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Gawker, a Pioneer of Internet Snark, Closing In Wake of Thiel Vendetta

Nick Denton,  owner and publisher of Gawker Media, told his staff the site is closing in the wake of a 10-year vendetta by billionaire Peter Thiel. (Photos: Getty)

Nick Denton, owner and publisher of Gawker Media, told his staff the site is closing in the wake of a 10-year vendetta by billionaire Peter Thiel. (Photos: Getty)

Gawker, the Web site that pioneered Internet snark and grew into a major online player, is ceasing operations next week, a victim of a campaign of legal terrorism waged by gay Silicon Valley mogul Peter Thiel. It marks the beginning of a chilling chapter in online media.

Thiel, who made his money launching PayPal and investing early on in Facebook, waged a secret campaign against the site to punish owner and publisher Nick Denton.

The campaign was fueled by a near decade-long vendetta over a 2007 report in sister-site Valleywag. The site outed Thiel as a homosexual. His sexuality was known to friends and associates but not the public at large.

At the time, Thiel was reportedly doing business with Saudi Arabian investors, according to The New York Times. More than likely, they would have preferred throwing him from a roof rather than giving him money had they known.

Thiel was reportedly determined to see that they didn’t.

The Times outed the tech mogul’s vendetta earlier this year.

It broke the story that he had secretly bankrolled a lawsuit filed against Gawker Media by former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan, real name Terry Bollea.

Hogan claimed his privacy was violated when Gawker published snippets of a sex tape without his permission. He had been filmed by a close friend while having sex with the friend’s wife.

Hogan won a $140 million judgment from a Florida jury. Many legal experts have criticized the award for being wildly disproportionate to the claimed injury.

Gawker is appealing the decision and has a solid chance of overturning the verdict in a higher court. The Supreme Court addressed the issue of celebrity privacy in the landmark 1988 case Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell.

Thiel had neither a direct nor indirect stake in the case. Win or lose, he accomplished his goal–to punish Denton by draining his company financially.

Gawker Media, which owns the site and five others, was pushed into bankruptcy and sold at a fire-sale auction for $135 million. It’s still pending approval by the bankruptcy court.

The buyer was Univision, the Spanish-language network.

Gawker Media posted a statement on its site today, confirming plans to shut gawker.com.

After nearly fourteen years of operation, Gawker.com will be shutting down next week. The decision to close Gawker comes days after Univision successfully bid $135 million for Gawker Media’s six other websites, and four months after the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel revealed his clandestine legal campaign against the company.

Denton, who is leaving the company told the staff just hours before a bankruptcy court in Manhattan was to decide whether to approve Univision’s bid for Gawker Media’s other assets, according to the site.

Thiel wrote a column in The New York Times on Monday (Aug. 15) defending his secret campaign against Gawker in the name of establishing “moral limits” on Internet publishing.

But he sorely misses the point.

Under the First Amendment, the courts have long established that “public figures,” those who willingly seek the spotlight or wield vast influence over society, must be held to a different standard than ordinary citizens.

The definition includes celebrities, government officials and corporate leaders like Thiel. By virtue of their position, or vast wealth–Thiel is said to be worth $2.7 billion– they have undue influence over our culture and our way of life.

Once they attain that position, or power, they forfeit their so-called “right to privacy” under all but very limited circumstances.

The Supreme Court has rightly decided that a free and open Democracy demands a “free market” of information and ideas, even if they are sometimes offensive or unpopular.

The loss of privacy by public figures is overwhelmed by the benefits they derive from their fame, or notoriety.

It’s a small price to pay to help society keep a check on those who can subvert or unduly influence the rights of average citizens.

Hulk Hogan is a career-long publicity hound who has made a good living off his notoriety, including bragging often and loudly about his sexual prowess. He’s clearly a public figure with the barest claim to “privacy.”

Nonetheless, Thiel chose to spend $10 million helping Bollea pursue his suit against Gawker Media.

Thiel’s action is right up there with the Supreme Court’s notorious decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The ruling granted corporations and wealthy individuals the right to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence U.S. elections.

There is one key difference. Citizens United used the legal process; Thiel grossly abused it.

But he sent a clear message. The courts can be used as a bludgeon against anybody by anyone who has the money.

Far from advancing the cause of privacy, Thiel has moved the nation another step away from its democratic ideals and steered the country closer to a Russian-style Oligarchy run solely for the benefit of the rich and well-connected.

As they say, politics makes strange bedfellows. So, it’s no surprise Thiel has crawled into bed with GOP candidate Donald Trump.

He has nowhere else to go with his campaign for “moral limits,” except a morally bankrupt political party that secretly loathes him, simply because of his sexual orientation.

What a sad irony.

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