Peter Thiel vs Gawker Pits Journalists Against Silicon Valley

As writers warn of a chilling effect on free speech, tech titans send missiles like “Gawker can burn in hell”

Last Updated: May 28, 2016 @ 11:28 AM

The Peter Thiel campaign to bring down Gawker has drawn sharp battle lines between prominent Silicon Valley figures, who are siding with the billionaire, and journalists who warn that the secret war will chill free expression in a sector that sorely lacks transparency.

“Click bait journalists need to be taught lessons. Far less ethics and more click chasing in press today. I’m for #theil,” wrote venture capitalist and Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla.

At the same time, however, leading journalists shared deep concern over the effect that PayPal co-founder Thiel’s legal campaign would have in the future — namely, that it would harm a central tenet the First Amendment by chilling free speech.

“The key question here relates to precedent,” wrote Vox’s Ezra Klein. “Do you think the Hogan case will set precedent — either explicitly through the legal system or implicitly through a culture of fear — that will chill other publishers who have better reasons for posting private information about public figures? Do you think Thiel’s strategy of using his billions to back a potentially endless number of lawsuits that will crush Gawker beneath legal fees and judgments will go unnoticed by other plutocrats with less defensible vendettas and targets?”

The rift between Gawker and Thiel goes back at least to 2007, when the website outed him as gay. Earlier this week, Thiel admitted to funding a team of lawyers to find and help “victims” of Gawker Media’s coverage to mount cases against the website.

And, as revealed by Forbes on Tuesday, one of those people was Hulk Hogan. The former wrestling star won a stunning $140 million verdict in a defamation suit against Gawker Media after it posted parts of a sex tape showing Hogan with a friend’s wife.

“It’s less about revenge and more about specific deterrence,” Thiel said in an interview with The New York Times the day after he was identified. “I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest.”

Many in the media quickly rushed to Gawker’s defense.

Elizabeth Spiers, who co-founded Gawker with Nick Denton, wrote on Medium that Thiel’s “retribution is incredibly disproportionate in a way that seems almost unhinged. It would be hard to argue that Thiel was materially damaged by Gawker’s coverage in the way that he’s now trying to damage Gawker.”

But those on the tech side have just as forcefully expressed their disdain for news outlets like Gawker and their support of Thiel.

Given Thiel’s “beliefs and objectives, I can’t fault him for his approach,” Parker Thompson of 500 Startups said in an interview.

“Gawker tried to have it both ways,” Venky Ganesan, managing director of Menlo Ventures, stated. “They wanted to be taken seriously as journalists, yet they didn’t follow all the norms.”

And the words became far harsher when it was the Twittersphere’s turn to bash the media firm. Here are some telling tweets from Silicon Valley stars like Chris Sacca, Michael Arrington and Vinod Khosla.