Earlier this month, a Gawker reporter unleashed a mini-bombshell. Michael Nunez at its sister site, Gizmodo, revealed that Facebook routinely suppressed conservative news from its trending news section, citing unnamed former Facebook employees, thus blemishing Facebook’s preferred guise as an impartial arbiter of the world’s communications. Although Facebook denied the allegations, it rushed to meet with top conservatives and announced Monday that it would make “a number of improvements” to how trending topics are chosen and displayed.
Score one for journalism. Or in this case, score one for Gawker.
Gawker is hardly known for its investigative journalism, but when it comes to Silicon Valley, it keeps the tech titans on their toes. First at Valleywag, Gawker’s now-deceased tech gossip site, and now at Gizmodo, reporters don’t shy away from bruising egos, exposing internal financial documents, and generally not worshipping at Silicon Valley’s door. In the hype-driven tech press, that’s rare.
Which make it unsettling that Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel is bankrolling a $140 million lawsuit against Gawker that some predict could bankrupt the media organization. But there are two villains in the story, Thiel for his cowardice in hiding his role in the suit until now, and Gawker itself for giving him a target for litigation in the first place.
The good Gawker serves an important role in the media ecosystem, and an effort to shut it down —particularly by a tech mogul —will be a setback for those who keep Silicon Valley honest. Yet Gawker shouldn’t be using press freedom as a license to violate the privacy rights of those caught in its crosshairs or to ignore the ethical standards of journalism. Gawker hurts more than just itself when it waves the First Amendment flag to cover up its poor behavior.
The saga goes back to 2007, when the site outed Thiel as gay in a story titled, “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.” In addition, in a comment on the piece, Gawker owner Nick Denton took the liberty to question Thiel’s decision not to share his orientation more openly. Although it was well known in San Francisco and among Thiel’s friends that he was gay, and the piece was not legally defamatory, few would consider it ethical journalism.
The same is true of the invasion-of-privacy lawsuit being funded by Thiel, which revolves around a sex tape published by Gawker in 2012. In March, a court awarded the plaintiff, former pro-wrestler Hulk Hogan, $140 million dollars in compensatory and punitive damages. Gawker plans to appeal.
While Gawker is no innocent in its dealings with Thiel, neither is Theil himself. In a statement to the New York Times, Thiel said funding the suit was not about revenge for its editor’s outing him, but about stopping a bully. He called it, “one of my greater philanthropic things that I’ve done.”
Third-party litigation happens regularly, and often in the name of a cause—that’s the whole premise behind nonprofits like the ACLU—but it’s rarely secret. If Thiel believed his was a morally righteous fight, why not back Hogan openly?
A further concern is that Thiel isn’t an disinterested party. He is a public figure and a powerful member of the Silicon Valley coterie; he is among other things the co-founder of Paypal, a Facebook board member, a prolific venture capitalist, an outspoken libertarian and Trump supporter, and the guy who pays kids $100,000 to drop out of college.
In 2013, Gawker reporter Sam Biddle called Palantir, another company co-founded by Thiel, a “Silicon Valley creephouse.” Palantir, a data-analytics company known for its cozy relationship with the intelligence and defense communities, has a client list that includes the NSA, the FBI, the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security. After the Snowden leaks in 2013, Palantir received attention when it was revealed the company had a data-mining product called Prism, which it claimed was distinct from the NSA’s mass surveillance program, known as PRISM.
Contracting with the intelligence and defense communities is not in itself damning. But Palantir and others in the field are legitimate targets of media inquiry given the surveillance-happy climate in the federal government. One more reminder that an unchecked tech industry, covered only by a cheerleading tech press, is dangerous.
Mathew Ingram, a senior writer at Fortune and longtime tech reporter, says Gawker is one of the few outlets that is really critical of Silicon Valley. “A number of the writers there saw it, I think, as their job to puncture egos and pull back the curtain” on Silicon Valley, Ingram says. “In particular the companies that have been heavily funded or startups that have been heavily hyped.” (Cough. Theranos. Cough cough. Uber.)
Thiel insists that this is not about shutting down critical voices. “It’s not like it is some sort of speaking truth to power or something going on here,” he told the Times. “The way I’ve thought about this is that Gawker has been a singularly terrible bully.”
Certainly, we can’t know Thiel’s true motives, but bankrolling a lawsuit in order to bankrupt a media organization — whether it’s a personal vendetta, a moral crusade, or a flagrant attempt at censorship — sets a disturbing precedent.
Gawker’s tactics and style often push accepted boundaries and cross ethical lines, but they also provide an important service not only to their many readers, but to their ardent non-readers as well. Traditional outlets would not have published the story on Facebook’s trending news, relying as it did on a single disgruntled employee, but most would agree it was an important story to be told.
Gawker isn’t always worth defending, but when it is, it’s because of the heat it puts on the powerful, not a blanket approval of everything the outlet publishes.