Hulk Hogan, media ethics and the battling Internet moguls

When Hulk Hogan won $140 million in court from millionaire Nick Denton’s Gawker Media after it published video of him having sex, the verdict raised serious questions about journalistic ethics. Hogan’s suit was funded by Peter Thiel, the billionaire founder of PayPal who Gawker outed as gay a decade earlier. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Wired’s Jason Tanz for more on the case and its implications.

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  • JOHN YANG:

    But first: a most unusual legal case about media ethics, responsibility and a billionaire's power.

    It started with former wrestler Hulk Hogan suing Gawker Media for publishing a video of him having sex with a friend's wife. A jury awarded him $140 million for invasion of privacy.

    Last week, we learned Hogan's suit was by Peter Thiel, one of the co-founders of PayPal and a major Silicon Valley player. Thiel himself was outed as a gay man by Gawker Media nearly a decade ago. That triggered a critical public letter from Gawker's co-founder, Nick Denton. He challenged Thiel to a public debate, calling him "a thin-skinned billionaire with a vindictive decade-long campaign quite out of proportion to the hurt you claim."

    The case and the revelations have sparked big questions.

    Hari Sreenivasan recently spoke with Jason Tanz, the editor at large of "Wired."

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, let's go over just basics of what happened in this case, because most people aren't following Hulk Hogan's sex tape saga too closely.

  • JASON TANZ, Editor-At-Large, WIRED:

    Sure.

    So, a few years ago, Gawker published an article that included a video of a sex tape that Hulk Hogan had made, actually was made without his knowledge. They declared it was in the public interest because Hulk Hogan was a public figure and he had gone on record talking about how he had not had sex with this woman, and they had proof that he had. So they published it, somewhat gleefully, which has always been Gawker's kind of stock and trade.

    They have been very forward in their — in what they declare to be in the public interest. And they thought this was. Hulk Hogan didn't see things that way. He brought a lawsuit against them. The jury found against Gawker to the tune of $140 million, which was a pretty shocking about.

    Gawker has appealed the case and they're waiting to see how that plays out.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, how does Peter Thiel get involved in this? He — there's no love lost between the founder of Gawker, Nick Denton, and Peter Thiel.

  • JASON TANZ:

    Nick Denton had suspected that there was actually somebody funding Hulk Hogan's lawsuit, because the way Hogan was prosecuting the suit, he was making decisions that, if he were interested in making money, game theory suggests that he would have done something differently.

    He could have taken reportedly about a $10 million settlement. He also withdrew a part of the lawsuit that would have required a payout from Gawker's insurance. They actually just withdraw that, so that Gawker would be on the hook and not the insurance company.

    So, that indicated maybe there was something else going on. In 2007, Gawker had — and, specifically, its site Valleywag had outed Peter Thiel as a gay man. Thiel at the time swore his revenge. And now, nine years later, he is getting it. He had a team of lawyers who were looking for various plaintiffs who could file suits that they could fund, and apparently they found more than one. Supposedly, there a couple of other suits out there that he's prepared to bring against Gawker as well.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Now, nothing that Peter Thiel is doing is illegal. There are not any laws on the books that say you can't fund or aid someone else's legal pursuit, right?

    But there's a kind of a bigger question here of this is a billionaire using a tremendous amount of influence. He's an ardent libertarian who does speak up on behalf of free speech, but here he is crushing an institution that said something that he was, well, ticked off about.

  • JASON TANZ:

    Yes, I mean, the tricky thing about this is, Thiel feels wronged, but he is not suing Gawker based on the statement that he feels wronged him. He's not suing them for outing him.

    He's suing them for Hogan. And based on his actions and based on Hogan's actions, it doesn't seem that is what is motivating him is justice for Hogan. It seems that what is motivating him is essentially crushing Gawker through the court system.

    And there are a lot of people, a lot of people in the press in particular, who see that and get very, very scared, because the point isn't even necessarily to win the suit. He can continue to litigate against Gawker and rack up huge legal fees and destroy them even if he never wins a suit.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, what does the tech community in Silicon Valley, how do they feel about this? On the one hand, there's the journalism question. On the other hand, there is that Peter Thiel is a smart guy and a visionary in this community.

  • JASON TANZ:

    Yes, there's been a lot of defense of Thiel within the tech community.

    Gawker is an easy media property to hate. And Valleywag in particular, for those in the tech industry, is a very easy media property to hate. They were glib, they were cruel, they were callous, and they had, some would say, pretty bad editorial judgment a lot of the time,

    Like lot a First Amendment cases, whether that is Larry Flynt or Gawker, it's very hard to defend the specifics of this particular case. So, a lot of people within Silicon Valley are saying, look, this isn't any different from the ACLU or Greenpeace funding suits that they think are going to end up having a greater social good.

    In this case, the greater social good is punishing and deterring people from publishing the kind of stuff that Gawker does. Now, the concern, of course, is who is to determine what should be punished? And even if we all agree — and I'm not saying that we do — but even if we all did agree that what Gawker published shouldn't have been published, by that same logic, you could say, I don't like the way they're talking about Theranos, and that's really been unfair to Theranos, and I think that that has been unfair and untoward and is click-bait, and, therefore, I'm going to punish The Wall Street Journal for publishing that.

    It's one of those slippery slope arguments that you get into with these First Amendment disputes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Jason Tanz from "Wired," thanks so much.

  • JASON TANZ:

    Yes, thanks for having me.

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