Gawker, Peter Thiel, and me

Owen Thomas
Jun 8, 2016 · 5 min read

My old boss, Gawker Media CEO, Nick Denton, called me last month. From the deadpan affect I’d learned to decode a dozen years ago, I could tell he had some juicy tidbit. “I’ve heard that Peter Thiel is behind the Hulk Hogan lawsuit,” he told me.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Peter has better things to do.”

I called back a couple of days later with a theory: “Nick, have you considered the Scientologists?”

With the subsequent revelation that Thiel was indeed financially backing the lawyers pursuing Hogan’s invasion of privacy suit, I felt foolish indeed — not the first time a conversation with the whip-smart Denton left me feeling that way. And then bewildered by the thought that Thiel — the tech entrepreneur and investor I met 16 years ago when he was a co-founder of PayPal — had been so enraged by something I wrote that he reportedly spent $10 million fueling lawsuits like Hogan’s in a bid to put a stop to Gawker’s reporting.

From 2007 to 2009, I was the managing editor of Gawker Media’s Valleywag, where I pursued, let’s say, disruptive innovations in reporting about the tech industry. “You people in Silicon Valley are far too busy changing the world to care about sex, greed and hypocrisy. So you won’t want to read a tech gossip rag,” we told readers. It turns out that they did want to read Valleywag — closely and furiously. The blowback was intense: At one point, insiders told me, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg paused her views on gun control long enough to declare to confidantes that she wanted to shoot me.

Thiel was a frequent subject of our coverage. His success at PayPal and early investment in Facebook gave him demigod status among other venture capitalists and company founders. That Midas myth was highly marketable, helping him raise funds for Clarium Capital. Our reporting on Clarium’s internal turmoil, including detailed accounts of disputes between Thiel and top executives, had to have been inconvenient for Thiel. Likewise our reporting from deep inside Facebook, where Thiel wielded great influence on a small board of directors, and whose fluctuating valuation as a private company likewise drove the perception of Thiel’s success.

Thiel made some good moves — viz. Facebook — and some bad — Clarium’s assets shrank by 90 percent and Thiel quietly moved away from the hedge fund business. I’m sure he would have rather seen less coverage of his failures.

And then there’s the much-cited 2007 post I wrote about the puzzling reaction of Silicon Valley’s elite to any discussion of Peter Thiel’s sexuality. By then, friends and others in Thiel’s circle had known he was gay for years. He was not in any kind of closet. I was aware that he had concerns about the idea of my writing a story on the subject, but those concerns, as far as I’d been able to determine, were purely professional, not personal — he was worried that it might place him at a disadvantage when raising money for a new Clarium Capital hedge fund in the Middle East.

I’m gay myself — a disclosure I make with a rhetorical eyeroll here — so I find it surprising to this day that people characterize the post as an “outing” that was somehow “cruel.” (I’ll note that many publications blithely asserted these opinions as facts without bothering to ask me about my actual state of mind.)

Let’s unpack that for a moment. In a post where I hailed Thiel, on the basis of his timely and savvy investment in Facebook, as “the smartest venture capitalist in the world,” I asked whether being gay formed part of his identity as an outsider who questioned conventional thinking in business and society. I felt it was interesting, as well, that there was such discomfort in Northern California, of all places — in the tech industry, of all industries — in openly discussing Thiel’s sexual orientation.

Add to that the subsequent conversation with a representative for Thiel who assured me that he had no issue with the post, which he viewed as simply stating a fact. Four years later, Thiel discussed his sexual orientation with the New Yorker’s George Packer in much the same terms: a fact about him, perhaps interesting, but less important, in his view, than others. Certainly nothing to merit $10 million thrown at lawyers on unrelated cases.

So that’s why I think there’s something else going on between Thiel and Denton. In a post titled “Does Nick Denton wish he were Peter Thiel?” I shared a message Denton sent me: “Thiel makes me sick!” I asked Denton what on earth that meant. Denton clarified that he found Thiel nauseatingly successful.

Denton and I didn’t see eye to eye on everything. Far from it. That feeling of illness was alien to me: The people I wrote about provoked fascination, not revulsion.

There’s a work of science fiction that’s long been a touchstone for me: “Speaker for the Dead,” a 1986 novel by Orson Scott Card. The main character, Andrew Wiggin, roams the galaxy trying to expiate his past sins by serving as an itinerant storyteller who delivers not saccharine eulogies but the true and complete narratives of people’s lives.

“When you really know somebody you can’t hate them. Or maybe it’s just that you can’t really know them until you stop hating them,” Wiggin says at one point. And at another: “Once you know what people really want, you can’t hate them anymore. You can fear them, but you can’t hate them, because you can always find the same desires in your own heart.”

Thiel has often attributed hate as a motivator for me and my successors at Valleywag. He once called the publication “the Al Qaeda of Silicon Valley” and likened its journalists to terrorists. In more recent interviews, he has maintained this line, suggesting that we acted out of malice, not curiosity. Thiel is a fan of science fiction. I wonder if he’s read “Speaker for the Dead.” (I’ve invited Thiel to resume our long-paused discussions, a request a representative for Thiel tells me he’s considering.)

“What would you do with the rest of your life if you knew you would live that long?” Thiel has asked in discussing his efforts to fund research into extending lifespans. Whether you think life will be long or short, though, surely it’s too precious to waste on revenge. If you’re going to live forever, would you want to refight old battles? Or would you want to share the wisdom gleaned over time and help others discover the truth?

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, speaking about Thiel’s disputes with Gawker at the Code Conference in Los Angeles last week, had this piece of advice: “Grow a thick skin. Move forward.” It’s not a bad plan. I hope Thiel considers it.

Owen Thomas

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Business editor, San Francisco Chronicle. AKA @ramonaterrier's dad or Papa O-Dubs. You can email me at owen at ditherati dot com if you must.