News & Politics

Will Other Billionaires Follow Peter Thiel's Example and 'Silence' Journalists?

Peter Thiel (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Gawker screwed up when the website crossed billionaire Peter Thiel. Sure, they didn’t realize it at first. It wasn’t until they found themselves in court against Hulk Hogan and realized that Thiel was footing the bill that they understood just how screwed they were.

Now, filmmaker Brian Knappenberger, who made a documentary about the lawsuit, is concerned about how other wealthy people could follow Thiel’s lead and destroy news organizations that people love.

To me the Hogan-Gawker trial by itself had a really compelling tension between privacy and the first amendment. But the $140 million verdict, combined with the revelation that Peter Thiel was secretly funding the case, made it something very different. It became about how big money can be leveraged to silence journalism it doesn’t like. That is when I realized I needed to dig deeper, especially during a bizarre election cycle in which hatred of “the media” played a central role.

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There are usually a handful of people who see this film and still say that Gawker’s actions justify the death sentence they received. Hatred of the press, all press, runs high. But consider the flood of so-called fake news we’ve seen over the last year, which has included false stories that lead a man to shoot up a pizza parlor, or a figure like Alex Jones who has repeatedly insisted that the Sandy Hook shootings were a “false flag” operation. In that context Gawker is hardly the “singularly sociopathic bully” Peter Thiel made them out to be. As the saying goes, if you don’t believe in free speech for speech you don’t like, you don’t believe in it at all.

Except there’s a difference that Knappenberger seems to be missing.

You see, Gawker was brought down not by a wealthy man with an axe to grind, but by their own lack of journalistic ethics. For all of Jones’s many sins, he’s a commentator whom no one takes seriously. At least half of the people who pay attention to what he’s saying do so for comedic value.

But Gawker, people took seriously. Pretty high on that list was Gawker itself. They got hold of a sex tape featuring one of the most famous professional wrestlers of all time and they ran with it. Like the scientists in Jurassic Park, they spent so much time wondering if they could, they didn’t consider whether they should, and it bit them in the butt.

There are a lot of news organizations that rich guys might want to take down, including MSNBC and Fox News. The problem here is that those organizations might not be perfect, but they don’t cross the kinds of lines that Gawker did.

Gawker deserved what happened to them not because they ran a story I don’t like, but because they ignored every rule they should have known to follow. This wasn’t some one- or two-man blog, but a new media giant with the resources to know better.

Sorry, but Gawker doesn’t deserve any sympathy.