I find it amazing that that’s what you think happened. I suggest you actually read about the details of the case. And pay attention to it when it goes to appeal.

      • Rob

        I find it amazing you still think you’re right.

  • TechHandle

    ES: The bias in your article is overwhelming, it’s insulting to suggest that your bias is limited with such lines as: “But this new situation disturbs me even without my connection to Gawker.” You seem to be ok with compromising journalistic integrity as a “necessary” part of building a valuable news brand. That’s appalling nonsense, a slippery slope and represents click-bait integrity; that’s not journalism.

    You’ve set out to downplay the damages Gawker Media made to Thiel and Bollea. However we can plainly see that the court found that significant damage had been done. This is not for you to speculate upon, a jury of your peers found the damage significant.

    There is a valuable lesson here in understanding the allowances of “freedom”, (such as freedom of press, freedom of speech and the like) these are not all access cards to malicious behaviour. Such a lapses in editorial judgement is not part of being a journalist – you should know better and you should do better. (Especially for a self-titled “expert”.)

    Now might be the time to review your professional associations and look within to understand the difference it means to be a journalist, or a click-bait sewer pipe.

    • I think I articulated my all of my biases in the piece. But “TECH HANDLE”, I think I can guess whose side you’re on, and why.

      • TechHandle

        Indeed the side I’m on appears to be the side of the law, the side of the jury and indeed the side of a moral character who can distinguish the difference between “news” and trash designed to get web-clicks.

        To me it seems that you fall on the side of “everything is news if it gets a click”, yet too scared to actually state that – meanwhile there are actual journalists who will enter war zones to report *actual* news.

  • Peter Thiel is absolutely NOT “abusing” the legal system. He funded a very legitimate lawsuit by an aggrieved party, who may not have had the money to fund it themselves. There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with that, regardless of his personal enjoyment. You have a claim if and when Thiel (or someone else) funds obviously frivolous suits against a media outlet that they don’t like. This isn’t one of those instances.

    • Well, three judges have ruled otherwise re: “legitimate lawsuit”, just not the one you read about in FL. Again, I’d pay attention to what happens on appeal.

  • Bear Blitzkrieg

    It boggles the mind that so many commenters here and elsewhere focus on Gawker and its perceived offenses against Thiel and Hogan while completely ignoring the implications of Thiel’s actions and the danger to our most cherished of freedoms posed by his war.

    Pause for a minute, forget Gawker. Here is a case of a regressive, unhinged, Donald Trump supporting, Randian psychopath with a strong authoritarian streak, using his wealth to silence people he doesn’t care for. That is as clear as any case of coercion — coercion by means of capital rather than the threat of physical force, but coercion nonetheless — and an incredibly worrying development.

    I personally think Thiel’s outing had journalistic value, due to his support for regressive and homophobic conservative causes.

    • Brian Miller

      So to summarize, if a particular person has political viewpoints that you disagree with, he arbitrarily loses his privacy rights and deserves to have his life actively destroyed through illegal activities.

      He or she should have no legal recourse, and should not be able to protect his own or other’s privacy rights through American jurisprudence, but should instead be subject to the arbitrary and capricious invasion of their privacy because they oppose The Party.

      • Bear Blitzkrieg

        Much like a homophobic politician who turns out to be gay, Thiel’s support for homophobes is newsworthy and a completely valid reason to out him. He is a public figure — an outspoken one at that and a he’s a big boy, he should’ve known that hypocrisy can’t stay hidden for long.

        His wealth and connections afford him safety from the regressive causes he supports. Other LGBT people who may not have been so lucky in business have been marginalized and discriminated against by the politicians he supported. They deserve to know.

        It has nothing to do with “The Party”. It’s about a bad person in the midst of an epic tantrum and if he’s allowed to have his way, our freedom will be threatened.

        • Brian Miller

          Of course it is about The Party.

          It isn’t about supporting anti-gay candidates. After all, the vast majority of the gay political establishment has done just that.

          From Bill Clinton, the president that signed the two worst anti-gay bills in US history: DOMA and DADT, to Joe Biden (primary sponsor of DOMA in the Senate), to Hillary Clinton and her passionate attacks on marriage equality in Senate floor speeches, to President Obama and his administration’s comparison of LGBT service members to rapists and murderers in his administration’s defense of DADT (in a lawsuit launched by the Log Cabin Republicans, of all people).

          This isn’t about supporting homophobes — it’s about supporting the “wrong ones in the other party.”

          Such spite.

          • tomamitai

            the two worst anti-gay bills in US history: DOMA and DADT

            Only if you believe history started in the 1990’s.

          • Brian Miller

            I’m talking on a federal level.

          • tomamitai

            If scrolling down is too hard for you, here’s a direct link.

          • Brian Miller

            You should read your own link. Those laws targeted all people, not just gay people.

          • tomamitai

            My bad, I guess it makes it OK if Gays and straights received the same punishment for private consensual behavior!

          • Brian Miller

            A bad law that targets everyone is a bad law that targets everyone.

            An anti-gay law like DOMA or DADT is an anti-gay law because it singles out LGBTs for discrimination.

            The federal laws you list don’t do that. So while they’re bad laws, they’re not anti-gay laws… Something to consider next time you jump down someone’s throat on the topic. 😉

        • V900

          For someone who seems to be so disgusted by hypocrisy, you sure seem to have a splendidly blind eye to your own hypocrisy…

      • V900

        That pretty much sums it up, yup.

        Give it up Bran, you can’t talk truth or sense or logic with someone like Bear Blitzkrieg.

        Bear Blitzkrieg is your typical bigoted, semi-racist milennial, who seriously believes that the highest purpose of journalism is to “fight” “homophobia” “discrimination” and other “regressive causes”.

        In other words: He’s only interested in journalism to the extent that it supports the same social issues that he happens to support.

        And if the roles were reversed, and somebody on “his team” was suing a media company that he perceives to be on “the other team”, you can be sure that Blitzkrieg found find that just fine and dandy. Because “homophobia” and tea party!

        • Bear Blitzkrieg

          Straw man and ad hominem. You met your logical fallacy quota for today I think.

          • Brian Miller

            “Wealth can be used as a form of coercion”

            Agreed. You’re clearly referring to the $500 million Gawker empire, owned by Nick Denton (worth over $200 million), targeting a minor celebrity whose wealth is a tiny fraction of that amount, right?

            Oh, you’re not? You’re referring instead to the wealthy Valley entrepreneur whose intervention allowed Hogan to stand up to the $700 million bullies seeking to destroy him?

            Double standards again. I’m just shocked.

          • Bear Blitzkrieg
        • Brian Miller

          Thing is, the treatment of Peter Thiel has been profoundly homophobic, just like the treatment of others who stray from The Party has been sexist, racist, bigoted and xenophobic.

          Their arrogance blinds them to the fact that they’ve become exactly what they claim to oppose.

  • Rob Pennoyer

    I believe the merits of the Hogan case are less important than the significance of one person secretly putting their fingers on the scales of justice. Money is not speech, but it seems that in every instance where it is de facto speech, ethical clouds hang overhead.

    That said, I am inclined to side with Gawker on the Hogan case. The video became newsworthy–even if only in the tabloid sense of the term–when Hogan stated in public that he didn’t do the thing depicted in the video. Gawker didn’t publish anything that was untrue.

    Arguments based on accusations of paparazzi tactics or confusing the distasteful or “un-journalistic” with the illegal are not relevant.

    • guardianangel42

      What’s the difference between Gawker putting their finger on the scale and Thiel? If a thousand victims of Gawker banded together, Gawker would *still* have enough money to wait them out.

      Drag the legal process on long enough, and eventually the victims just stop having enough money to pay the lawyer. That’s how these company’s win. All Theil did was balance the scale by providing for Hogan what Gawker already had.

  • Ben

    As a counterpoint to all of the blustery nonsense in this comments section… Let me just say that I appreciate how sober, imaginative, nuanced and thoughtful this piece was. I wish there were more participants in these debates like Spiers, and fewer like the rest of you guys. Your disagreements would be much more thought-provoking if you were better listeners.

  • Brian Miller

    All the hand-wringing over this case is hilarious.

    All the money in the world would not have harmed Gawker in this case if they hadn’t violated someone’s rights. They were appropriately found responsible for their tortious conduct and were rightly punished proportionately for the damage done in a court of law, with rules of evidence and an open process.

    Let’s not pretend that Gawker is a real news organization. Let’s also not pretend that the other digital journos freaking out about “this threat to an open press” have any interest in balanced reporting or confronting truly tough issues. On both those counts, they consistently fail miserably.

  • freelancewriternyc

    I realize blogs are supposed to be discursive stream-of-thought ramblings, but there are some real problems here, most notably that this has anything to do with Thiel wanting revenge because of scars left from being outed.

    Everyone comes out at his or her timetable. Thiel came of age when the Valley was even far more dominated by a “revenge of the nerds” frat-boys-gone-wild culture. While he wouldn’t have become a pariah if he were out at that time, as with many situations gay men find themselves in, he believed he would have felt uncomfortable, an outsider.

    I have little doubt he would have had a “soft” self-outing (a la Cook) within a few years. His wealth, situation and liberal environment made his forced outing probably no more wrenching than anyone would who had a personal secret publicly revealed.

    What the incident did do was set his laser-like sites on Gawker on (in his opinion) Gawker’s inherent malevolence. In the last several years, it has become the most bottom-feeding of trash tabloids and TMZ-type sites. Whatever the well-reported or well-written stories (I never saw them), the editors became more and smug and cynical.

    Funny you didn’t mention their testimony, because it probably was what most influenced the jury’s decision. People in St. Pete don’t take kindly to sharpy New Yorkers making fun of sex with 4-year-old girls.

    Whatever one thinks about Theil’s bankrolling Hogan’s case or his secretiveness in doing so (from anything I’ve ever read about this guy, that’s his entire modus operandi in doing anything), his ultimate vindication came from the jury, which not only found for Hogan, but was so disgusted by Gawker that it exponentially increased the recommended penalty.

    Of course it will be reduced on appeal, but one appeal has already been rejected. After that disgusting “outing” of a married Conde Nast CFO parent who may have hired a male escort once, Denton was forced to make a very public mea culpa and do some serious window dressing after advertisers fled — the only thing, ultimately, he cares about.

    When Gawker goes down, like Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, it won’t be because a billionaire was involved. It’s because the site finally reached the point where the public, advertisers and the law said ¡Basta!

  • notimeforbs

    Thiel is acting the part of the entitled jerk, who will stop at nothing to get what he wants – because he can afford it. So no sympathy that that prig. But here’s a case where I have to close my eyes, hold my nose and say, yes, I support Gawker. But not because Gawker is good or serves any useless purpose. Your former employer was a slimeball operation where little weenies consistently took cheap shots. All too often you did scummy pieces on regular people who worked in tech, rather than go after the rich and powerful. Denton and the people he employed were without honor and represented the worst.

    But this is not about Gawker. This is about journalism, freedom of expression and the 1st Amendment. And so we will have to support Gawker and hope that it wins the battle because Theilism cannot be allowed to triumph.

    • freelancewriternyc

      The First Amendment stops at the bedroom door.

  • guardianangel42

    Thiel could had thrown trillions at that lawsuit and it still wouldn’t have changed anything on its own. The court decided, based on the evidence and the arguments presented, that Gawker broke the law.

    Thiel didn’t bribe the judge and the jury, he funded legal fees for the victim. The court could have just as easily made that investment null and void by ruling that Gawker had committed no crime.

    This was a case where financial costs and lawyerly skill were taken out of the equation, leaving behind only the truth. And, according to the judge and jury, that truth was worth $140 million in damages.

    Also, I wouldn’t worry as an entrepreneur, because getting outed as gay in an elite environment can easily cause substantial financial losses. People still don’t realize how bigoted people at the top can be, even with Trump running for President.

    This was no “slight misunderstanding,” it was character assassination. I think most people should feel pretty safe doing business with him; I bet some of them are even eager to, given he helped take down a company that peddled sh*t-dripping garbage half the time.