Who would you rather be stuck in an elevator with?
Peter Thiel, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist and entrepreneur who was revealed to have funded Hulk Hogan's (real name Terry Bollea) legal team in the wrestler's case against Gawker Media -- all in order to fulfill an alleged personal vendetta against the media company?
Or, Gawker Media, a media company that produces mostly tabloid journalism at best, who have been ordered by a Florida court to pay Bollea $115 million in punitive damages for releasing a private tape of Hogan that the wrestler claimed was "invasion of privacy, infringement of personality rights, and intentional infliction of emotional distress."
Personally, I would not want to share any enclosed space with both entities present, seeing as there is a bitter feud currently being played out between the two in the news. Yet, we are all paying attention due to the ramifications this case could have on the "freedom of the press."
Journalists from all corners of the media industry have decried and criticized Peter Thiel in the role he has played for funding Hogan's legal team. These writers state that the "billionaire class" could litigate their way to shutting down media outlets that they are not in favor of, or also having unduly influence over what material they publish. At the same time, we should also be concerned about how the press reports news and whether that news is truly within the sphere of public interest.
Although journalists across the news industry are raising valid concerns about the dangerous influence the wealthy can have on media outlets, I fear more of a press that abuses its trust with the public as in the case of Gawker Media.
There are two major facets to this case that must be discussed separately: one, the verdict rendered in favor of Hulk Hogan by a jury of his (and our) peers; and two, the fact that Peter Thiel has funded Hogan's legal team to the tune of $10 million.
The issue with the debate around Thiel's actions is that the actual verdict rendered in this case is completely separate from the fact that he funded the plaintiff's legal fees. If we fail to make this distinction now, it becomes impossible to correctly weigh and judge Gawker Media's and Thiel's motives in the proper light.
On the jury verdict in Hogan's favor: I am in full support of the jury coming to the decision in ordering Gawker Media to pay punitive damages to Hogan for their role in displaying his private encounter with a friend. If this verdict were to have gone the other way, it would set a precedent that the media has the right to display our private moments with others because it is in the public interest for us to see these intimate moments.
It is not in my best interest or yours to see intimate moments between two individuals, especially if they did not consent to having that content shown to other uninvolved parties. In this case, the content shown by Gawker Media did not serve the purpose of bettering the public's knowledge -- revealing that tape only served to humiliate a former WWE wrestler.
On Peter Thiel's funding of Hulk Hogan's legal team: This point invites more relevant questions: Should the funders (in this case, Thiel) be forced to disclose their involvement in a lawsuit? According to the Wall Street Journal, no.
"Funders are typically under no legal obligation to disclose their involvement in a lawsuit, just as plaintiffs and defendants for the most part aren't required to detail how they are paying for a case." - Wall Street Journal
And herein lies the journalist's worries: if they are to run a negative story about say a prominent Silicon Valley executive, will they now have to think twice before publishing that story in print and online due to the outcome and details of the Hulk Hogan case?
Consider this: if Hulk Hogan did not have the money provided by Thiel to retain his legal team, then he would not have been able to win in court against a well-heeled Gawker Media. If anything, there is a cost to pursuing justice (one could argue justice in the court system is nothing more the best lawyer your money can buy). Should we fault Hulk Hogan for receiving outside financial support from Thiel in order to pursue justice?
I believe these are valid questions to ask and have debate around -- but my problem in this specific case is that Gawker Media is not, and should not be, the martyr in which these questions are decided. Gawker Media, may I remind you, was found by a jury of its peers to be found in violation of Hulk Hogan's privacy, thus the subsequent damages need to be paid. Gawker's tabloid journalism went too far in this case, and even the founder of Gawker Media, Nick Denton, has admitted that his company has crossed the line multiple times in the past.
"Among the million posts published by Gawker and other properties since the company was founded, there have undoubtedly been occasions we overstepped the line." - Nick Denton
One of those times could also be when they "outed" Thiel himself.
Any potential moral or ethical conclusion reached from considering these questions are weakened due to the transgressions committed by Gawker Media. I would rather save this debate for another media company that is reporting on issues that are fundamental to the public interest, instead of generating "news" designed to target and humiliate an individual.
With that being said, let me rephrase the question that I posed at the beginning of this piece:
Who should we fear more?
Media companies who could potentially violate our privacy as individuals by posting intimate moments with our loved ones and friends for all to "gawk" at?
Or billionaires who have the financial means to litigate news outlets into oblivion?
In a general situation, we should be equally afraid and distrustful of both.
But in this specific case, we should be more fearful of Gawker Media and the dangers of tabloid journalism, and be thankful for that St. Petersburg jury which sided with Hogan. The jury in this case helped set a precedent that media companies should be deterred from violating our privacy with reckless abandon.
This article was previously published on LinkedIn.