What’s in it for me? Get the inside scoop on the downfall of Gawker Media.
Conspiracy Ryan Holiday Summary – If you followed the news in 2016, you probably read about ex-wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the notorious gossip website Gawker. You might know that Hogan won and that Gawker declared bankruptcy, but what’s the story behind the story? How did one of America’s most respected and feared publications sleepwalk into its own financial ruin?
In this article, we’ll take a look at how billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel shocked the world with his behind-the-scenes plot to destroy Gawker Media. We’ll examine the origins of Thiel’s hatred of Gawker, and learn how his covert actions ultimately shut down the controversial media outlet. We’ll also hear arguments for and against Thiel’s involvement in Hogan’s case, and explore how Gawker found itself on the stand in the first place.
In this article, you’ll learn
- why Peter Thiel hated Gawker so much;
- what a celebrity sex tape had to do with this conspiracy; and
- how a few determined people plotted to destroy a powerful company.
In 2007, Peter Thiel believed Gawker Media had invaded his privacy.
“The beginnings of all things are small,” the Roman politician Cicero once said. So it was with the conspiracy at the heart of this story. That small beginning was a blog post published by a gossip website in 2007, which outed a tech investor named Peter Thiel as gay. Just 400 words long, this post is the genesis of a conspiracy that cost millions of dollars and lasted over nine years.
To understand why this post was so significant, we must first learn a little more about both its subject, Peter Thiel, and its publisher, Gawker Media.
Let’s take a look at Peter Thiel first.
In 2007, Thiel was already a wildly successful entrepreneur. Having made his fortune as a founder of the online payments system PayPal, Thiel had also gained recognition as Facebook’s first major investor. Despite coming out to his friends, family and colleagues, Thiel was still discreet about his sexuality in 2007, preferring to keep it a somewhat open secret in Silicon Valley. Indeed, when it came to any aspect of his personal life, Thiel was intensely private.
Now let’s examine the website that published the blog post. This website was called Valleywag. Though it was billed as a tech-news site, Valleywag took its editorial direction from its parent company, the notorious gossip website, Gawker.
Both the Gawker and Valleywag websites were owned by an Englishman named Nick Denton.
Denton’s background may have been in the tech industry, but his true interests were secrets and gossip. Specifically, exposing other people’s secrets via his websites, in the name of entertainment and transparency.
Whose secrets? Particularly those of the rich, powerful or famous. Using an army of young, hungry writers with a gift for witty yet contemptuous writing, Denton encouraged his bloggers to expose and ridicule public people and institutions they felt were hypocritical or hiding something. And audiences loved it. By 2005, Gawker and Denton’s other websites were making $120,000 in monthly advertising revenues. By 2012, Gawker’s revenues were close to $40 million.
However, for all Nick Denton’s media savvy, he gossiped about the wrong person on that day in 2007.
Gawker’s outing of Peter Thiel was just another example of their boundary-pushing journalism.
On December 19, 2007, Peter Thiel’s hatred of Gawker began. This was the day on which, under the headline, “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people,” the Valleywag website outed him. But why did Thiel care so much about this blog post, and was it really the only reason for his hatred of Gawker?
To appreciate the depth of Thiel’s loathing for this company, we must recall the social context of 2007, as well as examine some of the other stories Gawker published around that time.
Looking back now, it might seem anachronistic that a gay man would want to keep his sexuality a secret. However, in 2007, the world was a very different place. It would still be another five years before Obama endorsed gay marriage and it would take Hillary Clinton another six years to support it. In other words, the world was much less tolerant of gay people and their rights.
When Valleywag outed Thiel, he took it as a personal attack on his right to privacy. And Gawker Media’s assaults on Thiel’s private life didn’t stop there. Later that year, Valleywag published more blogs about Thiel, including one naming and picturing his boyfriend. In fact, Gawker Media’s articles about Thiel in 2007 and 2008 would garner a combined 500,000 views. Suddenly, the quiet and private Thiel was all over the internet, and so was his sex life.
Although Gawker’s treatment of Thiel might seem harsh, this sort of behavior was completely unremarkable for it. In fact, Gawker Media was quickly building a reputation for its willingness to run stolen material and publish anonymous leaks. In 2005, it had published a stolen sex tape of Fred Durst, the Limp Bizkit frontman; Gawker writers prided themselves on saying and publishing things that more traditional media organizations wouldn’t dare. What happened if one of Gawker’s victims tried to fight back? Gawker would mock them even more, secure in the knowledge that it was protected by America’s stringent free-speech laws.
After learning more about Gawker’s shock tactics, Thiel began calling Gawker the MBTO, short for “Manhattan Based Terrorist Organization,” and he quickly became convinced that something needed to be done about these fearsome, seemingly unstoppable publishers.
Attacking Gawker was difficult, but Thiel had a lot of resources to dedicate to the task.
Between 2008 and 2011, Peter Thiel considered what to do about Gawker Media and its propensity for publicly embarrassing people. But how could he hurt them? Almost nobody had ever fought the American media and won……