Pando

Peter Thiel's secret attack on Gawker is even worse than his support for Donald Trump

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on May 25, 2016

From The Future of Journalism Desk

You know what's gross about Peter Thiel reportedly funding Hulk Hogan to sue Gawker (which is, in turn, funded by Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg)?

Everything.

I’ve written before about how uncomfortable I am that Peter Thiel is one of Pando’s investors. His support for Donald Trump is unforgivable.

But at least Federal election law forced him to disclose his support for Trump so I could be disgusted by it. Thiel was able to keep his financial support for Hogan a total secret as he reportedly funneled money to one or possibly more lawsuits designed to destroy Gawker.

Now, you can dislike Gawker. I do. You can think it barely merits being described as a news organization. I definitely do. You can take pleasure in seeing it get its comeuppance. It delights me. You could even, I suppose, argue that the First Amendment should include a caveat excluding journalists who behave like scumbags. That would be where you and I would part company.

None of that excuses what Thiel did.

On the First Amendment question, Thiel is -- at the very least -- a tremendous hypocrite. Thiel describes himself as a libertarian, a defender of the constitution. Presumably, Thiel’s Cato Institute issued copy of the Bill of Rights includes the First Amendment.

Thiel also describes himself as a supporter of the Committee to Protect Journalists. He has donated money to the organization which describes its mission as "promot[ing] the right of journalists to report the news freely without fear of reprisal."

Reprisals including secret proxy legal attacks from billionaires.

But there is another principle at stake here, separate from the First Amendment and, arguably, with more far reaching implications. The principle that anyone being attacked in law should have the right to know the identity of their attacker.

We cannot -- absolutely cannot -- live in a country where billionaires are free to fund attacks on media outlets, or anyone else, without disclosing their involvement. When Pando was threatened with a $300m lawsuit by a crony of governor Chris Christie, we knew the attacker's name, and his motivations, and were able to fight back accordingly. Shortly after we wrote about the threat here, Anthony Melchiorre abandoned his lawsuit.

By using Hogan as a proxy, Thiel made it impossible for Gawker to mount a fair defense. Meanwhile he, personally, risked no damage to his reputation if the lawsuit failed, nor did he risk his personal or professional life being examined in court or deposed in the way Hogan’s was.  It was, if nothing else, an act of spectacular cowardice.

It saddens me that I have to make this clear but, given Thiel’s apparent willingness to engage in cowardly proxy fights, I apparently do: Thiel, like all Pando’s venture capitalist investors, has no involvement in the operations of Pando. Neither the business side nor the editorial side. He has no board seat, and has never attempted to interfere (or otherwise get involved) in editorial, nor would he be able to if he wanted to. His investment in Pando came via his role at Founders Fund. In fact, it was Founders Fund’s Brian Singerman, not Thiel, who made the investment in Pando on behalf of the firm.

Still, however you look at it, and for good or ill, Peter Thiel is a Pando investor. And it’s situations like this that give weight to the argument that billionaires should have no business funding media companies. Whether that‘s Thiel funding us, or Vekselberg funding Gawker or Pierre Omidyar funding The Intercept or Jeff Bezos funding the Washington Post.

One notable difference between Pando and those other publications is that we remain gloriously free to attack our investors with posts like this one (or with critical posts about Uber, or Secret or any of the other companies in which our investors also have an interest.) Meantime, you’d search in vain for a single post about, say, Vekselberg on Gawker.

In fact, earlier today, Gawker's J.K Trotter asked me for comment on Thiel and Gawker. Here's what I sent in response:

I’m a strong believer that if a billionaire (or anyone) wants to try to take down a media organization (or anyone else) they should have the courage to do so under their own name rather than hiding behind a proxy. Obviously I find much of Gawker’s coverage gross — especially publishing sex tapes and outing people who prefer to keep their sexuality private — but you still have the right to know who is actually suing you is so you have a fair chance to defend your nastiness. If the reports are true then Thiel’s secret backing of Hogan is cowardly and, given his claims to be a libertarian, also hypocritical. (Also, given he’s now financially supporting both Donald Trump and Hulk Hogan, one has to wonder which other 80s cartoon characters he is also secretly backing. Skeletor?) 

Of course I have similar concerns about the fact that Viktor Vekselberg is funding Gawker’s defense. I’m not sure if being honest about handing over control to a Russian oligarch like Vekselberg makes it much better, but at least readers have the information to make up their own minds. 

Sure enough, Trotter ommitted my quote mentioning Vekselberg from his finished story. In fact, he didn't include anything from my comment whatsoever, even though his story mentioned Thiel's investment in Pando. I asked Trotter if Gawker writers are banned from mentioning Vekselberg in their coverage. He responded: "Not aware of any ban on mentioning Vekselberg."

Just a coincidence, then. In a similar coincidence, you won't find anything remotely critical of Omidyar on the Intercept. On Bezos, the Post is constantly walking on eggshells.

It can’t be a coincidence that Pando is also the only one of those organizations that long ago spent its last dime of investor cash and, also long ago, declared it would never again raise venture capital money, from Peter Thiel or anyone else. Instead, since this time last year, we’ve relied on readers subscriptions to stay afloat.

This week’s news was yet another reminder of why that was the right decision.