Gawker CEO Nick Denton goes after thin-skinned Silicon Valley billionaires

Gawker Media CEO Nick Denton joined Kara Swisher on stage at Vox Media’s Code Conference next to an empty chair — reserved for Peter Thiel, who is involved in a lawsuit against Gawker and did not attend the conference.

The conversation centered around Gawker’s decision to publish a story that noted that Thiel was gay — among other controversial stories that the media organization has published — and the noteworthiness of those stories, which now could potentially significantly damage the company as a result of a series of lawsuits. The primary one is, of course, the publication of the Hulk Hogan sex tape that now threatens to bankrupt the company, which Thiel came out saying he was involved in funding the case.

Gawker Media is known for a lot of great stories, Denton said (like Gizmodo’s coverage of Facebook trending topics), but some of them may have missed the mark.

“There are stories among them that I’m not proud of that did step over the mark,” Denton said. “We were wild. A lot of that was good, some wasn’t.”

Thiel accrued a fortune from his investment in Facebook. But many recently minted super-rich Silicon Valley residents aren’t used to outside scrutiny in the same way that figures in politics and the entertainment industry, Denton said. Throughout the conversation, Denton defended the publication of the story, saying it was newsworthy given that many in the Valley were aware already and he was an increasingly important figure in not just the technology industry.

“A Silicon Valley billionaire is 1,000 times more powerful than the average congressman but subject to a fraction of the scrutiny,” Denton said. “All of this information is out there, I think there’s an imbalance. I think it’s part of the way in which that balance is corrected, part of it is through news and journalism and gossip. People want to know what the powerful are doing they can’t expect them to hide in the shadows — especially if they’re using the media to put out their own political views as Thiel has often done. I don’t think people can accept that people can stay in the background and pull strings.”

Denton might not be the only person who holds this belief. At the Code Conference, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — who Denton said Gawker was often critical of — also said that Thiel should essentially shrug off the grudge match and grow some thicker skin. “If you can’t tolerate critics, don’t do anything new or interesting,” Bezos said.

“I think it’s smart to recognize the new power, like the old power, will have legitimacy in so far that it does allow criticism,” he said. “It allows for transparency, it doesn’t keep things in secret and responds with words to other words, with arguments to criticism rather than with the bullying power of money.”

Like the Thiel story, Denton also stood by the publication of the Hulk Hogan sex tape story that started this whole fiasco that could cost Gawker a small fortune in legal bills — and more so if they lose the case. Denton said he was confident that as the case goes to a federal appeals court that they would receive a favorable judgment (though, of course, it’s his job as the boss of Gawker Media to proclaim, and hope for the best, for his company).