After speculation that appeared to verge on conspiracy theory, Paypal cofounder Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire, Facebook board member, and pledged Trump delegate, was revealed this week to have been footing the bill for Hulk Hogan's lawsuit against the media company Gawker, a suit that resulted in a massive jury award in March. Now that his role in the matter is out in the open, Thiel is taking credit and sort of embracing it, speaking to the New York Times to call the controversial bankrolling of Hogan, a tactic known as third-party litigation funding, "one of my greater philanthropic things that I’ve done."
The chip on Thiel's shoulder is pretty unequivocally a decade-old item that ran on Gawker's Silicon Valley gossip blog Valleywag a site which the company later shut down. "I did discuss his sexuality," Owen Thomas, the piece's author and a current Chronicle staffer, tells the Times, "but it was known to a wide circle who felt that it was not fit for discussion beyond that circle. I thought that attitude was retrograde and homophobic, and that informed my reporting. I believe that he was out and not in the closet.”
Thiel says he spent about $10 million to fund Hogan's case, emphasizing that the move was not a business venture," although it may well have been a profitable one, had it been so. “It’s less about revenge and more about specific deterrence,” Thiel said, pointing to Gawker specifically as pioneering "a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest.”
“I refuse to believe that journalism means massive privacy violations,” Thiel said, reconciling the move with his previous donations to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent nonprofit that promotes freedom of the press. “I think much more highly of journalists than that. It’s precisely because I respect journalists that I do not believe they are endangered by fighting back against Gawker.”
While Thiel argues that third-party litigation funding grants access to legal recourse for those who might not otherwise be able to afford it —" One of my friends convinced me that if I didn’t do something, nobody would," he said — the Recorder quotes some lawyers who disagree. "This is a profit game," says John Beisner, a class action and mass tort defense litigator. The Recorder describes laws governing third-party litigation funding as a "patchwork at best."
There's been no shortage of reaction, often quite mixed, to the revelation of Thiel's role. For example, the Times quotes Fred Turner, a Stanford communication department chairman, on the tech industry's relative disdain for the press. “Silicon Valley is a closed world and has become more closed at the elite levels," he said. "The gossip that circulates between people doesn’t always leap into the media the way it might in New York. So Americans know the Valley primarily through its advertising, its self-promotion and its products... We should not be surprised that they act like entitled industrialists out here, because they are."
Others pointed to a similar disdain for Gawker across multiple industries, though no one seems to have put quite as grand a financial stake in its demise as Thiel. Dan Lyons, a onetime Valleywag writer, says “My guess is that most people hate Gawker as much as he does, so he probably ends up looking like a hero among his own crowd.” The response of Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff to all this might speak for many: “I don’t care about any of those people.”