Last night, following roughly 24 hours of reports (and months of speculation), investor Peter Thiel confirmed that he’s currently financing multiple lawsuits against the blog network Gawker Media. Thiel’s long-simmering resentment, dating back to a 2007 post on the tech-industry gossip site Valleywag entitled “Peter Thiel Is Totally Gay, People,” is well-documented (he’s compared the site to Al Qaeda), but the lengths he’s gone to to destroy Gawker — and his apparent pleasure in doing so — didn’t really become apparent until last night’s article.
And, well: “One of my friends convinced me that if I didn’t do something, nobody would,” he told the New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin. Thiel classified the $10 million he had put toward Hulk Hogan’s case against Gawker as “one of my greater philanthropic things that I’ve done,” and said that the Hogan case, as well as other, unspecified lawsuits against Gawker that he’s funded, were “less about revenge and more about specific deterrence.”
If Thiel, an eccentric libertarian who’s invested millions in “seasteading” and has said that freedom and democracy might be incompatible, was seeking to dispel the spurned-supervillain vibe he’d been emanating since it was first revealed he’d spent a decade, and several million dollars, secretly destroying one of his enemies, this interview did not help. And the idea that a power-mad billionaire could legally, and at very little cost to himself, obliterate a media outlet that he didn’t like, disturbed more than a few commentators. At Fusion, Felix Salmon laid out the case that Thiel had given “other billionaires a dangerous blueprint for perverting philanthropy”:
It gets worse. If Thiel’s strategy works against Gawker, it could be used by any billionaire against any media organization. Sheldon Adelson, Donald Trump, the list goes on and on. Up until now, they’ve mostly been content suing news organizations as plaintiffs, over stories which name them. But Thiel has shown them how to go thermonuclear: bankroll other lawsuits, as many as it takes, and bankrupt the news organization that way. Very few companies have the legal wherewithal to withstand such a barrage.
Does Thiel’s strategy to bankrupt Gawker open the floodgates? Consider that the Thiel-Hogan-Gawker nexus is so specifically odd — a confluence of personal and professional grudges, high-profile egoists, and lopsided legal proceedings — that it’s hard to imagine it could really set a particular pattern of attack. To start with, few publications are as eager as Gawker to push the boundaries of first-amendment law; maybe more important, the Hogan case is itself a kind of black swan — a lawsuit that, were it not for the venue, the judge, and the fact that it was argued in front of a jury, would likely never have made it as far, and which is expected to be overturned or greatly reduced on appeal.
In that sense, Thiel’s plan for revenge relied not just on tenacity and wealth but on luck. As Ken Paulson, president of Vanderbilt’s First Amendment Center, points out, the other lawsuits that he’s believed to be funding against the company are extremely unlikely to ever result in enormous adverse judgments: “If the suit is frivolous, and intended to inflict thousands of paper cuts, responsible judges will throw that out right away.” (We can note here that the judge in the Hogan trial, Pamela Campbell, probably shouldn’t be considered a “responsible” judge.) And Thiel seems to have only opened up two “paper cuts” — lawsuits by freelance writer Ashley Terrill and scientist Shiva Ayyadurai — anyway.
“I realize there are gradations in some things. You can always eat up somebody’s resources, time, and budget by suing them — and particularly by suing them repeatedly,” Paulson says. But even so, “I don’t think there’s anything that’s happened in this case that escalates the threat against a free press.” The circumstances of the Hogan case, which Thiel is funding for highly personal reasons, are largely unique. “That’s highly unusual and I don’t think it’s a game-changer for anybody,” Paulson said.
But maybe the bigger reason Thiel’s scheme doesn’t open any floodgates is that those particular floodgates were never really closed. Media companies operate in a hostile climate; presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has explicitly advocated making it easier to litigate against media companies. Thiel may have the Count of Monte Cristo flair for chilled revenge, but he isn’t even the first billionaire in the last year to put his wealth toward lawsuits intended to destroy a media organization. Mother Jones, the liberal nonprofit magazine, recently won a judgment against billionaire Republican donor Frank VanderSloot, but at a cost of $2.5 million to the publication and its insurance company (and two years of consequent financial and institutional stress). In the wake of VanderSloot’s loss, the Idaho billionaire established the Guardian of True Liberty Fund, in order to defend conservatives against the liberal media, and said he’d put up $1 million of his own money for anyone who wanted to sue Mother Jones or members of the liberal press. The only difference between VanderSloot and Thiel is that VanderSloot hasn’t tried to hide his bullying tactics.