Every so often, journalists uncover an intriguing story that stimulates intellectual debate on issues of grave import. The revelation that eccentric Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel secretly bankrolled Hulk Hogan’s invasion of privacy lawsuit against Gawker Media is not one of those stories.
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And neither is news that Gawker has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to avoid paying $140 million in damages recently awarded by a Florida court.
Then why is the media so up in arms over this sordid affair? Why has the fourth estate almost universally condemned a famous tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist for putting up $10 million to help the wrestler win a slam-dunk case against a despised media company for refusing to take down a secret sex tape?
And why are a who’s who of media pundits and columnists striving so desperately to turn this tabloid trash into an existential threat against the almighty First Amendment, even after the jury sent a very clear message that it is not a free speech issue when it ruled in Hogan’s favor back in March?
Since everyone who came out against Thiel on this – which is pretty much everyone – seemed to have a different reason for doing so (none of which rang true, mind you) it took me a while to figure out what their real beef was all about. Turns out, that is of grave import … in an election year.
On LinkedIn Pulse, media entrepreneur and investor Michael Lazerow writes that he’s not just “disgusted by Peter’s actions,” but that his “secret war violated two of Silicon Valley’s most core and fundamental principles, trust and transparency.” I don’t know what Valley Lazerow is talking about, but, since he’s from New York, I thought I’d fill him in on how things really go down around these parts.
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Apple spent years and billions of dollars in legal fees to fulfill Steve Jobs’ vow to go “thermonuclear war” on Google and “destroy Android” for stealing the iPhone design while Google’s Eric Schmidt sat on Apple’s board of directors and Jobs was mentoring the search giant’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Talk about a breach of trust and transparency – if only that were unusual in tech [sigh].
Meanwhile, in a feature piece, Forbes somehow managed to paint Gawker and its CEO, Nick Denton, as victims. And yes, that’s the same Gawker that rose to fame on scathing, sensationalist takedowns where anything is fit to print and ethics is a foreign word. That’s also the same Nick Denton who the New Yorker described as “an evil, soulless, Machiavellian puppeteer.”
Sympathy for the devil, indeed.
Others have taken it quite a bit further. Vanity Fair’s Nick Bilton fears that Thiel’s action is just the first of what will surely be many brazen attempts by the tech elite to “morph society into the world they believe we should live in.” After all, he writes, “Who do you think is going to create the laws on Mars? The U.S. government, or Elon Musk and his old co-worker and buddy from PayPal, Peter Thiel?”
Bilton also seemed quite upset that Thiel had the nerve to serve him and other guests at his mansion sushi, edamame and drinks instead of the fanciful feast fit for a billionaire that he was expecting. I kid you not, folks.
What do you say we come back down to Earth and have a good honest heart-to-heart about what this is really all about: the enormous red, white and blue elephant in the newsroom, politics.
You see folks, Peter Thiel may be gay – as Gawker wrote when it outed him in 2007 – and he may live in the most liberal city north of the South Pole, San Francisco, but the German born businessman is a devout conservative libertarian who has supported dozens of Republicans in the past and is a pledged California delegate for one Donald J. Trump.
That explains a lot. You see, the tech media generally fall all over themselves glorifying entrepreneurs and VCs, and few have been as remarkably successful at both as Thiel.
A Stanford Law graduate who co-founded PayPal and $20 billion unicorn Palantir, Thiel was also an early investor in Facebook, LinkedIn, Yammer and Yelp. He manages over $2 billion in venture capital via his Founders Fund, which holds positions in Airbnb, Lyft, SpaceX, Spotify and cancer drug maker Stemcentrx, which is being acquired by AbbVie for $10 billion. He also funds a long list of philanthropic causes and wrote the #1 bestseller, Zero to One.
If anyone is deserving of the media’s adoration, it’s Thiel. Instead, they’ve come up with all sorts of hokey reasons to demonize him, not least of which is his latest cause, the demise of Gawker, which also owns Gizmodo, Lifehacker, Jezebel and Deadspin, and whose motto is “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news.”
While the media and many of Thiel’s cohorts have tagged him for taking vengeance too far, they actually have his motives wrong. If you read a rare interview he did back in 2009, it’s clear that Thiel indeed sees his efforts on behalf of those who’ve been wronged by Gawker, not as revenge, but as one of his many causes.
Thiel called Valleywag (now part of Gawker) “the Silicon Valley equivalent of Al Qaeda,” adding “It’s terrible for the Valley, which is supposed to be about people who are willing to think out loud and be different. I think they should be described as terrorists, not as writers or reporters,” he said. And he recently confirmed to the New York Times that he sees his actions against Gawker as among his “greater philanthropic” efforts.
Look, I’m not saying that, if it weren’t for his politics, everyone would wholeheartedly agree with his methods. There will always be paranoid conspiracy theorists who are fearful of plutocrats chilling free speech. Never mind that Thiel’s methods are entirely legal and, so far, the courts have ruled that Gawker’s free speech defense is invalid.
But if Thiel marched like the good little left-wing soldier that the tech media adore, I doubt if this backlash by otherwise clear-thinking people would have ever materialized.