Late last month, Forbes published an exposé, “This Silicon Valley Billionaire Has Secretly Been Funding Hulk Hogan’s Lawsuits Against Gawker.” For those unfamiliar with the situation, Gawker – a website that frequently skewers celebrities, politicians, and other public figures, in addition to sometimes breaking serious news – in 2012 published a sex tape of Terry Bollea, better known as the professional wrestler Hulk Hogan. Hogan subsequently sued Gawker for invasion of privacy and in March of this year was awarded $140 million in damages by a Florida jury. Even prior to the current fracas around the case generated by the Forbes article, it was discussed as one with potentially wide-ranging ramifications for journalism and free speech. This article in the New Yorker is a thoughtful rumination on such issues.
The Forbes article revealed that Peter Thiel, famously a co-founder of Paypal and the first outside investor in Facebook, where he still holds a board seat, had clandestinely been providing financial support to fund the case to the tune of about $10 million, according to the billionaire himself. Thiel’s motivations were not due to a particular affection or connection to Bollea. The prevailing story is that Thiel had borne a grudge against Gawker since 2007, when the site supposedly outed him in an article. Worth noting, however, is that a sister site, Valleywag, was devoted to critical coverage of Silicon Valley generally, including some of Thiel’s odd ideas and less-successful ventures. Additionally, Gizmodo, another sister site to Gawker, recently called out bias in Facebook’s “Trending Stories” feature, prompting a Congressional investigation into the social network. This recent Gawker post contains links to some of the above-referenced stories that could conceivably have drawn Thiel’s ire.
In the interests of a modicum of impartiality, I do agree that some of Gawker’s practices – namely, making public the sex lives of various individuals – can be quite objectionable. As for Thiel; well, each individual can judge for themselves where they stand on his views and actions since he came into the public eye nearly 20 years ago. (Note: He’s a Trump supporter.)
What is to my mind beyond a reasonable doubt is that Thiel’s actions have no place in an open, free, and genuinely democratic society. For an individual of extraordinary means to attempt to secretly bankrupt a news organization by proxy because he finds its output to be personally or professionally disagreeable is utterly reprehensible. Such actions – if adopted by others and taken to their logical conclusion – amount essentially to plutocratic control over what news and information is available to the public. Such a situation undermines the ability of citizens to make intelligent, well-informed choices that are in their best interests, rather than in the interests of those controlling the flow of information.
The most recent analogue that I can think of in this country is Sheldon Adelson’s purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which he also attempted to keep secret; a deal that many believe was pursued specifically so that Adelson could have an outsized influence on the upcoming presidential election, as well as Nevada’s ballot initiative to legalize cannabis for adult use, to which he is opposed. Notably, the Review-Journal this week published an editorial arguing against the state’s legalization initiative, although previous editorials prior to the purchase of the paper by Adelson expressed support for legal cannabis.
When compared to the above situation, however, Thiel’s actions are much more insidious and potentially wide-ranging. Adelson only bought one newspaper; Thiel, if successful, could have a chilling effect on journalism in this country as a whole. If Gawker’s coverage of Thiel did in fact rise to the level of libel, then Thiel should have sued them outright himself. In his only words on the matter thus far, Thiel told the New York Times that he viewed his actions as “one of the greatest philanthropic things I’ve done” and that he did not believe attacking Gawker endangered other journalists or freedom of speech generally. I find these statements disingenuous at best and even hilarious in the darkest possible way. Also, I am not particularly comfortable with billionaires – or any one individual – deciding what may or may not constitute proper journalism and free speech for the rest of us.
I will leave the matter of Thiel, Hulk Hogan, and Gawker aside for the moment; many words have been written concerning it and I don’t know that I have much more to contribute to the general discourse that has not been said already. I will turn instead to the implications of Thiel’s actions for the cannabis industry, in addition to commenting on what I feel is the industry’s unhealthy aping of very questionable Silicon Valley models and “ideals” that are embodied in many of Thiel’s ventures, and analogous ones. In sum, I feel that the cannabis industry is now at a crossroads. Do we want the industry to move toward some sort of truly new model focused on mutual benefit and social good, or instead simply fall into the patterns of unchecked, irresponsible capitalism, in which few benefit and most get the proverbial shaft?