Gawker’s history of outing closeted gay public figures may have cost the company $140 million.
In March, former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan was awarded $115 million — with an extra $25.1 million in punitive damages — by a Florida jury in a civil case against Gawker Media. Four years ago, the website published a tape of Hogan engaging in intercourse with Heather Clem, the ex-wife of his former best friend. As Hogan would testify in court, he was not aware the encounter was being recorded. Since the post went live in 2012, it has been viewed 7.5 million times.
Hogan, however, was reportedly not alone in bringing suit against Gawker. According to the New York Times, the case was being privately funded by venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who was outed by Valleywag — Gawker’s Silicon Valley-centric blog — in a 2007 post.
Thiel, an early investor in Facebook and the co-founder of PayPal, has since become a vocal critic of Valleywag, which he has called “the Silicon Valley equivalent of Al Qaeda.” Thiel told PEHub in 2009, “I think they should be described as terrorists, not as writers or reporters.” He would come out publicly three years after the original story was published.
Thiel, a libertarian who has supported Ted Cruz and has pledged to back Donald Trump as one of California’s appointed delegates, has long been a vocal advocate for the freedom of the press. Thiel is behind the Committee for Protection of Journalists, which bills itself as “an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to the global defense of press freedom.”
“Technology can have positive and negative aspects,” he told Silicon Valley Weekly in a 2009 sitdown. “I want to help the CPJ defend the rights of online journalists.”
Gawker founder and editor Nick Denton previously hinted to the New York Times as to Thiel’s involvement in the Hulk Hogan lawsuit. “If you’re a billionaire and you don’t like the coverage of you, and you don’t particularly want to embroil yourself any further in a public scandal, it’s a pretty smart, rational thing to fund other legal cases,” Denton, who is himself openly gay, said in a May 23 interview.
Thiel, however, isn’t the first person to be outed by Gawker. The website notably branded actor James Franco a “gay rapist” in the course of speculating about a Page Six blind item that discussed a closeted actor who sexually assaulted his ex-boyfriend in 2008.
“The heartthrob snuck into his ex's apartment a few months ago and raped him so violently, the ex ended up in the hospital — and the actor paid him $500,000 to keep his mouth shut,” the original New York Post story read. At the time, Gawker suggested that all signs pointed to Franco, who had recently starred in Gus Van Sant’s gay rights drama Milk.
Gawker would later make similar claims about Fox News host Shepard Smith and a Condé Nast executive, who The Advocate has chosen not to name. The outlet alleges that the executive hired a male escort during a trip to Chicago. After discovering the executive's identity (he’s the brother of a former Obama administration official), the sex worker attempted to extort him.
The Condé Nast executive story, in particular, was heavily criticized — with The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald calling it “deranged” and “reprehensible beyond belief.” Former Huffington Post editor Gabriel Arana wrote that it was an act of blatant “gay-shaming,” one that “[jettisoned] any semblance of journalistic integrity and likely ruining a man’s life in the process.”
Although the post has since been removed from Gawker’s website, after which Denton issued an apology, many of the company’s editors stood up to defend it. “Stories don’t need an upside,” Natasha Vargas-Cooper, an editor for Jezebel at the time, wrote on Twitter. “Not everyone has to feel good about the truth. If it’s true, you publish.”