Tech Billionare Peter Thiel Comes Forward In War Against 'Gawker' | KUOW News and Information

Tech Billionare Peter Thiel Comes Forward In War Against 'Gawker'

May 26, 2016
Originally published on May 26, 2016 4:59 pm
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It takes a lot of money to fight a legal battle. When the wrestler Hulk Hogan decided to take on the gossip site Gawker, turns out he had some financial help, and he eventually won. The outspoken Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel now acknowledges he financed Hogan's lawsuit. NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Gawker's tagline is Today's Gossip is Tomorrow's News, and the site often lives up to it. Hulk Hogan - real name, Terry Gene Bollea - sued the publication for invasion of privacy after it published a sex tape of him and a friend's wife. Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel helped Bollea pursue the case.

Thiel himself was the target of a Gawker-owned website which publicly outed him with the headline Peter Thiel is Totally Gay, People. Thiel revealed his backing of Bollea's lawsuit in an interview with the New York Times, saying he saw Gawker as pioneering a unique and damaging way of getting attention by bullying people, even when there's no connection to the public interest.

Within Silicon Valley, Thiel is a legend. He made his first big money as a cofounder of PayPal and then made even more money as an early investor in Facebook. He's funded dozens of startups, including Uber rival Lyft. A Thiel-like character renamed Peter Gregory was a regular on the HBO fictional comedy series "Silicon Valley." The Thiel character is eccentric and brilliant and sees money to be made in strange places, like in this scene where he's at his desk staring at a lineup of burger buns, but it's not the buns he's staring at.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SILICON VALLEY")

CHRISTOPHER WELCH: (As Peter Gregory) This seed atop the breading...

DUSTYN GULLEDGE: (As Evan) Those are sesame seeds.

EVAN WELCH: (As Peter Gregory) A high number of these breadings have sesame seeds on them - billions of breadings, sesame seeds.

SYDELL: Thiel's viewpoint on many topics is far outside the mainstream. He helped found the Seasteading Institute, which is trying to build fake islands in the ocean, each with its own form of government. He's an outspoken libertarian. In a talk at Stanford University, he said government regulation was getting in the way of business.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER THIEL: I believe we are in a world where innovation in stuff is outlawed. It was basically outlawed in the last 40 years. Part of it was environmentalism. Part of it was risk aversion. And all the engineering disciplines that had to do with stuff have basically been outlawed one by one.

SYDELL: Thiel also made headlines when he paid young entrepreneurs a hundred thousand dollars each not to go to college and to start a business instead. But he's also a study in contradictions. In an interview I did with them on the local Bay Area NBC tech show "Press:Here," he said more kids should be able to go to Ivy League schools.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

THIEL: If you did this as president of Harvard - you said we're going to double our enrollment because we have twice as many people in the U.S. as we had 50 years ago, you'd get fired. The alumni, the students, the faculty - everyone would revolt. So that's the proof that they're more interested in having a zero-sum tournament. It's like the equivalent of Studio 54 with the velvet rope.

SYDELL: Though Thiel himself is very much behind that velvet rope. He has undergraduate and law degrees from Stanford University. Though Thiel is gay, he donated money to Ted Cruz's presidential campaign, even though Cruz opposes gay marriage. And he will be a delegate for Trump at the Republican National Convention. And despite his quest to shut down Gawker, he has donated a million dollars to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Gawker's lawyers say Thiel's efforts could bankrupt the company. In a statement, Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, said, "Just because Peter Thiel is a Silicon Valley billionaire, his opinion does not trump our millions of readers, who know us for routinely driving big news stories." But for now, it looks as if Peter Thiel may be in the driver's seat. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.