How completely nuts is it that this is a sequence of events that’s happened? That the cuckolding of a guy called “Bubba the Love Sponge” and the outing of a venture capitalist would lead to a seismic shift in the potential use of power and wealth in America?
The precedent Thiel is setting is profound. Felix Salmon made a good fearmongering case (besides the stuff about Mark Zuckerberg being poised to do anything like this, which is ridiculously unconvincing) that Thiel’s strategy — find anyone willing to sue a target and bankroll their efforts until the target is destroyed — is a brilliant, cynical game-changer.
Nick Denton’s comment on the original Thiel-is-gay post is an amazing artifact to read now. He mentions receiving “a series of messages relaying the destruction that would rain down on me, and various innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, if a story ever ran”. Which is just what has happened.
I find myself in a strange place: I appreciate Thiel’s thinking much more than most of my friends do, but I’m also defending Gawker more than they are.
I think Zero to One was one of the best books of the last year or two (though I’d slightly recommend the original course notes over the book). Part of what made it great is that he’s aggressively unafraid to say things you’re not supposed to say, but which bear thinking about, even if you disagree with him.
For instance, writing about the culture of PayPal, he said that they once rejected a candidate who made the mistake of saying he liked to “shoot hoops”, because that just wasn’t the kind of person the PayPal team was and he wouldn’t fit in. That’s what we call a “problematic” attitude, to say the least, and it doesn’t seem to to occur to him why that attitude might be dangerous or unfair; he’s not particularly concerned with what’s fair.
But here he is actually saying it, from the inside of the new-old-boys-club. That’s a perspective that almost all writers can’t see from the inside, or can see but don’t have the right combination of qualities to write about clearly. Thiel doesn’t really care about how other people feel about his views, which is something we like to condemn as insensitive. But what’s great is that he really, actually doesn’t care; it’s not a pose. At the same time, he does want, deeply, to influence the world. So he says what he believes loud and clear, which is something we don’t usually get from public figures because those two qualities are usually mutually exclusive within them.
So Thiel may seem evil, but he’s surprisingly hard to place on a D&D alignment chart. He’s willing to be an agent of chaos, or to be the nation’s most devoted citizen; to be spectacularly good and spectacularly vengeful. He might be the first person to have a legitimate claim to every part of the alignment chart since Alexander the Great, he of religious-freedom fame but also personally-murdering-his-friends-at-the-dinner-table infamy.
What about Gawker, which the Hacker News crowd has been deriding as deserving its painful demise? Gawker has definitely been guilty of some pretty shameless and unethical behavior, particularly with posting about people’s sexuality and sexual conduct. Some of my friends are still shocked at the crassness outing of Thiel as gay in 2007, which they see as the opposite of newsworthy.
I disagree. I still find the original Valleywag story interesting, insightful, and newsworthy. Thiel has made himself a prominent figure with bold and influential claims about democracy, equality, identity, acceptance, citizenship, and justice. Meanwhile, there was strong public anti-gay sentiment by many in the domestic and international finance world, which raises interesting questions about how money, power and identity flow in the venture capital world. And finally, there were, and continue to be, tricky and incredibly consequential issues around what constitutes a “cultural fit” in the startup world, which, as Thiel’s own writing attests, touches on all sorts of aspects of identity, including race, class, and sexuality.
That Thiel was, at the time, in the closet about being gay seems certainly newsworthy to me. (Not to mention that he had been directing threats of using his capital and the public purse to get revenge on Gawker, something which doesn’t make sense to report unless you explain that he’s gay.) I don’t think the newsworthiness, in and of itself, is a close call.
Now, is it wrong to run a piece like Valleywag’s? Are there aspects of prominent people’s lives that are private no matter what? Is there sufficient danger to personal relationships, to employment, and risk of violence that someone should never be publicly named as part of an oppressed group unless they want to be? These are much more interesting questions to me, and they’re questions no ethical journalist — let alone a Gawker journalist, for whom this standard emphatically isn’t applied — can ever be sure of. In Thiel’s case, I’d have a hard time weighing the newsworthiness against the seeming possibility of harm, and would have chosen not to publish. For all we know, publishing was deeply harmful to Thiel, though from my perspective on the uninformed outside, he seems no weaker for it.
Some might even say that it’s wrong, or unethical, of me to discuss Thiel’s sexuality even now, since I don’t even know if he’s out now. (I have no idea what his sexuality actually is, but at some point you have to start stating extremely likely things as fact.) Am I as bad as Gawker? If you think so, should I not be able to even publicly discuss the particulars of this case — which has massive implications for the nation and the legal system — with others? Is privacy for the powerful so extensive that it prevents pointing out possible discrimination in hiring, keeps us from reporting threats to journalists, and makes it wrong to even report when our legal system and political economy are being mutated?
Is privacy for the powerful so extensive that it prevents pointing out possible discrimination in hiring, keeps us from reporting threats to journalists, and makes it wrong to even report when our legal system and political economy are being mutated?
Was Gawker way out of line to post the (reportedly) 9 seconds of the edited, and probably not consensually filmed, Hulk Hogan sextape? I think so: the woman in the tape seems to have had her privacy completely violated, and her private behavior is absolutely not newsworthy. (She, and her rights and privacy, are seldom mentioned more than in passing.)
But is Hogan’s private behavior newsworthy? Surely it doesn’t seem newsworthy to me in the way I consume news. But writers and readers of traditional news are no longer typical. TMZ, BuzzFeed, Vine, Snapchat, and FaceBook churn through the annual readership of the New York Review of Books in the time it takes to loop a secretly sponsored product’s 6-second appearance next to a scantily clad new actress who has a brilliant 20 year-old publicist who will never even bother to read 200 words about Thiel’s involvement with that sextape from the barely relevant old wrestler.
To judge newsworthiness, we have to consider the broader nature of news and celebrity today. Part of Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea’s continuing wealth comes from a public persona in which, on as much news media as possible, he treats his real sexual activities as newsworthy. Do you think he’s going on the Howard Stern show for fun? There is money and power in attracting public attention as a spectacle, and Bollea has made use of this phenomenon by making himself into a sort of constant human clickbait. Is he the only one allowed to address and exploit the fantastic claims he has made in public?
Part of Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea’s continuing wealth comes from a public persona in which, on as much news media as possible, he treats his real sexual activities as newsworthy
I wonder if these 9 seconds had been aired in a context that he liked — for instance, during one of his over-the-top appearances on Howard Stern — he would have laughed about it and seen it as adding to his reputation. When TMZ asked about the video, he bragged and made it clear he didn’t care; and he settled with his supposedly nonconsensual filmmaker friend for $5k. But when Gawker ran the 9 seconds, he testified that the attitudes towards that very film that he had expressed had been just a performance as Hulk Hogan, and that his real feelings and reputation had been deeply hurt to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.
I think it should be clear that this is not about any disagreement between the actual parties about newsworthiness. It’s about the rich lacking as firm control as they feel they deserve over power and money, using public institutions to punish and seize money and power back.
For this to work, of course, the legal tort system has to already be fundamentally biased towards plaintiffs. As Felix Salmon explained, that bias has only been a medium problem so far because traditionally, only people who have some kind of grounds to sue someone else actually can harass them with lawsuits.
For this to work, the legal tort system has to already be fundamentally biased towards plaintiffs
What Thiel has demonstrated is the ability to turn money into arbitrary control of others via the strategic abuse of this bias. This was previously not considered practical because there are only so many times a rich person could concoct an excuse to sue someone else; witness how relatively seldom rich people sue cities, which are often a lucrative target. But relative to simply, say, buying them out, Thiel’s approach is both practical, price-effective, and generally threatening of anyone he warns in the future.
It also amounts to a massive expansion of coercive government power purchasable by the highest bidder. You could argue that this power was already lying dormant due to our laws, traditions and culture, but just hadn’t fully been realized yet.
It seems like it has taken someone who is unusually brilliant in his opposition to coercive government power to perceive such a massive opportunity to use that power.