In 2007, the Gawker-owned Valleywag outed Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire who founded PayPal and invested early in Facebook, as gay. Unrelatedly, Gawker later published a video of the wrestler Hulk Hogan having sex with a friend's wife (he was also married at the time). Hogan sued Gawker, and won a massive $140 million in damages. (Gawker is appealing.)
This week it came to light that Thiel has been funding Hogan's lawsuit, probably with the goal of bankrupting Gawker, and certainly with the avowed goal of "deterrence" — i.e. making sure media outlets think twice about engaging in the kind of outrageously salacious reporting Gawker is famous for.
Thiel's actions could definitely bankrupt Gawker. And it's not just about the outcome of the Hogan case. Thiel's lawyers have reportedly solicited other people to launch lawsuits against the site. Thiel is relentless and deep-pocketed, and Gawker's future promises to be an endless litany of lawsuits. This should probably dissuade any outside investors who might want to invest in the site.
Many journalists are worried about the "chilling effect" that Thiel's actions could have on free speech. Few people will argue that publishing Hogan's private sex tape had any real news value. But the concept of the chilling effect is that after such an event, editors will hesitate to run articles that sit in the grey area between personal privacy and public good.
Thiel, who as a philanthropist supports the Committee to Protect Journalists and is a proclaimed libertarian, has asserted that his endeavor won't harm free speech. "I refuse to believe that journalism means massive privacy violations," he has said. As a trained philosopher, he surely knows that there are a lot of unexamined assumptions in that formulation, particularly around the word "massive."
I know this firsthand as a journalist who lives in France. France has some of the most rigorous privacy restrictions on the press and, combined with an absurdly and shamefully incestuous media-political world, they definitely have a chilling effect. To take the most obvious example, Dominique Strauss-Kahn's "adventurous" sex life was an open secret in French political and media circles for decades. It only later emerged that his sexcapades included not just libertinism and wife-swapping, but allegations of rape, violence, and prostitution. Strauss-Kahn's career ended only because of what he did in a hotel room in New York — in France, it simply wouldn't have been reported.
The United States once had such a culture. The same media shyness that shielded John F. Kennedy's egregious womanizing from the public glare also looked past his mob ties. Politicians' sex scandals matter, because character matters, and if I have to pick between the media culture that lets someone like Dominique Strauss-Kahn almost reach the presidency of France, and the media culture Gawker created, I'd choose Gawker without hesitation.
Of course, Thiel would respond that you don't have to pick and choose between the two. The Hogan sex tape is not the same thing as credible rape allegations against a major politician. But this is precisely the point of the "chilling effect" concern. Even if you draw the line at a reasonable place, you will still deter everything near that line, so better draw the line a bit too far.
But here's the thing: Gawker did push the line much too far.
After Thiel's backing of Hogan came out, Gawker founder Nick Denton published an open letter to him, defending Gawker's style as a form of holding the rich and powerful to account. But if Gawker does that, it does so in the way that a stopped clock is right twice a day. Remember Justine Sacco, the low-level ad exec whose life Gawker utterly destroyed over a tweet that was obviously a (very tasteless) joke? How powerful was she? Denton plays the violins over his editor Sam Biddle's "struggle with anxiety and depression," but the same Biddle showed basically no remorse a year later for unthinkingly destroying a random person's life for clicks.
As Denton himself put it in one of his few moments of self-awareness, "we all have secrets, and they are not all equally worthy of exposure." And yet, potentially, anyone can be struck, for no reason.
Left-wing nightmares about billionaires suing media companies to death are way overblown. (Also, remember that time when billionaire-funded environmental groups sued a conservative magazine for questioning a climate scientist's work?) Peter Thiel may have deeper pockets than Gawker, but he doesn't have deeper pockets than most big news networks.
For the privacy of public people like Thiel and Hogan to be protected without a chilling effect, it would require a robust culture. One where editors and judges, especially, know where to draw that line, in those gray areas where what matters isn't so much clear statutes, but judgment. But for years, one of Thiel's main themes as a public intellectual has been the decline of our "indeterminate" culture, the sort of culture that forgets its own traditions.
If Thiel's action is good news, it's also because it's a vote of confidence in American culture from an unlikely place.