The revelation that billionaire Peter Thiel has been bankrolling to the tune of $10m Hulk Hogan in his successful lawsuit against Gawker has raised concerns in the US about the effect on the freedom of the press.
With Gawker now contemplating a possible sale after the $140m award to Hogan, the New York Times says that the case “has some asking whether press freedom in the United States is in peril if a scorned billionaire can help deliver a crippling blow to a media company.”
On Wednesday Thiel spoke to the Times about his reasons for funding the lawsuit against Gawker.
Since then a variety of observers, including other billionaires have addressed themes like Thiel’s political motivations, and the wider issue of Silicon Valley power players “and their involvement with the news media,” says the Times
“Several journalists felt that Mr. Thiel’s political views and connection with the Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, could be worrisome based on Mr. Trump’s previous comments about changing libel laws to make it easier to sue media outlets.”
Jane E. Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota and the former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said that the Gawker case may raise the stakes for press freedom.
“It’s often the scrappy, unconventional news outlets that challenge conventional wisdom, and in doing so, they serve an important purpose,” Ms. Kirtley said. “But they are also very vulnerable financially. It’s expensive to defend suits like this.”
Clara Jeffery, the editor in chief of Mother Jones, a left-leaning political magazine, recently won a costly defamation case filed by Frank VanderSloot, an Idaho billionaire and major Republican donor .
VanderSloot said last October at the time of the court decision, that he would “help pay for the legal expenses of people who have been defamed by Mother Jones.” He pledged a million dollars to the cause.
Jeffery said of the Gawker case, “Combined with press consolidation, or ever-greater influence among the 0.0001 percenters, the Gawker case is a little unnerving,”
Referring to her magazine’s case she said, “The circumstance that brought on the lawsuit could not be more dissimilar. But what is similar is the pattern of press intimidation.”
Many New York Times readers speculated on what the Gawker case meant for the news media in the 21st century.
“It sends a message to other media outlets to watch who and what they’re writing stories about,” one Minneapolis reader wrote. “Don’t investigate rich people or you’ll get shut down.”
“Donald Trump knows that if he sues somebody for something, it will drown the other side,” one reader said. “He’s got the resources to be able to do that. It’s a real distortion of what we want our civil legal system to be about.”
“This is nothing short of terrifying,” another reader said. “Gawker has definitely crossed the ethical line at times ... but the idea that powerful billionaires can essentially launch a crusade against a media outlet they don’t like is not good.”
Hugh Nations, a reader in Austin, Texas, said the case “starkly illustrates the most fundamental flaw in our ‘system of justice.’”
“Whether the case is civil or criminal, the key to the courthouse door is the dollar bill.”
Thiel’s involvement in the Gawker case and his apparent support of Trump place him “at an extraordinary intersection of American political currents. “ says the Times.
Thiel wrote a book with David O. Sacks, a former PayPal colleague and now chief executive of Zenefits, titled “The Diversity Myth,” about his time at Stanford University.
Thiel wrote in a 2009 essay ,“I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”