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Peter Thiel’s moral sleight of hand

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Image Credits: David Paul Morris

Earlier today, we started seeing rumblings about a New York Times op-ed from famed entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel — an op-ed where he’d lay out the case against Gawker.

Thiel, of course, quietly poured $10 million into the lawsuit by Terry Bollea, a.k.a. Hulk Hogan, which bankrupted Gawker Media. Thiel’s financial involvement wasn’t revealed until after a judge determined that Gawker owed $140 million to the former pro wrestler for publishing one of his sex tapes and an accompanying article, and Thiel hasn’t spoken publicly about bankrolling the lawsuit aside from a single interview with The New York Times.

It seemed that, finally, Thiel was taking the opportunity to lay out his reasoning for funding the lawsuit that’s bringing Gawker’s independence to an end.

Unfortunately, the op-ed turned out to be a disappointment. Thiel framed his crusade against Gawker as a gay rights issue in an essay that distorts the truth of the situation and fails to address the implications of a billionaire choosing to bankrupt a media company.

It’s long been speculated that Thiel’s desire to kneecap Gawker was borne out of a 2007 article on the site that declared, “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.” Today, Thiel confirmed those suspicions. “I also know what it feels like to have one’s own privacy violated. In 2007, I was outed by the online gossip blog Gawker,” Thiel wrote.

However, it’s worth noting that the public nature of Thiel’s sexuality is a bit more complicated — Owen Thomas, author of the post in question (and a gay man himself), has argued that Thiel was “not in any kind of closet,” because his sexuality was already well-known in his circle of friends.

And although Thiel argues otherwise in his op-ed, he is by no means a private citizen. He’s an early investor (and in some cases, board member) in major companies like Facebook, PayPal and Palantir, and therefore a public figure whose life is open to scrutiny. What’s more, Thomas’s post didn’t belittle Thiel’s sexuality — it questioned why his colleagues in Silicon Valley did, despite portraying themselves as accepting.

Although Thiel likens himself to gay Olympians who could face jail time after being outed, the most harm he can claim is that the Gawker post “didn’t feel good.”

In addition to painting his legal intervention as a war against the practice of outing, Thiel also calls Hogan a victim of revenge porn. “The United States House of Representatives is considering the Intimate Privacy Protection Act, a bipartisan bill that would make it illegal to distribute explicit private images, sometimes called revenge porn, without the consent of the people involved. Nicknamed the Gawker Bill, it would also provide criminal consequences for third parties who sought to profit from such material,” Thiel wrote.

A spokesperson for Rep. Jackie Speier, a co-sponsor of the bill, told BuzzFeed, “I have no idea where ‘the Gawker Bill’ name comes from, but it’s incorrect.”

It’s also worth noting that women are the primary victims of revenge porn. Interestingly, Thiel once argued that suffrage damaged the libertarian cause because women aren’t likely to support libertarian issues — if women didn’t vote, his ideology would have more opportunity to grow. He later walked back these comments.

As much as Thiel postures as a civil rights defender, he’s not funding a lawsuit for Heather Clem, Hogan’s partner in the tape. He’s not pouring $10 million into Speier’s legislative effort to end revenge porn. Referring to the Intimate Privacy Protection Act as “the Gawker Bill” shifts the focus away from the 90 percent of revenge porn victims who are women.

Thiel also used the op-ed to rewrite the history of Hulk Hogan’s case. Hogan sued Gawker over the publication of one of his sex tapes — unlike other Hogan tapes, he does not use racial slurs in the clip Gawker posted. Hogan had discussed his sex life at length in interviews published prior to the Gawker article, which attorneys for the publication argued made his sex life a matter of public interest.

“At first he simply requested that Gawker take down the video,” Thiel wrote in his op-ed. But, despite The New York Times’ policy to fact-check opinion pieces, the claim is inaccurate. Hogan asserted copyright claims over the video, and when those failed, he asserted privacy claims instead, demanding that Gawker remove the one minute and 41 second clip as well as the accompanying narrative written by former editor A.J. Daulerio.

In this case, Gawker wasn’t just forced to take down the video, it wasn’t simply penalized or fined. It was forced to declare bankruptcy (the company’s appeal is ongoing), as was founder Nick Denton. Daulerio may have to follow suit. (Personal bias alert: One of the authors of this post used to write for Daulerio, while the other used to write for Thomas.)

Of course, it was the judge who ultimately decided Gawker’s fate, but nothing Thiel has said or written suggests that he disagrees with the outcome — in the op-ed, he points approvingly to the $140 million in damages, which he said proves “that there are consequences for violating privacy.”

It’s the “consequences” that are frightening, as well as Thiel’s efforts to frame this as an “ongoing cause,” one where he would “gladly support someone else in the same position.” One can easily imagine another situation where Thiel, or someone else with deep pockets, funds a long, expensive legal battle because he or she didn’t like what a reporter wrote — and is then granted space in The New York Times to rewrite the narrative to suit his own agenda. One could also imagine a journalist deciding not to hit publish on a challenging or controversial piece because making the wrong enemies could wipe them out financially. Although Thiel had the opportunity to address these fears today, he chose obfuscation and distraction instead.

Post updated to clarify our characterization of Thiel’s view of women’s suffrage and of his status as a public figure. 

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