No matter how you might have felt about Gawker’s decision to publish the Hulk Hogan sex tape, the fact that Hogan’s legal expenses were being paid by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel and resulted in Gawker Media’s bankruptcy should frighten anyone who values a free press.
Full disclosure: I worked at Gawker Media for years, so I was invested in the Hogan trial and its outcome, and followed its myriad twists and turns. Peter Thiel’s involvement in the case didn’t come to light until after the jury had delivered a staggering $115 million in damages to Hogan at Gawker’s expense.
This forced Gawker Media into bankruptcy, which eventually resulted in the company’s sale to Univision. But Univision didn’t want to run the now-toxic property of Gawker.com, once the flagship site, and it was shuttered. Peter Thiel, through the expenditure of a lot of money, managed to bring about the closure of a media outlet that he held a grudge against. That continues to horrify me.
Here’s the 411 on Nobody Speak:
Journalists are trained to look for stories behind the stories. The reporters investigating the Hulk Hogan sex tape and the sale of the Las Vegas Journal-Review, however, found something unprecedented: billionaires covertly using their fortunes to silence the media. Nobody Speak explores what Peter Thiel’s financial support of the lawsuit against Gawker and Sheldon Adelson’s shadowy purchase of Nevada’s largest newspaper mean for future of journalism, the First Amendment, and the power of the ultra wealthy.
Nobody Speak is out on Netflix on June 23rd, and I can’t wait to watch it. Having had arguments about the fate of Gawker Media more times than I can count, let me head a few points off at the pass: Yes, publishing the sex tape was poor taste. But what many don’t realize about the case is that without Thiel’s shadowy financial backing, Hogan would have settled with Gawker out of court and the events that followed would not have occurred. A billionaire with an ax to grind against Gawker Media instead chose to look for any legal cases he could fund in an attempt to bring the company to its knees. And it worked.
This sets a frightening precedent going forward. If you are rich and dislike a media outlet, attack them and attack them until they go under. The man occupying the White House would probably cheer. We now have a President who ran his campaign yelling about how he’d open up libel laws so that more journalists could be sued for doing their jobs. The venerable Mother Jones was sued by a billionaire who didn’t like their article about his company, and while Mother Jones eventually won the lawsuit, it cost them millions of dollars in legal expenses as well as three years of time, energy, and anxiety. These aren’t the conditions the free press were meant to labor under.
Say what you will about Gawker—for all of its missteps, it had an important place in the media ecosystem, and now it is gone when we need it most. I miss it every day in Trump’s America.
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