Originally published at Death and Taxes, ed. Brian Abrams, 22 March 2016.
Grateful thanks to the Internet Archive for preserving this work.
Nobody involved in the Peter Thiel/Hulk Hogan/Gawker Media catastrophe has escaped unscathed — not even Peter Thiel, the Ernst Blofeld of the piece, who funded the Hogan lawsuit, among others, in order to bring about Gawker’s ruin. Thiel’s reputation as a bully and a sneak seems forever sealed. Hogan’s gross racist slurs, recorded during a sexual encounter with the wife of his then-best friend, Bubba The Love Sponge, came out in the end despite all his lawyers’ best efforts. He was duly fired by WWE and removed from its Hall of Fame, and no amount of prayer or vitamins will ever effect his comeback. Gawker Media and its founder, Nick Denton, were forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings in the aftermath of the trial. The only defendant left in the case who has not filed for bankruptcy protection is former Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio, who wrote the post published four years ago accompanying the excerpt of the Hogan sex tape at issue in the trial.
Gawker’s flagship site, Gawker.com, has been “mothballed,” in Denton’s words, in the aftermath of the sale of Gawker Media to Univision, which will continue to operate the company’s other properties — Jalopnik, Gizmodo, Jezebel, Deadspin, Lifehacker, and Kotaku. In a memo to employees, Denton raised the possibility of “a second act” for Gawker.com, after “the smoke clears,” and if a new owner can be found.
Last week found Daulerio still in court, where Hogan’s lawyers (or, more properly, Thiel’s lawyers), who have apparently stripped him of his indemnification rights, argued that he must himself pay Hogan’s $115.1 million jury award. Everyone knows that he hasn’t got $115.1 million, or $1 million, or even a fraction of the $100,000 of the jury award originally assigned to him personally, squirreled away anywhere; court documents show that his net worth, factoring in student debt, is in negative territory. (“We would have hit A.J. harder, but we just didn’t think you could get blood out of a rock,” a juror told the New York Post after the trial.)
This seems like a futile line of attack until you consider that the evident aim of Thiel’s lawyers has always been, not to collect money, but to harm their opponents as much as they can, and for as long as they can. So far they have seized Daulerio’s bank account and his furniture and effects, including, apparently, his rice cooker. They are also demanding, separately, from Daulerio alone, reimbursement of all legal costs incurred by the Hogan side. If the lawyers have their way, it is likely his wages will be garnished until he has paid off however many hundreds of millions. When a billionaire is willing to write unlimited checks, who cares if this strategy makes any sense? The lawyers are getting paid and their opponents bled, billable hour upon billable hour.
Underlying these courtroom theatrics is the likelihood that Hogan will never see a dime of this money, because the Florida verdict is very liable to be reversed on appeal. No matter, though: Peter Thiel got what he paid for. For the moment at least, Gawker is no more.
So far, the press has tamely accepted the idea that Thiel’s rage against Gawker and Denton originated in their having “outed” him in 2007, but that is hard to believe. Aside from the fact that his orientation was already an open secret in Silicon Valley at that time, there is no reason for Thiel to be ashamed of being gay, and clearly, he isn’t. He announced it on national television in his speech at the Republican National Convention; he has mentioned it frequently in discussing Gawker. What he never mentions in public, however, is what seems like a far more likely source of his implacable hatred, namely, the ridicule and contempt expressed toward Thiel in a multitude of posts on Gawker and its Silicon Valley site, Valleywag, over the years.
Here is a (very) incomplete list of Valleywag/Gawker pieces about Thiel, starting from 2009:
A Facebook Billionaire’s Big Dumb Failure
(“Becoming Facebook’s first institutional investor was brilliant; thinking he was smart enough to predict big economic swings was incredibly dumb. Six billion dollars dumb.”)
A Tech Idol’s Comedown
(“Ranked the 377th richest American last year, with a net worth of $1.3 billion, Thiel has dropped off this year’s Forbes 400 list entirely.”)
Reminder: Peter Thiel Is Ted Cruz’s Gay Billionaire Ally
(“Is it lunacy to be the most loyal supporter of a man who thinks you don’t deserve equal protection under the law? No crazier than paying kids to drop out of school, [or trying to] cure death or create a floating libertarian ocean utopia.”)
ACORN-Buster’s Secret Conservative Sugar Daddy
(“[James] O’Keefe started a conservative college publication, just like Thiel, and wants to bolster right-wing politics using YouTube, just like Thiel.”)
Billionaire Peter Thiel Says Technology Isn’t Screwing Middle Class
(“Thiel is spinning so much bullshit, he can’t even get his facts straight.”)
Soon You May Be Able to Live on Crazy Libertarian Billionaire Island
(“Ever wanted to live on a ‘floating city’ surrounded by hundreds of tech-nerd millionaires experimenting with S&M and God knows what else? Your dream just came a little closer to reality.”)
Peter Thiel Just Paid 20 Kids $100k to Not Go to College
(“Thiel touts the $34 million that the previous two classes of 40 fellows have raised since dropping out, but that’s no indicator of success or longevity.”)
Summers: Thiel Fellows ‘Most Misdirected Piece of Philanthropy’
(“As noxious as [former Harvard president Larry] Summers can be, his skepticism is valid, particularly when you hear about Thiel Fellows dropping out of Harvard to invent a caffeine nasal spray that sounds like the plot of a Jack Black comedy.”)
Facebook Backer Wishes Women Couldn’t Vote
(“We would have so much more freedom, Thiel suggests, if only we’d deprived women of it. You may wonder: Is Thiel on drugs? The answer, according to Thiel, is yes.”)
He may be a billionaire entrepreneur, but to hear Valleywag and Gawker tell it, it’s a miracle Thiel can tie his own shoes. His evident self-image as some sort of Ayn Rand hero (or possibly Aragorn) was starkly at odds with the buffoonish portrait painted by Gawker. It is not hard to imagine the teeth-grinding rage that a man with so large an ego must feel, to be so often pilloried in the public square. Hence, perhaps, the sadistic vendetta, the multiple lawsuits from Hogan on down, and the desire to see Gawker not only punished, but annihilated.
Daulerio has neither cloven hoofs nor a tail, despite what you may have read. He is from Pennsylvania, and loves sports and good writing. He is a journalist, 41 years old, deaf in one ear, brunet, and handsome in rather an old-fashioned way; earthy, witty, with a no-nonsense manner about him. (I met him briefly during the trial in St. Petersburg in March.) Daulerio is often blamed for Gawker’s legal troubles, but it’s safe to suppose that Thiel’s lawyers would eventually have cooked up some other trumpery legal mess to bankrupt Gawker Media, had this one not worked out. Thiel claimed months ago to have already spent $10 million on lawyers in the Hogan case alone.
Daulerio’s writing as a younger man gave the impression that he wasn’t burning the candle at both ends so much as hurling it into the nearest bonfire, but he appears to have simmered down quite a bit by the time he became editor of Gawker. His colleagues — all of them, to my knowledge — defend him fiercely, and there’s no question that Gawker under his stewardship was a marvel to read, daring, intelligent and insightful.
“A.J. is the best journalist I’ve ever worked with,” Tommy Craggs, formerly Gawker Media’s executive editor, told me in an email. (Craggs is currently politics editor at Slate.) “His ultimate allegiance is to the story, and he will run through any wall to get it. He did this time and again at Gawker and Deadspin, bringing in stories high and low, and he didn’t care what anyone thought of him or his methods or his ethics so long as he could offer up something interesting and true to readers… As an editor, he made the people around him braver, and anything I ever did at Deadspin that was worthwhile happened because A.J. stuffed some guts into me. The idea that he is now a pariah in the industry for being too pure an exponent of its purported values — for being too committed to the task of putting interesting and true things on the page — says more about the industry than it does about A.J.”
(Full disclosure: I’ve never worked with Daulerio or Craggs directly, but many of their colleagues and writers have been editors and colleagues of my own; I’ve written a few times for Gawker. The New York blog world is not all that big, is the thing.)
A great deal of hay was made in the Hogan case over an unfortunate remark of Daulerio’s in deposition regarding the newsworthiness of sex tapes in general. When asked if there was any sex tape he would consider not newsworthy, he replied: One involving a child. How old a child? In a tone indicating that he found this a colossally stupid question, he sarcastically said: “Four.” But however obvious Daulerio’s sarcasm ought to have been in a sane world, the comment was seized upon and spun up by the lawyers to paint him, and by extension Gawker, as would-be child pornographers.
Much of the press went along, most shamefully, for the Daulerio-bashing ride. After the trial a juror told the Post, “[Daulerio] just comes out with this arrogance that ‘There’s nothing that can stop us from what we’re doing,’ the comments he made [that] it’s open game [sic] for a celebrity of five years old or older — those kind of bold statements, under oath, knowing that you’re going to trial over this… ‘”
It should go without saying that if such a terrible thing as a “celebrity sex tape” featuring a toddler even existed it would be illegal even to own, let alone publish. Daulerio made an off-handedly outrageous remark meant to indicate contempt, nothing more. But that didn’t stop Thiel’s lawyers from yelling their heads off about five-year-olds at every available opportunity.
Daulerio is living in Florida until this mess is sorted out. It would appear that he is still on form, as indicated by the pithy statement he gave Forbes last week through his lawyer:
It’s ludicrous that a billionaire like Peter Thiel is spending his wealth on lawyers to freeze my $1,500 bank account and figure out the value of my rice cooker and old furniture. If Mr. Thiel really believed in the First Amendment, he would not be funding lawyers to chase my meager assets and instead would try to justify the $115.1 million verdict in front of an appeals court. Instead, he’s using his fortune to hold me hostage to settle a decade-long grudge that has nothing to do with me or Hulk Hogan.
I was able to speak briefly to Daulerio over the phone last week. He is in good spirits and, as ever, a most lively conversationalist, though a lot of topics were off-limits owing to his legal situation. But I asked him how he was feeling about the trial, and his role in it.
Look… as much as it’s been very easy to compile an enemies list, I just can’t do that — I don’t want to do that. There are just much bigger real-life things that have kind of fallen on my head here. The good part about it is to actually realize what matters, and what does not.
What does matter? Tell me about that.
I’m not homeless. I am not going to starve. I’m not going to not be able to do the thing that I love to do. And this is going to pass, and will be a minor footnote, at some point, where I think history will be kind. There’s really nothing to fear, at this point…
This is actually good, that this is happening to me, because, I mean, imagine if this were happening to John Cook, with three kids, or like people with like, some real stuff that could be taken away from them. And you know, granted, this isn’t the most comfortable way of living, but… I know how to get through it.
After a pause Daulerio pointed out that Cook, who is still being sued, still faces that possibility.
It’s sobering to consider that those who attended the trial, myself included, had no idea, really, what we were looking at. Hogan, who had more than once discussed his sex life in leering detail on “The Howard Stern Show,” clearly has never cared two pins about his privacy, except, perhaps, where his views on “fucking niggers” are concerned: As events unspooled many, perhaps most of us journalists came to the conclusion that the real reason for the trial was that Hogan wanted to keep his racist swill out of the press. (“If we’re gonna fuck with niggers, let’s get a rich one!”)
But that wasn’t what was going on at all. The puppet-strings were located elsewhere, a little higher up. Thiel’s expensive and clever lawyers played out their melodrama, trained the jury to hate the “meanness” of Gawker, to hate “outing,” to hate sensationalism and “clickbait journalism.” These were all smokescreens for what Thiel really paid for them — and us — to hate. The real aim of this trial was to make people hate, and therefore be willing to suppress, the free press. To frighten journalists out of telling the truth about powerful people.
But Thiel’s involvement did not emerge until after the trial was over: Presumably neither the jury nor the judge actually knew what was going on, either. It was a sort of Potemkin trial, a show trial out of the pages of Russian history.
It bears mentioning that both a federal judge and an appellate court in Florida had already sided with Gawker, holding that the published Hogan material was newsworthy. And a review of the relevant First Amendment literature clearly suggests strong parallels with the reasoning in landmark Supreme Court cases such as Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell. But even if this were not so, the punishment here in no way fits the crime. These cases are ordinarily settled with retractions, with apologies, with damages of a reasonable amount. Missteps, even massive ones, are part of the cost of a free and independent press.
The New York Times published lies that helped land the United States in a ruinous war costing literally trillions of dollars and more than a hundred thousand lives; The Washington Post published an entirely fabricated story about a nonexistent eight-year-old heroin addict. Rolling Stone published a story containing false accusations of gang rape on the campus of the University of Virginia. We can’t — we must not — shut down every publication that fucks up. There has to be a fair sense of what constitutes appropriate restitution. And what happened to Gawker ain’t it.
The compensation paid for each person who died in the 9/11 attacks was about $2 million. On what planet is 101 seconds of grainy security-camera footage showing Hogan having sex “worth” the same amount as seventy lost human lives? That is to say nothing of the shuttering of a publication loved by millions of readers, or the disruptions and harm to the Denton family, the families of Heather Dietrick and Daulerio and the families of all who worked at Gawker, the cost to the courts that could have been doing more important work in their community, the costs in legal fees on all sides. All these assets were squandered, instead, for the sake of a washed-up racist wrestler fronting for a monomaniacal billionaire with a bruised ego.
[photos: Getty, Tampa Bay Times]