Big Money’s Chilling Effect Means No Matter Who Wins, We Lose

Matt Dusenbury
May 31, 2016 · 8 min read
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for New York Times (Source).

Podcasting gets me into trouble. Each week, once the coffee is poured and the mic is hot, my co-host and I dive into the topic du jour with renewed vigour. It’s always fun, though that’s not why we do it. No, the reason why Chris and I started The Campfire Project two years and nearly 100 episodes ago is because we wanted a forum to debate, discuss and blow apart topics that reside at the intersection of technology and storytelling — a crossroads through which more and more of the world is passing every day. We talk fast, I slur, and, after an hour or so, each of us come away with a better understanding of things than when we started. I’m proud to say our listeners do as well.

But sometimes podcasting gets me into trouble.

Our latest episode, “Secret Wars,” unpacks the revelation that Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel has been secretly bankrolling the lawsuit brought against the website Gawker by Hulk Hogan, and only admitted to it after Forbes broke the news. In response, avid listener and friend of the show Breki Tomasson wrote a piece noting a few issues with the details of our discussion.

It’s a good critique and I wanted to address his concerns in hopes of clarifying my own argument against Thiel’s dealings against Gawker from the dark. Tomasson helpfully breaks down his grievances into two sections. The first deals with our characterization of the case of Hogan v. Gawker Media itself, objecting to our framing of the matter, writing,

“The hosts of The Campfire Project seem to want to portray this as some kind of freedom of press issue where it would be terrible if somebody who doesn’t like a publication can just shut it down. While I agree with them on that topic, that’s not really what the court case was about. There are very clear laws about what you can do with your freedom of press, and one of the most obvious one has to do with how you still need to follow existing libel laws and privacy laws.”

The second half of that statement is, of course, true. (More of the first half shortly.) There are rules governing what does and does not fall under the guise of free speech, and publishers and individuals alike must work within those constraints lest they be hauled into court for violating someone’s privacy or committing libel*, slander, or other forms of defamation. In this case, Hogan is arguing that Gawker violated his privacy by publishing a video of him sleeping with someone. On this, Hulk Hogan, Breki, and I all agree, and I am glad Gawker was held accountable for it.

Hulk Hogan (Source)

It is not my intention to invoke freedom of the press as a defence for Gawker’s terrible editorial decisions. Both Chris and I made it clear over the course of the episode that we do not accept or endorse Gawker’s methods, and condemned them several times.

Rather, the freedom of speech argument was aimed one level higher. What is problematic in this case is Thiel’s punitive and vengeful tactics, using Hogan’s case as a vehicle, a trojan horse used to launch a fatal blow at a publisher that personally slighted him nearly a decade ago.

What Gawker did to Thiel is inexcusable, that is true. But it is also true that an elite member of society personally ushering in the destruction of an entire publishing operation, and using the US court system to exact his revenge, after a years-long endeavour is more than disconcerting; it is borderline terrifying. It is an exceptionally disproportionate response, not just in its vindictiveness, but in its ramifications. As Elizabeth Spiers notes,

“It’s Olympic level grudge-holding. But the 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. His personal finances haven’t been destroyed and even the most egregious things Gawker has written haven’t put literally everyone who works for Thiel out of a job. (What did Lifehacker ever do to Peter Thiel?) And given his hard libertarian tendencies, it should at least make him uncomfortable in a very prickly way to utilize government bureaucracy to put a capitalistic enterprise out of business.”

This is the basis of the freedom of speech argument. Not that Hogan is wrong to sue, or that Gawker’s awful editorial judgment is justified and exempt from all consequences, but that Thiel’s retaliation has the potential to be infinitely more destructive to publishers in general.

This dovetails nicely with the next argument Tomasson makes in “Civil War” which, forgive me, is worth a longer excerpt.

“The second problem that I had with the podcast episode comes near the end with the phrasing that it’s fortunate that there are ‘so few billionaires that can pull this off.’ This worries me — and should worry you too. If somebody were to portray me in a very unfavourable light using material that may have been acquired through morally dubious ways, I would want to be able to sue them for defamation of character despite not being a billionaire. You know? It does kind of seem like you should have the right to argue your case in a court of law, especially when you’re in the right, without having to be a billionaire.”

Tomasson isn’t wrong here either. Individuals should absolutely be able to defend themselves if a person or institution says or prints something that is defamatory, untrue, or otherwise wounds their standing in the public eye. On this point, he and I agree. But again, the devil is in the details. Hogan has the right to sue Gawker for breaching his privacy, but the larger concern is Thiel’s intervention, swooping in as a third-party bankroller not out of personal concern for a friend but precisely because he smelled blood in the water. This was a high profile case that highlights the very worst of Gawker’s editorial judgment. It makes the company an easy target with little public sympathy. More importantly for Thiel, this is a case that could be won. Decisively. And it is almost certainly not the last either, as Jason Tanz, Wired’s Editor-at-Large noted on a recent PBS Newshour segment, Thiel had and continues to have a team of lawyers actively searching for cases to bring against Gawker Media that fit this exact criteria, to plunge the stake further into the publisher’s heart.

Contrary to what he told Sorkin at the Times, Thiel is, in fact, not defending himself. The time for that was in 2007. He’s barely defending Hogan. What is playing out now is a crude form of vigilantism, the end result of nearly a decade’s worth of planning and plotting. We are seeing a powerful man seize his moment to strike down an opponent, and relishing the opportunity to do so in the public eye with glee.

While there are strong counterarguments to be made to Thiel’s moves and motives, particularly from a technological and economic perspective, my overall opposition to Thiel’s actions stems from its outsized brutality. The wanton destruction Thiel is delighted to bring down on Gawker Media and, given his leanings as a libertarian, the seeming suspension of his own political beliefs by using the court system to stifle speech and exact his revenge, should give us pause. It demonstrates exactly how far an individual with such considerable resources can go to stifle those with whom he disagrees. Tomasson notes,

“Either way you cut it, Gawker broke the law, got sued and lost. If this means they need to fire a whole bunch of people, that’s not really Peter Thiel’s or Hulk Hogan’s fault — that’s the fault of the people at Gawker who decided that this was a story that they should run with.”

On the contrary, it is not that clear cut. The reason why this case has garnered such discussion is because it is more than just a simple case of righting a wrong. Circling back to Tomasson’s earlier point, for Thiel, driving Gawker into bankruptcy, putting hundreds out of work, and shuttering the site, was exactly what this case was about. It is not a byproduct of the suit. It was Thiel’s objective from the very beginning. And that is what makes this case so unsettling.

Nothing Thiel has done is illegal and Gawker is appealing the verdict, but it is not difficult to imagine this case setting a dangerous precedent with Thiel’s actions as a playbook. Worse yet, as we mentioned on the show, Thiel is in fact a delegate for Donald Trump, the thin-skinned-billionaire-television-show-host-turned-politician who has used his own fortune as a weapon to threaten companies and people critical of him. Trump has openly expressed disdain for journalism of all stripes, and built his political coalition in large part by vilifying reporters. And as Vox has written about extensively, in a Trump Administration, “one of his top priorities will be to make it easier to stifle media criticism of himself.” That he has such support for this plank of his platform means the threat should be taken seriously.

This would be a new era of hostility between publishers and men of power, and one of those men is just a few months and even fewer swing states away from becoming president of the United States, a man who has openly lusted after the ability to sue publishers out of business and gets personally excited when discussing ruining the lives of individual journalists. And now, in Peter Thiel, he has a powerful ally who is one step away from fulfilling that fantasy. What Gawker did to Hulk Hogan was wrong. What Gawker did to Peter Thiel was wrong. But Thiel is no little guy fighting for truth and justice anymore than Gawker is the standard bearer for all the news that’s fit to print. What we, as spectators, should do is be skeptical of someone who is so capable of bringing about the destruction of an entire entity, who wants to fundamentally reset the standing of publishers’ standing in society based on his personal moral code, and who relishes the crusade. Chances are, that person doesn’t have everyone’s best interests in mind.

Otherwise, we may all find ourselves in trouble.

*Technically, this is not a libel case.

A Collection of Short Stories

Thoughts on News, Writing, and Media by Matt Dusenbury

Matt Dusenbury

Written by

Award-winning writer, designer, and raconteur with tired eyes all the time. Journalist by training, marketer by trade. Fueled by copious cups of coffee.

A Collection of Short Stories

Thoughts on News, Writing, and Media by Matt Dusenbury

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