Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist and Facebook board member who co-founded PayPal and Palantir, has plenty of reasons to hate Gawker Media, the company he’s now trying to sue into oblivion by proxy. So do a lot of his peers in the technology industry, who were the chief target of Gawker Media’s now-defunct Silicon Valley–focused gossip site, Valleywag.
Thiel and his friends are not wrong to loathe Valleywag. But they are wrong to think that its caustic brand of muckraking has no value. More importantly, they are wrong to think that using their money and power to silence its parent company, Gawker Media, will solve the problems it presents for them.
On the contrary: Thiel’s previously secret, high-stakes war on Gawker is the strongest possible argument for Valleywag’s existence.
Confronted this week with the revelation that he has been bankrolling lawsuits by the pro wrestler Terry Bollea, aka Hulk Hogan, and others against Gawker, Thiel sought to justify his vendetta by casting the online media organization as a “bully” and himself as a heroic vigilante. “It’s less about revenge and more about specific deterrence,” he told the New York Times. “I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest.”
Framing his intentions in terms of “deterrence” is not likely to help Thiel’s cause, given that the most persuasive criticism of his actions is that they establish a dangerous road map for billionaires to muzzle unfriendly media coverage. It’s also hard to fully buy his avowed revulsion to attention-getting bullies, given that he’s a pledged delegate for Donald Trump and has supported the stunt journalism of James O’Keefe. But the real flaw in his justification lies in his misunderstanding of Gawker’s place in the media landscape—a misunderstanding that seems to be widely shared by his fellow tech founders and venture capitalists, to judge from their reactions to the story.
First of all, Valleywag—the main target of Thiel’s ire and probably the first thing his peers in Silicon Valley think of when they hear the name Gawker—was a small part of Gawker Media even when it existed, which it no longer does. More significant is Gawker itself, the media- and celebrity-focused blog that published the Hogan sex tape in 2011. Like Valleywag, Gawker often strikes a pugnacious stance and gossipy tone, but it also publishes a far broader range of news, opinion, and essays, many of which are deeply thoughtful, witty, original, and important. Meanwhile, Gawker Media also includes a slew of other influential blogs on much different topics, not all of which are driven by snark, but all of which could be collateral damage if Thiel’s campaign succeeds. They include Deadspin, Jezebel, Kotaku, Lifehacker—Lifehacker!—and the tech blog Gizmodo, which recently broke the Facebook bias story. (Thiel happens to be a Facebook board member.) Their demise—or sale to Russian oligarchs—would be a serious loss for online media, no matter what you think of Valleywag or the company’s founder and CEO, Nick Denton.
Yet even setting aside the valuable work of all of Gawker Media’s properties, Thiel is mistaken in his assessment of Gawker and Valleywag.
He’s right that both sites have published some ugly stories whose connection to the public interest is tenuous at best. His own grudge crystallized around a 2007 Valleywag post headlined “Peter Thiel Is Totally Gay, People,” published over Thiel’s threats and objections, but there are more recent examples. There are ways to try to justify these sorts of posts, and in many cases if you read them you’ll find they’re more thoughtful and less vicious than their headlines make them sound. (The Thiel post, whose author was also gay, explored the disconnect between the Bay Area’s reputation for tolerance and the reticence of Thiel and his fellow venture capitalists to discuss his sexual orientation.) Even if you find the sites odious, a Florida jury’s $140 million judgment in the Hogan case—which could bankrupt the whole company—feels disproportionate to the offense. Nonetheless, we might as well stipulate that these sorts of privacy invasions are unlikely to win Gawker widespread sympathy, no matter how rich or famous or hypocritical their targets might be.
Denton himself, in an open letter to Thiel on Thursday, admitted that “there have undoubtedly been occasions we overstepped the line.” He asked Thiel for “a brief truce” in their battle and invited him to “an open and public debate.”
What Thiel and the Silicon Valley power players who have sided with him get wrong is that Valleywag was never fundamentally about bullying, though it may have seemed so to those who found their names in its headlines. To bully is to push around those weaker than you. Valleywag, with occasional exceptions, saw itself as punching up. Its scoops and gibes were intended not to intimidate but to puncture the valley’s utopian veneer. Its editorial philosophy was about tearing back the masks and capes in which Thiel and other members of Silicon Valley’s tech elite tend to cloak themselves. It was about calling out hypocrisy in a realm where it runs rampant. It was about regarding our tech and business overlords with the same skepticism we typically reserve for politicians, because Valleywag’s core insight was that they’re just as powerful (and just as petty and flawed).
If Valleywag had been wrong that its targets were as powerful and as petty as politicians, its meanness would have been unjustifiable. But Thiel, perhaps more than anyone else, has proven that the site was right.
Besides, Valleywag’s brand of irreverent, oppositional journalism was never “unique,” as Thiel claims. It’s as old as tabloids, as old as Fleet Street, as integral to online media as the Drudge Report. It’s just that Silicon Valley’s moguls have historically enjoyed immunity from it, thanks in part to their geographic remove from the East Coast media axis, and in part to their successful efforts to convince the public they’re making the world a better place. In one of the smartest pieces yet written about the Thiel affair, the New York Times’ David Streitfeld and Katie Benner put it this way:
Silicon Valley likes to keep the media on a tight leash. Tech executives expect obedience, if not reverence, from reporters. They dole out information as grudgingly as possible. Sometimes they simply buy a chunk of a publication, a time-honored method of influencing what is deemed fit to write about. Valleywag declined to play the game.
Sometimes Valleywag missed the mark, substituting cheap cynicism or gossip for trenchant analysis. Other times it nailed it. Either way, the fact that it was hard to love does not mean it deserved to die.
The journalism scholar and historian Michael Schudson has argued that democracies need an unlovable press: “That is what serves democracy: the irresistible drive of journalists to focus on events, including those that powerful forces cannot anticipate and often cannot manage.” In other words, democracies need blogs like Valleywag, more so than ever in an era in which global power is shifting from governments to the global corporations that track our behavior and shape the flow of information.
And it isn’t just the rest of us schlubs who need outlets like Valleywag: Silicon Valley needs them too. To borrow Thiel’s concept, Valleywag served as a deterrent to the worst excesses of tech titans’ hypocrisy. Its outsider perspective helped to counteract the groupthink that so often leads techies into folly. It was especially essential because, while tech journalism has proliferated along with the industry’s boom, that expansion has largely been driven by demand from advertisers for largely positive, inoffensive content that’s friendly to the placement of ads for expensive gadgets. Hence the fawning coverage of a company such as Theranos that turned out to be misrepresenting its products and is now the subject of a criminal probe. There are still a few outlets that train a skeptical eye on tech companies’ claims, including the Wall Street Journal, which broke the Theranos story (and got called a “tabloid” for doing it). But the loss of Valleywag made it one fewer, and now Gizmodo may be in danger too.
It’s true that the tabloid media sometimes seem to enjoy the same sort of undeserved impunity that they deplore in the targets of their opprobrium. Thiel sees himself as attempting to remedy that. But by doing it in secret, in the most heavy-handed way possible, and by means available only to the very wealthiest, he has demonstrated that the impunity he and his cohorts enjoy by dint of their personal fortunes is both greater and more dangerous than anything Valleywag could write. And that’s without even getting into the power they’re capable of wielding via their companies—companies such as Facebook and Palantir, whose proprietary code and data could do more damage in the wrong hands than all the civil lawsuits in the world.
Thiel and company may hate seeing their industry vilified and held to account by a cadre of snarky New York bloggers. But if he and those like him wield their ever-growing power this crudely, they risk inviting scrutiny from a far broader range of players, including legislators and regulators.
Those familiar with Gawker’s history may by now have noticed an ironic twist in the way this story has played out. The libertarian Thiel enlisted the government in his quest to shutter Valleywag. Yet by the time the process played out, he was too late: Gawker Media, in its growing maturity and awareness of its vulnerabilities as a brand in the advertising marketplace, had already done the deed. In other words, the market picked winners and losers among Gawker Media’s properties, just as a libertarian such as Thiel would have hoped. But because he lacked faith in his convictions, his government-abetted intervention could end up killing the rest of the company too.
Congratulations, Peter Thiel: Valleywag may be gone, but you’ve managed to reveal yourself as the dangerous, hypocritical villain it always made you out to be.
Disclosure: One Slate editor is married to a Gawker editor. One is married to a lawyer who represented Gawker in the Hulk Hogan trial. One is a former Gawker Media executive editor. None of these Slate staffers worked on this story.