In Tech's Batman v Superman, Gawker's Nick Denton Sets a Trap for Peter Thiel

The battle the billionaire would lose.

PayPal Inc. Co-Founder Peter Thiel Interview
Source: Bloomberg

The intrigue sure didn't last. Soon after Gawker Media founder Nick Denton shared his suspicion with the New York Times early last week that the lawsuit he and his company lost in March—in which a Florida jury awarded wrestler Hulk Hogan $140 million in damages over part of a sex tape Gawker had published in 2012—had been financed by someone other than Hogan, the highly successful Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel revealed himself as the deep pocket behind Hogan’s lawsuit, as well as at least one more of several actions now pending against Gawker.

The motive: simple revenge. Gawker’s tech-industry gossip site, Valleywag, had published a post by an out gay writer in 2007 claiming that Thiel is also gay (as is Denton), and that Valley mores were keeping Thiel and other tech achievers in the closet, out of a sort of group cowardice among venture capitalist power brokers. “Not that there's anything wrong with [homosexuality]. But someone else, somewhere else, might take issue with it," Valleywag's Owen Thomas wrote. "That’s VC thinking.” 

But Thiel told the New York Times that his motivation went beyond personal revenge for one post. “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,” he said. 

Thiel claims that his intention is to stop Gawker’s brand of shocking revelations—not rumors, but videos, e-mails, text messages, and other hard-to-argue proof—from becoming the norm in an Internet-enabled environment of free speech that Thiel, through contributions to the Committee to Protect Journalists, has demonstrated an interest in fostering. Notably, there’s been no Thiel-funded legal action against Thomas, the author of the post that outed him. Thiel’s target is the company and the man who gave Thomas and others after him a brightly lit stage and a license to ridicule. (Disclosure: I wrote for Valleywag occasionally, from its launch until June 2008, and was a full-time employee there from June to November 2008. I was a freelance contributor when Thomas's post outing Thiel appeared.)

Covertly funding other people’s lawsuits is legal and not unusual, but to many it seems weird. It’s not if you’ve followed Thiel, whose quirky ideas and projects (he has a fund that pays college students with promising startup ideas $100,000 to drop out of school) have made him a sort of cartoon character among tech workers, who either admire or despise him. He was clearly the inspiration for the odd, emotionless, but brilliant investor in HBO’s comedy Silicon Valley.

To many, Thiel appears the bigger bully—using his billions to potentially run a media company out of business. Thanks to sharp bids on PayPal, LinkedIn, and Facebook (where he remains a board member), Thiel versus Denton is the tech industry’s Batman v Superman. The First Amendment stops the government from shutting down a Gawker, but is it good if Silicon Valley’s elite—or Wall Street’s, or Hollywood’s—can silence any voice they don’t like? While a jury ruled that Gawker had overstepped its boundaries, it’s easy to imagine a less ideological billionaire running a pestering critic out of business by quietly funding a phalanx of lawsuits in others’ names designed not to win, but to bankrupt. That’s why among bloggers, tweeters, and precarious newsroom staffers, the sinking feeling that Thiel has proven to anyone with ample resources that they can silence criticism with impunity is the week’s topic.

Denton’s response to Thiel’s decloaking has been to issue a challenge on Thursday to Thiel to hold a "conversation" about the issues raised by their battle: free speech vs. personal privacy, public interest vs. individual reputations, Denton's barrels of ink vs. Thiel's barrels of money.

“We can hold the discussion in person with a moderator of your choosing,” Denton offered Thiel, “in front of an audience, under the auspices of the Committee to Protect Journalists, or in a written discussion on some neutral platform such as Medium.” It sounds like a noble gesture. Not an olive branch, but a parley among enemies for the greater good of those affected. Of course, it’s a trap. Denton wants to engage Thiel in a public contest at which Thiel would almost certainly lose spectacularly.

I once helped Thiel shoot a video about one of his multimillion-dollar donations. He came across as being as super-intelligent as people say. He knows his turf well. He's easy to like in person. (I say that about everyone.) But as a public speaker, Thiel is like most of us: interesting, if you’re willing to pay attention. By contrast, Denton holds court like an aging movie star. He’s witty and ruthless. He’s Simon from American Idol. It would be no contest.

Nerds might prefer Thiel vs. Denton to take place on Medium. Great idea. There, Thiel could put time into his statements, edit his words, and avoid being in the same room as Denton. It would be about ideas and facts, rather than personalities, right? But that overlooks what a strong and devastating writer Nick Denton is. He loves an Internet fight. So much so that, upon reading his long, open letter to Thiel, it's hard not to think he was suggesting an onstage debate in hopes that Thiel would panic and pass in favor of the seemingly safe written exam. The result would be far worse—and live far longer online—than sitting beet-faced onstage for an hour.

Thiel vs. Denton isn’t, finally, a case of a sniveling gossip being shut up by a captain of industry, à la Atlas Shrugged. Nor is it a case of a brave freedom fighter under attack from an evil billionaire (every other novel, ever.) It’s a wonderfully matched clash of the titans: a man who has succeeded at building wealth and who truly believes he’s doing good against a man who also believes he's doing good by stripping the powerful of influence and privilege. It’s also a fight that's better for raising questions than answering them.

Thiel surely knows better than to get into a words-vs.-words fight with Denton. This is words-vs.-cash, each man armed with his best weapon. The wealthy and those who disparage them online will hold their breath, but the outcome won’t determine the next case. For the rest of us, our course is obvious: Make popcorn. 

Paul Boutin is a freelance writer in Bangor, Me.

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