Hulk Hogan's sex tape, a Silicon Valley billionaire, and a $10m revenge plot to destroy Gawker
A storyline even the Simpsons would have refused
Analysis It's long been feared that satire may be dead.
But the proof seems to have arrived in reports that Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel is secretly funding a Hulk Hogan sex-tape legal case against media outlet Gawker as part of a 10-year revenge fantasy for outing him as gay.
The Hogan case was already a weird one: he was filmed by his best friend, Bubba the Love Sponge, and his wife while having sex with her, and that tape later found its way to Gawker when Hogan and his friend had a falling out.
Gawker edited the 30-minute tape down to one minute and posted it with a story that gave a mocking blow-by-blow account of the other 29 minutes. Hogan sued, asking for $100m in damages, and in March a jury decided in Hogan's favor. A judge issued a $140m judgment against Gawker.
Where things grew even odder, however, was the fact that Hogan's legal team specifically dropped a part of his lawsuit that would have seen Gawker's insurance company pick up the tab. On top of which Hogan reportedly turned down a $10m settlement offer from Gawker to stop the case going to court.
Increasingly, it looked as though the lawsuit's main focus was to ruin Gawker – which does not have $140m in assets and would have to declare bankruptcy if the judgement stands – rather than compensate Hogan. That led Gawker's CEO Nick Denton to wonder whether someone else was behind the case. He made his suspicions known in an interview this week, pointing a finger rather firmly in the direction of a "Silicon Valley billionaire" without naming him.
So who could it be?
It didn't take much to figure it out. Peter Thiel has been the target of numerous attacks by Gawker in the past, in particular in its now-defunct Valleywag offshoot.
As a Paypal founder and early Facebook investor, Thiel is worth billions ($2.7bn in fact), but he is far from your average VC. He is an official delegate for Donald Trump in a solidly democratic Valley; he has encouraged teenagers to skip university; and he has been a seemingly endless source of wild commentary and ideas that could almost be copied verbatim into a script of HBO satire Silicon Valley.
He also happens to be gay: something that is of no import in the San Francisco Bay Area, but which caused his first clash with Gawker when it wrote a story back in 2007 announcing his sexuality to the world before he had a chance to go public himself. The tabloid-style website was not exactly subtle, posting the story with the headline: "Peter Thiel is totally gay, people."
It earned the website the unconstrained fury of the billionaire, who subsequently described Valleywag as equivalent to the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda. Denton later described how Thiel had threatened to bring down heaven and Earth on top of him if he wrote about his sexuality.
Gawker's response was typically robust. It continued to relentlessly mock him and his ideas, drawing reference to the topic that most irritated him at every available opportunity. One example story, seven years later, begins: "Everyone's favorite gay libertarian hypocrite is up early this morning, and he's got big opinions: Peter Thiel just hopped on CNBC to call Twitter's executives a bunch of weed-snorting losers."
Underneath that first paragraph is a link to another story about him headlined: "Reminder: Peter Thiel Is Ted Cruz's Gay Billionaire Ally."
While the allusions to Thiel being behind the Hogan lawsuit were not exactly subtle, it took a story in Forbes on Wednesday to name him.
Thiel has refused to comment on the accusation and Forbes claims that "people familiar with the situation" have confirmed Thiel's involvement "on condition of anonymity." One would assume Forbes' lawyers feel the story is sufficiently watertight to run because nobody is talking about much else in the Valley at the moment.
But beyond the unnerving idea that a billionaire is prepared to use his endless trunks of money in an effort to destroy a media outlet because it personally upset him is the fact that Thiel is, in theory at least, a defender of the free press.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is an organization whose sole focus is ensuring that truth-seekers are not bullied into silence. Peter Thiel is a big backer of the organization, having provided "significant financial support" according to the organization itself.
But the CPJ felt obliged to put out a statement following the claim that Thiel was himself personally responsible for trying to shut down a media site.
"We note that we support the right of individuals in the United States and around the world to seek civil redress in cases of defamation. However, we do not support efforts to abuse the process by seeking to punish or bankrupt particular media outlets." Unsurprisingly, more than few people have found that statement somewhat lacking.
Not that Peter Thiel cares. As with politics – where he bankrolled first Carly Fiorina and then Ted Cruz and finally Donald Trump, as each Republican presidential candidate backed out – Thiel views his billions as a way of getting whatever he wants whenever it occurs to him, regardless of any potential hypocrisy.
Gawker is appealing the $140m judgment against it. If it loses, Thiel will seemingly have achieved his decade-long goal to punish the outlet. If he loses, he can probably expect a few more headlines with his name on. ®
Stop press: Thiel has confirmed he did bankroll the Hogan case, coughing up $10m to foot the Hulk's legal bills.