Peter Thiel wants revenge on Gawker for ‘outing’ him, but did they?

On Monday, The New York Times published a report that Gawker founder Nick Denton believed it was highly likely that the lawsuit brought against his company by Hulk Hogan was being financed by a secret backer. Then, on Tuesday night, Forbes reported that Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel has been the man secretly bankrolling the Hulkster’s lawsuits against Gawker Media.

Hogan’s reasons for suing have been covered pretty exhaustively at this point. The 62-year-old claims Gawker Media invaded his privacy when they published an excerpt of a sex tape, but many have speculated it was a preventative measure to suppress a damaging audio recording of him using the N-word. (The audio was obtained by Death and Taxes after it was unsealed by a court order.) But why is Thiel involved? Most people immediately pointed to Owen Thomas’s 2007 Gawker post titled “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.”

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way here: It’s generally frowned upon to just go ahead and out someone. It’s the sort of thing that made people dislike Gawker in the first place, and it’s the source of their biggest and most recent non-Hogan-related controversy. If you can remember a time before the Hogan trial started, way back in July of 2015, Gawker published an article that outed a Condé Nast executive. The post received a ton of criticism and was eventually taken down, which led to several staff members quitting.

So, it’s easy to look at “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people” from nine years ago, shrug, and think Gawker gets what it deserves. But it’s worth revisiting comments made by its author Thomas, who commented on the post in last year’s “Gawker: An Oral History.”

Owen, who is himself gay, states:

I will never accede to the party line that I “outed” him. That assumes that he was closeted. Based on how widespread the knowledge that he was gay was within the Silicon Valley community, I don’t believe it’s true. He was never hiding it. People just felt like somehow they could not discuss it. Which is the kind of story Gawker Media was founded to discuss, right?

It’s also worth revisiting a comment left by Denton (also gay) on the Owen post, which reads in part:

So, why the paranoia? Thiel has many conservative friends, some of them socially conservative, not simply libertarian. So maybe he’s been worried about ostracism by then. Another possible explanation: his friends claim that investors in his fund, some from the Middle East, might not be as tolerant as Bay Area locals. It’s equally plausible that Thiel is just trying to keep his personal life from a religious family. The one explanation that nobody in the tech industry wants to hear: the Castro may be a few miles up the 280 highway, but the Valley is, in social makeup, a world away.

It’s clear that neither Denton nor Thomas believe the post falls under the category of “outing,” but instead view it more along the lines of bringing an open secret to the attention of a more general audience. Still, they both admit that there could be many reasons why Thiel wouldn’t want to discuss or broadcast details about his personal life.

The argument over whether that 2007 article crossed an ethical line could go on for some time, but perhaps a better and more pressing question would be, “Do we feel comfortable with a system where one mega-rich (Forbes estimates Thiel is worth $2.7 billion) person with a grudge can destroy a media company they dislike?” That seems like a pretty clear path to oligarchy, which is troubling.

And make no mistake: Thiel has an extreme dislike of Gawker Media. He once said of the now defunct Valleywag, a Gawker-operated property with a focus on the tech industry, “Valleywag is the Silicon Valley equivalent of Al Qaeda.”

The irony in all of this is that Thiel is apparently a big supporter, at least financially, of the Committee for Protection of Journalists. He is also a Donald Trump supporter, and let’s not forget that Trump has not been shy about insulting the press, and openly discussing his plans to gut the First Amendment and open up libel laws.

A brave new world we’re living in.

[Forbes | Photo: Getty]