Inside the 'Outings' of Peter Thiel

Peter Thiel, pictured in 2013.
Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, during a panel discussion in Beverly Hills, California, May 1, 2013. Thiel has sparked controversy about citizenship rights in New Zealand. Gus Ruelas/Reuters

There have now been two "outings" of Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel—and they're not just interlinked. One, apparently, is the cause of the other.

The first occurred in a 2007 blog post on Valleywag, a now-defunct Gawker publication, which boldly stated, "Peter Thiel is totally gay, people."

The second happened Monday, when Forbes outed Thiel, a venture capitalist, technology entrepreneur and avowed libertarian, as the financial backer of former pro-wrestler Hulk Hogan in a massive lawsuit against Gawker.

Thiel, 48, a co-founder of PayPal and a board member at Facebook, publicly confirmed Wednesday that he's covered roughly $10 million in expenses for Hogan's lawsuit, saying he considers it "one of my greater philanthropic things that I've done."

Hogan sued Gawker for publishing a sex tape of him and a former friend's wife (now ex-wife) on its website in 2012 that showed nudity, as well as Hogan uttering a racial slur, for which he has since apologized. In the suit, Hogan said he was unaware that he was being taped and has suffered enormous emotional and reputational damage as a consequence of Gawker's release of the tape.

Hogan's lawyer was not immediately available to comment, but the suit raised a number of legal questions about how the press balances First Amendment rights of free speech against an individual's right to privacy. (In Hogan's case, the jury found his privacy had been violated, awarding him $140.1 million in damages.) But Thiel's move to personally funnel millions into the Hogan suit has sparked fresh concerns about how some billionaires clandestinely try to muzzle or influence what the media are allowed to publish.

In a revealing interview with The New York Times late Wednesday, Thiel said he's funding at least one other legal action against Gawker in addition to the Hogan lawsuit. "It's safe to say this is not the only one," he confirmed, adding that he's assembled a legal team to identify cases he might bankroll against the website, which he called a "singularly terrible bully."

There's nothing new about billionaires wanting to control or even own the press: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post, and News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch acquired The Wall Street Journal.

There's also nothing new about billionaires attempting to silence their critics. Republican front-runner Donald Trump, whom Thiel, a California GOP delegate, has openly pledged to back for president, has tried to do so repeatedly, frequently blocking the media from covering his rallies.

But Thiel's campaign against Gawker is different in that he sought to attack Gawker in secret, allowing Hogan's suit to be the public face of his war on the media organization. Clandestinely funding Hogan puts Thiel in league with billionaires such as the Koch brothers, who have been criticized for funneling "dark money" into nonprofit organizations backing candidates for public office, while remaining invisible.

Thiel declined to comment to Newsweek, but in his interview with the Times, he said he is not against a free and open press, but he opposes what he sees as Gawker's unchecked and unfettered privacy violations. Thiel said he hoped challenging Gawker would be a "deterrence" against more violations of privacy like those he and Hogan have suffered.

"I refuse to believe that journalism means massive privacy violations," he told the Times. "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."

That may sound like spin, but Thiel's philanthropic efforts have included supporting journalism-advocacy groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York–based nonprofit. A spokesperson for the group says it received $1.075 million from Thiel from 2008 to 2013 and sometimes as much as $250,000 a year.

"We support the right of individuals in the United States and around the world to seek civil redress in cases of defamation," the group's executive director, Joel Simon, said in a statement Wednesday in reference to Thiel's decision to back Hogan. "However, we do not support efforts to abuse the process by seeking to punish or bankrupt particular media outlets."

Hogan's suit really could gut Gawker. In an unusual move by his legal team, the former wrestler isn't seeking damages from the media company's insurer but directly from Gawker itself, as well as its founder, Nick Denton. (Both are appealing the suit.) Gawker does not have billions at its disposal, so while reasonable minds can differ over whether Denton's company had it coming, there is no equality of arms in this fight. Thiel's pockets are indisputably deeper.

The PayPal co-founder told the Times he is not bankrolling the Hogan suit to make money; he's targeting Gawker because the website has published stories that he says have been "very paralyzing and painful for people who were targeted," including some of his friends.

Considering Thiel has a personal reason for targeting Gawker, it may also be a stretch to call it philanthropic.

One suggestion: Rather than assembling a legal team to exclusively attack Gawker, Thiel could start a third-party litigation firm to scour for lawsuits wherever he sees similar "victims" of injustice, like the ones he told the Times have allegedly been hurt by Gawker. That would make him the hero and not just a bully trying to bully another.