The legal saga that is Hulk Hogan’s winning suit against Gawker Media for publishing his sex tape is far from over. While Gawker’s attorneys are working to postpone payment of the former professional wrestler’s $140.1 million award and filing for bankruptcy, the media company’s union is taking on Peter Thiel — the PayPal cofounder who surreptitiously bankrolled Hogan’s lawsuit.
The Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) has launched a petition requesting Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to remove Thiel, who was one of the social network’s early investors, from the company’s board of directors.
The petition states:
We are digital media writers, editors and producers represented by the Writers Guild of America, East. We are appalled that Peter Thiel would use some of his billions to fund litigation intended to put Gawker out of business.
We call upon Facebook to remove Thiel from its board of directors. A person committed to silencing journalism he doesn’t like should not sit on the board of a company that serves as the portal to digital news for tens of millions of people.
Thiel was an initial investor in Facebook, infusing $500,000 in 2004, and has sat on the social network’s board ever since. With Facebook’s more than a billion users and $350 billion worth about, Thiel’s role on the board has become out of sync with his punitive approach to negative media coverage.
The petition strikes at the center of Gawker v. Hogan debate: the notion that First Amendment media freedoms trump privacy concerns of public figures. Critics have questioned whether Gawker’s methods were ethical, but the fact that one of Silicon Valley’s elite gave $10 million to assist in Hogan’s case raises significant concerns over the direction in which the tech industry is going in terms of how it views media and free speech.
Thiel’s role as a benefactor came as an interesting twist that revealed a longstanding, but unspoken, feud between him and Gawker’s founder Nick Denton.
It all started after Gawker’s Silicon Valley gossip publication Valleywag published a story in 2007 that publicly revealed Thiel’s sexual orientation. But according to Owen Thomas, Valleywag’s former managing editor, who penned the controversial story that outed Thiel, the beef between the two was a little more banal: Thiel’s success made Denton “sick” and Thiel had nothing but contempt for the digital media company.
In a column for the San Francisco Chronicle, Thomas recalled how Thiel previously called Valleywag “the Al Qaeda of Silicon Valley,” comparing its writers to terrorists because their reporting stemmed from “malice, not curiosity.”
Denton defended his company in an NPR interview that aired ahead of the WGAE petition earlier this week, saying, “It’s harder now for journalists to do stories about billionaires, like Peter Thiel, without having at the back of their minds the fear that maybe somebody deep-pocketed, you know, with limited resources is going to come after us and can my organization afford to defend me?”
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos criticized Thiel’s role in the Gawker-Hogan debacle, saying the PayPal co-founder was being thin skinned and his actions attempted to silence the media.
“The best defense against speech that you don’t like about yourself as a public figure is to develop a thick skin,” the owner of Washington Post Media said during the Code Conference in May. “You can’t stop it.”
Bezos continued, alluding to the implications Thiel’s financial support has beyond satiating the need for revenge:
This country has the best free speech protections in the world because of the Constitution but also because of our cultural norms. You don’t want to create any climate of fear when it comes to free speech norms. Beautiful speech doesn’t need protection; ugly speech does. If you step back and think about what a great society we have, part of it is we have these cultural norms that allow people to say these ugly things. You should let them say it.
The tech industry is rapt in the public’s simultaneous demand for stronger policies that curb online abuse and platforms that value open discussions. To complicate matters, the same social media platforms that were once unique forms of communication are venturing into traditional media.
Thiel’s actions have clear roots in a personal crusade. But his biases against the media could spill over into his role at Facebook, which has pivoted from a technology company to media company since Thiel’s initial investment.
Facebook was recently criticized for suppressing conservative news in its Trending Topics feature and released editorial guidelines for news curators as a result. The social network has also moved closer to the realm of media organizations by opening up its platform to publishers and embedding a strong video presence. Twitter has made similar moves with its recent board shake-up and new emphasis on live and possibly original video content.
To stay competitive, Facebook and other social media companies — emphasis on media — and their leaders will have to master the tricky balance between their personal beliefs and need for public support. In the case of Thiel, the issue isn’t so much that he financed Hogan’s lawsuit, but that in doing so, he potentially alienated consumers and an entire industry — one that Facebook is trying to keep happy by any means.
Disclosure: ThinkProgress’ editorial staff belongs to the Writers Guild of America, East union.
Facebook decided Peter Thiel will stay on its board of directors despite the tech billionaire’s legal entanglement with Gawker. The company voted to keep Thiel and other current members of the board during a shareholders’ meeting Monday, TechCrunch reported.
Thiel, who was revealed to be the financier behind former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan’s defamation lawsuit against Gawker Media, was not discussed during the meeting outside of the shareholders’ vote despite public calls and speculation for him to step down.