May 27, 2016 Last Updated 7:42 am

Few support Gawker’s brand of journalism, but most see third party litigation as a real threat

Journalists begin to express concern that the wealthy may soon be able to dictate what they can publish, seeing Nick Denton less as an example of good journalism than as a media owner threatened with bankruptcy for doing his job


It takes a lot to unite the press for or against someone or something, such are the competitive pressures of the business. But between Donald Trump and Peter Thiel, the press has found issues it can unite around.

Whether the press will remain united on Trump will depend on whether partisan considerations arise. Newspapers that were reluctant to endorse the businessman during the primary season, and mostly backed Ohio Gov. John Kasich to little effect, may decide to reverse their position in order to encourage voters to elect a Republican for the White House. For more liberal papers, their choice in the fall would be no different as very few endorsed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders during the primaries.

“I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,” Donald Trump said during a Texas rally in February. “We’re going to open up those libel laws. So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected,” Trump said, according to a Politico report.

A majority of newspaper executives see this kind of talk as a direct threat to their business. Changing the laws so that it would be impossible to call out a candidate when they made a wild claim because of the threat of a lawsuit would mean the end of political reporting, in general.

Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire investor, has united many in the media for the same reason Trump has: fear.

The idea that a billionaire could bankroll lawsuits solely to silence a voice is seen as a direct threat to freedom of the press. Few defend Gawker based on the quality of their journalism, but rather on the principal that a wealthy shouldn’t be able to drive a media company out of business through simply paying surrogates to do so.

The media, though, will not be supported by the public. Just as Larry Flynt was seen by many as merely a smut pedaler, and felt Jerry Falwell the aggrieved party in his lawsuit, so too will many see Gawker as unworthy of sympathy. But the media see something different: faced with the occasional threat of a lawsuit from an unhappy reader, businessman or politician, they see themselves in the same boat as Nick Denton, even if they feel their concept of journalism is different.

The Coverage:

Fusion, Felix Salmon:

Thiel’s tactics in going after Gawker are very, very frightening for anybody who believes in freedom of speech; they’re also extremely effective, in an evil-genius kind of way.

Historically, news publications have treated certain subjects very carefully: if you’re rich and known to be litigious, then there’s a good chance that news organizations will have lawyers do a careful review of anything they write about you before they publish it. That’s the main way that they protect themselves from the destructive potential of lawsuits being brought against them.

But Thiel has just upped the stakes.

Slate, Dan Gillmor:

Here’s an easy test of Facebook’s attitude toward journalism: whether Peter Thiel remains on its board of directors…

…Thiel’s secret laundering of the Gawker lawsuit disqualifies him as someone who should be on a board of directors of any organization that claims to value freedom of expression. Facebook’s other directors, employees, and users should ask how much they want to be associated with a company that keeps someone like Thiel in a position of such power and influence.

Inc, Jeff Bercovici:

There’s no doubting that Gawker has played the bully at times over the years. Just as the billionaire lords of Silicon Valley still think of themselves as embattled outsiders, Gawker, which started as a kitchen-table blog, has maintained a sense of itself as an insurgent even as it has grown into a cultural force. Its journalists sometimes find themselves punching down at targets that must once have appeared untouchably high.

But “singularly terrible” is a matter of perspective. In using that phrase, Thiel betrays his as a parochial one. Ask anyone in Hollywood if there’s been a “singularly terrible bully” in the media and they’ll tell you it’s TMZ or Nikki Finke. Ask a socialite or model in New York and they’ll say it’s Page Six; ask any moderately public figure in the U.K. and they’ll have a hard time picking one. But none of those publications cares much about the technology industry and its masters–and certainly none of them has ever delved into Thiel’s personal life, as Gawker-owned Valleywag did in 2007 when it published a claim that Thiel is gay.

Yet Thiel claims his motivation for going after Gawker in court was not personal pique but public spirit, calling the campaign “one of my greater philanthropic things that I’ve done. I think of it in those terms.”

If that’s how Thiel defines philanthropy, the IRS might want to give him a call.

NY Observer, Ryan Holiday:

It’s alarming that a billionaire would attack a media outlet like this, they say. Using the legal system to settle scores will have a chilling effect on all free speech.

This is nonsense.

First, everything that Mr. Thiel did was legal. Nonprofits and philanthropists sponsor lawsuits all the time. It’s a common and ethical way for victims to get justice, especially against deep-pocketed corporations or big institutions. Besides, it was a jury and judge (and Gawker’s testimony) that made the ultimate decision. Mr. Thiel’s funding just put it in front of them.

In the real world, every decision one makes has consequences.

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