Gawker founder Nick Denton wrote an open letter Thursday challenging the billionaire Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel to a public debate on free speech.
The letter comes one day after Thiel’s admission in a New York Times interview that he had secretly financed Hulk Hogan’s high-profile lawsuit against the media company, which awarded Hogan $140 million in damages.
“The best regulation for speech, in a free society, is more speech,” Denton wrote. “We each claim to respect independent journalism and liberty. We each have criticisms of the other’s methods and objectives. Now you have revealed yourself, let us have an open and public debate,” Denton wrote.
“At the very least, it will improve public understanding of the interplay of media and power.”
In The Times’ interview, Thiel said he had planned for years to back lawsuits against Gawker Media in an effort to shut it down, because it “ruined people’s lives for no reason.”
Thiel acknowledged that he provided millions of dollars to Hogan’s suit and other cases.
Denton’s open letter, however, argues that the reporting done by Gawker — including a 2007 piece titled “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people,” — is newsworthy.
He said the website serves to challenge powerful Silicon Valley figures, who until recently were “accustomed to dealing with acquiescent trade journalists and a dazzled mainstream media.”
The news of Thiel’s financial involvement in the Hogan suit has unsettled many in the media community who have called it an attack on press freedom. The concern is that the case could encourage other billionaires unhappy with specific news coverage to back lawsuits against media outlets.
“Peter, this is twisted. Even were you to succeed in bankrupting Gawker Media, the writers you dislike, and me, just think what it will mean,” Denton wrote.
This story will play out in the press and the courts. Both are adversarial forums, in which each side selects facts and quotes to undermine the reputation and credibility of the other. We are confident of our arguments on the newsworthiness of our Hogan story, once it reaches the appeals court. Your main proxy, Hulk Hogan, has his.
We, and those you have sent into battle against us, have been stripped naked, our texts, online chats and finances revealed through the press and the courts; in the next phase, you too will be subject to a dose of transparency. However philanthropic your intention, and careful the planning, the details of your involvement will be gruesome.
In his letter, Denton attempted to both take down Thiel’s assertions that Gawker offered nothing of journalistic value, and criticise Thiel’s specific targeting of the news site.
One such story, Denton noted, was published on Gawker Media’s tech property, Gizmodo. It reported that entrepreneur Shivan Ayyadurai falsely claimed to have invented email.
“Represented also by the lawyer you hired, Ayyadurai is suing Gawker for $35 million for defamation,” Denton wrote to Thiel, “though not the other news organisations for making the same point.”