A column by Washington Post writer Stuart Karle compares billionaire Peter Thiel’s involvement in the Gawker trial to press intimidation in 1950s by white racists in the South.
Karle’s column compares Thiel’s involvement in Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the online media giant to tactics used by white racists in the South, who threatened journalists covering the violent response to efforts to desegregate the South in the 1950s and ’60s.
According to Karle, Thiel’s decision to help finance Hogan’s trial is similar to elected officials in Alabama in 1960 who filed suit against The New York Times for bringing attention to the intense opposition to protests by black students.
On March 29, 1960, the Times published an advertisement describing the “unprecedented wave of terror” by Southern officials trying to shut down protests by black students. Although the harsh criticism was accurate, the ad contained a number of factual inaccuracies.
Five Alabama elected officials filed libel actions against the Times over the advertisement, demanding a total of $3 million in damages for the harm it supposedly inflicted. This represented a remarkable sum at a time the newspaper’s own lawyer was told it was barely making a profit.
Karle ignores that the source of financing for Hogan’s lawsuit had no impact on the facts of the case, the laws in question, or the ruling. Despite that jurors in the case claimed that they have “absolutely no doubt that the decision we made was absolutely correct,” Gawker apologists like Karle still contend that Thiel unfairly influenced the outcome of the trial.
- Gawker “ruined people’s lives for no reason.”
- Gawker’s articles were “very painful and paralyzing for people who were targeted… I thought it was worth fighting back.”
- Gawker targeted people who couldn’t defend themselves for destruction: “I can defend myself. Most of the people they attack are not people in my category. They usually attack less prominent, far less wealthy people that simply can’t defend themselves. Even someone like Terry Bollea [Hulk Hogan] who is a millionaire and famous and a successful person didn’t quite have the resources to do this alone.”
- Someone gave Thiel the nudge he needed to fund Gawker’s destruction: “I didn’t really want to do anything. I thought it would do more harm to me than good. One of my friends convinced me that if I didn’t do something, nobody would.”
- “I refuse to believe that journalism means massive privacy violations. I think much more highly of journalists than that. It’s precisely because I respect journalists that I do not believe they are endangered by fighting back against Gawker.”
- “It’s not like it is some sort of speaking truth to power or something going on here. The way I’ve thought about this is that Gawker has been a singularly terrible bully. In a way, if I didn’t think Gawker was unique, I wouldn’t have done any of this. If the entire media was more or less like this, this would be like trying to boil the ocean.”
- Thiel recruited lawyers to look for Gawker’s victims and his search has been years in the making: “Without going into all the details, we would get in touch with the plaintiffs who otherwise would have accepted a pittance for a settlement, and they were obviously quite happy to have this sort of support. In a way very similar how a plaintiff’s lawyer on contingency would do it.”
- Thiel spent “roughly in the ballpark” of $10 million on the case, saying: “I would underscore that I don’t expect to make any money from this. This is not a business venture.”
- Holding Gawker and specifically Nick Denton liable for “one of my greater philanthropic things that I’ve done. I think of it in those terms.”
- Thiel told The New York Times he’s “happy his role might spur a conversation about it being ‘extremely hard for the most common victims to get justice.’”
- “It’s not for me to decide what happens to Gawker. If America rallies around Gawker and decides we want more people to be outed and more sex tapes to be posted without consent, then they will find a way to save Gawker, and I can’t stop it.”
Despite this explanation, Karle argues that Thiel simply wanted to drive Gawker out of business and, because of this, deserves as much public scrutiny as racist Southern officials who attempted to silence African-Americans who protested segregation. However, it seems to be Karle’s blind rejection of Gawker’s actual sin of defamation that has allowed him to make such an unusual comparison between a historic victim and a modern aggressor.