These Gawker Jurors Don’t Care That a Billionaire Funded Hulk Hogan’s Lawsuit
The outrage following last week’s revelation that Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel had funded Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media LLC wasn't just about a rich guy throwing his money around; it was about a rich guy secretly throwing his money around. The jurors who were deciding the case—and also, perhaps, Gawker’s capacity to fund its continued existence—were making their decision without a potentially important detail.
It turns out that the jurors wouldn’t have cared, anyway. At least, that is what two of them said when asked about Thiel’s involvement. In a conflict involving an aggrieved professional wrestler and a snarky gossip website, a plot twist involving a shadowy technology billionaire didn't seem that shocking.
“As far as I’m aware, the law does not say anything about how a case can or cannot be funded,” said Salina Stevens, one of the six jurors who ruled against Gawker in April. (She's right.) “The jury as a whole reached the verdict following what the law stated. We did not base our decision on personal feelings or emotions toward either side.”
Stevens hadn’t heard of Thiel, a PayPal Inc. founder and early Facebook Inc. investor, until she was contacted by a reporter. She wasn’t offended that he might try to use a lawsuit to drive Gawker out of business. In her mind, the media- and celebrity-focused publisher broke the law, and not much else mattered.
Shane O’Neil, another one of the jurors, was similarly unmoved. “It wouldn’t have made any difference because it wouldn’t have changed the facts,” he said. Like Stevens, O’Neil hadn’t heard Thiel’s name before the lawsuit started. He had picked up from recent news coverage that Thiel was after Gawker because it revealed his sexual orientation almost a decade ago.
It’s possible that a skilled litigator could have been more persuasive than the jurors think. After all, they’re speaking after they’ve already made up their minds. The defense may have been able make Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, look bad if it grilled him on the stand about acting as Thiel’s surrogate. Maybe this would have swayed the jury in a way that discussions of lewd radio interviews wouldn’t have.
Convincing one jury might not have been enough, though. The wider threat in the model of vengeful litigation finance is that a person with enough resources could push a media company into oblivion, even without convincing a jury that his enemy had broken the law. All he has to do is keep bringing new lawsuits and draining the company’s bank account. It took several tries for Hogan's legal team to find a court receptive to its case.
Gawker depicts this legal fight—and other ones Thiel is funding—as a threat to freedom of speech. Practically the entire media industry has lined up behind Gawker, including Jeff Bezos, another tech billionaire and publisher of the Washington Post. Fusion writer Felix Salmon laid out the disaster scenario last week:
Gawker could continue to fight the Hogan case; it could even win that case outright, on appeal. But even if Hogan went away, Thiel would not. Thiel’s lawsuits would not end, and Thiel’s pockets are deeper than Denton’s. Gawker’s future is indeed grim: it can’t afford to fight an indefinite number of lawsuits, since fighting even frivolous suits is an expensive game.
Defending free speech, in other words, means taking Gawker's side. That's because it's impossible to write policy that disallows what Gawker does—in this case, publishing a video showing Bollea having sex with a friend’s wife—without also imperiling what the New York Times does. "I don’t really approve, but I also don’t see a way to stop it without endangering a lot of really important civic processes. So we’ll have to live with it,” wrote Megan McArdle on Bloomberg View. (She made an identical argument about rich people bankrolling revenge lawsuits.)
But people like Stevens and O'Neil aren't media theorists. A billionaire sugar daddy beating up on a poor media organization may not seem like a threat to the general public, which tends to take a dimmer view of the press than the press takes of itself.
Thiel's claim that his secret anti-Gawker campaign was a philanthropic venture was seen as offensive and absurd to many media professionals. But the people who sit on the juries that the Thiels of the world rely on for vengeance could very possibly have a different view. “If I had a social interest in something, and I wanted to donate money to that cause, I don’t see anything wrong with that,” O'Neil said. “In this case, Peter Thiel has an interest in making sure media companies don’t cross the line."