Gawker boss Nick Denton got a hint years ago that this might be coming. When Gawker reported in 2007 that Peter Thiel was gay, Denton commented below the story that Thiel "was so paranoid that, when I was looking into the story, a year ago, I got 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."
If being outed by Gawker was really the catalyst for Thiel's decision to fund Hogan's lawsuit seven years later, then, damn, that man is a true believer in revenge being a dish best-served cold.
Ironically, as many have pointed out, Peter Thiel was a long-time supporter of the Committee to Protect Journalists, and was quoted in the organization's 2008 annual report saying that he's a "true believer in the critical importance of free speech." The organization's executive director says Thiel's support ceased in January 2013, which is, interestingly, a month after Hulk Hogan sued Gawker for posting an excerpt from a surreptitious sex tape made of him.
But Denton doesn't think Thiel, who once called Gawker "the Silicon Valley equivalent of Al Qaeda," is the sole benefactor behind Gawker's legal troubles. He previously told the New York Times that he had a "personal hunch" that Hogan's expensive L.A.-based lawyer was being funded by multiple benefactors in Silicon Valley who don't like that Gawker is exposing the money and power of the tech industry.
"What’s unique about Gawker is that we’re an internet publication and the tech industry is of particular interest to us," Denton told Forbes’ Ryan Mac and Matt Drange. "There are powerful people in Silicon Valley and the power of Silicon Valley is a relatively new phenomenon."
Gawker's tech-focused blog Valleywag was a muckraking bee in the bonnet of the industry it covered–technology–from the moment it went live in 2006. Valleywag’s coverage was famous (or infamous) for bucking a trend in technology reporting that was notorious for not producing critical coverage of the industry. The site shut down in 2011, was revived in 2013, and then died again in 2015.
Valleywag was not interested in service journalism. It was not a gadget blog. It didn’t care about access. It didn’t care about maintaining relationships with publicists. It did not care about flattering people into giving them exclusive profiles. It tore through the often unctuous, incestuous coverage of Silicon Valley and technology like a great white shark in chummed waters.
It was, in other words, dedicated to uncompromising reporting.
In the service of pursuing that goal, it made a lot of enemies. Valleywag prided itself on going after the most powerful companies on Earth and the extremely wealthy people who ran them. These people, so used to having that power go unchecked, were very, very angry about being challenged on everything from tax avoidance to labor violations, rampant sexism and discrimination, oversized political donations, wealth inequality, aggressive lobbying and everything else wrong with Silicon Valley today.
Who could be mad? Mad enough to fund a lawsuit angling to shut down Valleywag’s parent company Gawker permanently? Here is the shortest list we could compile of who else, apart from Peter Thiel, could possibly be funding the Hulk Hogan trial against Gawker. We’ve sent queries to each of their reps and will update this post if and when we receive any reply:
1. Peter Thiel
PayPal and Palantir co-founder, Founders Fund partner, worth $2.7 billion
The man of the hour. Thiel, as Forbes points out in its story revealing him as Hulk Hogan’s silent benefactor, truly despises Gawker. The PayPal co-founder and ardent libertarian once said that he thought Valleywag reporters should be “described as terrorists, not writers or reporters.” Why’s that? Well, the site wrote about his sexuality; his funding of goon-cum-provocateur James O’Keefe; the ill-fortunes of Clarium Capital, Thiel’s hedge fund; and his bizarre comments on democracy, freedom, and women's' suffrage. But we know, or all but know, that Thiel is funding Hogan’s lawsuit, so let’s look at some other likely candidates.
2. Sean Parker
Entrepreneur and investor, worth $2.4 billion
Sean Parker, who famously founded Napster and then went on to become president of Facebook, like Thiel, has been hounded by Gawker journalists for certain aspects of his personal life. Actually just one big aspect: his 2013 wedding, or as Valleywag referred to it, “his eco-fuck wedding” which was “tackier than we ever dreamt.” Valleywag devoted a dozen posts to Parker’s cosplay wedding held in an ancient redwood forest in California’s Big Sur, detailing the damage wrought by the festivities. It reported on Parker's $2.5 million in fines for not getting necessary permits and the requirement that he build an environmental protection app for California.
When Sean Parker wrote a post for TechCrunch complaining that he’d been media-lynched and libeled by "inaccurate, derivative stories" without "fact checking or sourcing," Valleywag’s Sam Biddle called him “still an asshole 10,000 words later.” It’s fair to say that Parker might think a world without Gawker would be a better world. But a representative from the Parker Foundation says he's not one of the benefactors behind the Gawker lawsuit.
"Thank you for checking in," said a representative by email. "We can confirm that Sean Parker has played no role in litigation against Gawker."
3. Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook founder and CEO, worth $51 billion
So Zuck and Thiel are definitely buds. Thiel was the first venture capitalist to funnel Zuckerberg some money to grow Facebook, and then Facebook went on to make Thiel even richer than he already was. But, surprisingly, Valleywag has treated Zuck relatively gently over the years, mostly concerning itself with his real estate decisions. Sure, it called him the “worst neighbor in San Francisco” regarding the unending construction on his Liberty Hill pied-a-terre, reported that he paid $30 million to buy his neighbors’ homes for privacy reasons, and revealed that he was “paying kids to squat in parking spots overnight,” but those are pretty gentle ribs compared to the other billies on this list.
There were hard-hitting pieces about Zuckerberg by Nick Denton-paid journalists, but they were mainly on Gawker central in a period during which Valleywag was on hiatus. As a kind of revenge on Facebook for stealing the world’s privacy, then Gawker writer Ryan Tate hired a journalist to stalk Zuck for a weekend. Tate also posted a bunch of Zuckerberg’s private Facebook photos. Gawker has certainly been a bee in Facebook’s bonnet over the years, most recently with Gawker-owned Gizmodo accusing the site of anti-conservative bias in its news section, but it’s hard to imagine this being enough to motivate Mark Zuckerberg to join an anti-Gawker cabal.
4. Vinod Khosla
Sun Microsystems founder, longtime Kleiner Perkins partner, worth 1.51 billion
Vinod Khosla, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems in the 80s, also spent two decades at big time venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, and has had his own firm —Khosla Ventures— since 2004. He’s also been in Gawker and Valleywag’s crosshairs for a decade. In Valleywag’s initial incarnation he came under scrutiny for his investment in ethanol, and especially in ethanol companies that used slave labor…with his approval.
More recently, the site assiduously covered Khosla’s transformation into a living avatar of the Bay Area’s ultra-wealthy using money to skirt the law and co-opt public space. When Khosla bought beach property in Half-Moon Bay, south of San Francisco, he closed the only public-access road to the rest of the beach. Valleywag and Gawker have kept on this story, including Khosla’s recent request that the public pay $30 million for use of the beach, as well as Khosla’s other gentrification adventures and an attempt by a former-employee to extort money. In other words there’s no love lost between Khosla and Gawker, and the former both likes his secrecy and has a $1.51 billion net worth to dig help fund a lawsuit against the latter.
5. Jack Dorsey
Twitter and Square founder and CEO, worth $1.03 billion
Jack Dorsey is only just in the billies club so might not want to be throwing his money at lawyers to secretly bankrupt a blog. But he has been treated pretty roughly by the Valleywag crew. Valleywag has called the engineer-entrepreneur a “sociopath” and one of the “creepiest [guys] in Startupland,” who “is known for betraying everyone close to him.” Sam Biddle detailed how “he screwed over all his friends at Twitter” and mocked him for his “frightening” selfies. Worst of all, Valleywag dug up poetry Dorsey wrote in his younger, angstier days that he had posted to the internet and since deleted. That’s pretty much the worst thing you can do to someone, so Dorsey must surely still hold a grudge.
6. Marc Andreessen
Netscape and Andreessen Horowitz founder, worth $600 million
Venture capitalist Andreessen and his distinctively-shaped head have been frequent targets of criticism from the tech press while receiving soothing adulation from others. But Valleywag raised needling the Netscape and Andreessen Horowitz founder to a sort of art. They mocked him on his absurd ideas about meritocracy, called out his shitty beliefs about Edward Snowden, highlighted his critics, were agog at his weird thoughts on the poor (delivered via Tweetstorm, of course), wrote about his father-in-law’s misdeeds, reported on his bad behavior personal and fiduciary, and mocked his (awful) social media venture, Ning.
Honestly, perusing Gawker and Valleywag’s stories on Andreessen is effectively the same as reading a catalog of Andreessen’s screw-ups. In a brief 2014 New York profile of Valleywag’s then-editor, Sam Biddle, Andreessen is quoted from Twitter as calling Biddle’s stories “flatly incorrect.” While his mere $600 million net worth makes Andreessen a slightly less wealthy financier than some others on this list, he more than makes up for it in his hatred of Gawker.
Oh, by the way, here are a couple of Andreessen’s latest tweets:
7. Marissa Mayer
Yahoo! CEO and former Google exec, worth $380 million
Mayer is a bit of a dark horse candidate to be a Hogan backer. For one thing, she has less money to throw away on funding other people’s expensive lawsuits. She’s also the CEO of Yahoo!, which has a sizeable journalistic division, which’d make it a very odd look for her. (Though, then again, Thiel was a supporter of The Committee to Protect Journalists).
In terms of motivation, though, there’s plenty to go on. Valleywag covered Mayer a lot, dating back to the site's inception when Mayer was still a Google executive. And I do mean a lot: they mocked the proliferation of profiles of Mayer; covered her admitting mistakes with Google Video; posted goofy photos of her; undermined her talking points; and Gawker Media owner Nick Denton himself wrote about her relationship with Google co-founder Larry Page, as did other Valleywag writers. That was all just in the site’s first year. Valleywag’s coverage of her time as Yahoo CEO was equally sharp, including a history of the company screwing up things it bought, and the absurdity of Yahoo events. Still a dark horse, but one worth considering.
8. Travis Kalanick
Uber founder, worth $6 billion
Peter Thiel may have called Uber the “most ethically challenged” company in Silicon Valley, but that's probably because he’s an investor in Uber competitor Lyft. In truth, Kalanick and Thiel are cut from the same, Objectivist cloth. Other than hardline Libertarianism and a love of Ayn Rand, they also share the designation of being among Gawker’s most hated men in Silicon Valley. Since Uber’s founding in 2009, Valleywag reporters have chronicled with gusto every misstep of both Uber and its CEO, portraying Uber as an unethical, money-hungry behemoth run by a crass sociopath. Gawker has called Kalanick an “asshole,” a “reviled CEO,” and a “sadist” and called Uber “the most hated company” in America. “When you have an unapologetic asshole for a CEO, your company does things like this,” Sam Biddle wrote in 2014 when Uber and Lyft were in the midst of a turf war. We already know Kalanick isn't a huge fan of aggressive journalists, so it’s not a stretch to imagine he’s in cahoots to take down Gawker alongside Thiel.
But an Uber spokesperson says it's not the case. "Travis has not funded any litigation," said the spokesperson by email.
9. Ben Horowitz
Venture capitalist, worth $500 million
Over the past few years, Ben Horowitz and Peter Thiel have both solidified their place among the ranks of Silicon Valley self-help gurus, with their respective books, “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” and “Zero to One,” earning them ridicule from the writers at Gawker. (The two men are also fans of each other’s wisdom, often quoting each other when dispensing with this advice giving.) But Horowitz’s love of hip hop and black culture has earned him the most biting critique from Gawker, its writers painting the Andreessen Horowitz VC as a desperate poser just trying to look cool. “Like anyone sinking into the quicksand of try-hard desperation, Horowitz manages to make it worse by failing,” Sam Biddle wrote in 2014, when he took the stage with the rapper Nas at South by Southwest. “Ben Horowitz, says Ben Horowitz, is the personification of cool black youth culture. Venture capital is the new rap.” Yikes.
10. Elon Musk
Founder of SpaceX + Tesla, worth $12.3 billion
Elon Musk and Peter Thiel go way back: their billions spring from their days together as part of the PayPal Mafia. Since then, Thiel has continued to fawn over Musk in public, last year telling a crowd that Musk was the most impressive PayPal Mafia member. Their camaraderie, we’re guessing, extends to a mutual hatred of Gawker. The site has poked plenty of fun at Musk’s personal life, pointing out that his once receding hairline has vanished, that he seems to have trouble staying married and calling Musk a “psychopath” for revealing he and his fellow PayPal Mafia members built bombs for kicks in high school. But we imagine Gawker’s skeptical coverage of Musk’s fantastical business aspirations is more cutting for Musk. “We love Elon Musk's nutso determination,” Sam Biddle wrote when Musk unveiled plans for the Hyperloop back in 2013, “There was certainly a time when electric cars and private space flight seemed silly, too. But what's sillier is treating this as anything other than a very rich man's wild imagination.” Burn.
11, Sheryl Sandberg
COO of Facebook, worth $1.35 billion
Valleywag hasn’t done any recent takedowns of Facebook’s #2-in-command, mostly saving its ire for her best-selling tome Lean In, which horrified Valleywag with its suggestion that doing laundry is the best foreplay for sex. But back in 2008, when she was still at Google, Sandberg reportedly said she “wanted to shoot the guy who writes Valleywag.” In those days, Valleywag called Sandberg a “clumsy liar,” detailed what her Google colleagues didn’t like about her, and described her management at Facebook as a “reign of terror.” More recently, Sam Biddle has gently mocked Sandberg when she celebrated the fact that she and her family did not get on a flight that later crash-landed, suggested she was up to something shady in closed-door meetings with the FTC in D.C., and shamed the billionaire for putting up an ad for an unpaid intern. But is it enough to drive her to help kill the site through revenge litigation?
12. Jeff Bezos
Amazon CEO and owner of The Washington Post, worth $59.1 billion
Bezos has come under plenty of scrutiny over the years at Valleywag, not least over the notoriously harsh workplace culture at Amazon and its aggressive strategies in undercutting almost every retail market it has waded into. "Has Jeff Bezos lost his mind?," the site enquired over Bezos’ apparently manic disregard for a lack of company profits. Why does he hover near the top of a list of least generous philanthropists despite his incredible wealth? "Inside Amazon's Kafkaesque 'Performance Improvement Plans'" exposed punitive review practices which left employees fearing for their jobs. After documenting so many similar stories, Valleywag concluded that Amazon deserves all its bad PR. On top of which, Jeff Bezos is incredibly creepy at breakfast: “Holy fuck!," wrote Sam Biddle. "This guy will probably end up controlling the entire publishing industry and possibly the entirety of retail. Who's hungry?”
Is this enough to make Bezos angry? Possibly! Though it would be a very bad look for a newspaper owner to attempt to silence a competitor in this way. Plus he seems much happier sinking his billions of dollars into his private plans to reach space.
13. Sergey Brin
Google cofounder, worth $37.6 billion
Google has received so much negative coverage from Valleywag that we had to split it up among the founders to even the odds. The site was into Brin’s workplace sexy time misadventures for quite a while. Something else it deemed to be screwy was idiot accessory, Google Glass. Valleywag claimed that Google was extremely scared by Facebook and charged its private plane bills to the government. Sergey Brin has also been mocked for privately funding a cure for death while Google’s genetics outfit, 23andMe, was sued for being misleading, false and unscientific.
Angry enough to bankroll Hulk Hogan’s hurt feelings? Maybe! Having the media pry into your sex life is certainly embarrassing and something Brin and Hogan could no doubt comfort each other over while rolling on a pile of money.
14. Larry Page
Google cofounder, worth $29.2 billion
Larry Page is deep in the billionaire’s space camp crew, telling everyone that he’d like to leave his billions to go with Elon Musk’s billions so that rich people can get to Mars once we’ve ruined Earth. Valleywag has paid close attention to Google biz practices. It reported that "Larry and Sergey's greed-shot to control Google stock paid off" and that Google had Congressmen in its pocket. Stories detailing how the company misclassified employees as independent contractors, and how intensely horrible it is to be black and a woman at Google did not paint the giant corporation in a flattering light. Neither did knowing that Google (and Facebook) had funded climate change deniers before withdrawing their support amid howls of outrage. Is this enough to raise Page’s rage? He is tight with Elon Musk, who was once tight with Peter Thiel and they are all really into Star Wars, so let’s go with a firm maybe.
15. Eric Schmidt
Alphabet executive chairman, worth $9 billion
Valleywag comes out strong in its continued perusal of Google (sorry, Alphabet) with plenty of big hits against its privacy-hating executive chairman. Valleywag reveals that Schmidt enjoys posting pictures of the ladies to Instagram, perhaps from evenings spent enjoying one of his enormous houses. Schmidt asks the public to believe that Google is not a monopoly despite convincing proof of the opposite. Remember Google Plus? Schmidt has also gotten very personally involved with his employees’ work at the company but probably not the extent that it warrants a 100 million dollar salary bump, though that secret deal for cheap jet fuel probably saved a few bucks.
HULK SMASH? It seems unlikely that someone who thinks that privacy no longer exists and who needs it anyway would litigate on behalf on someone charging invasion of privacy. Buck up, boyyo! PRIVACY IS DEAD. But, it is mortifying when people dig up our digital graves and scatter the entrails all over the internet, so, this is a perhaps.
In summary, Valleywag was, and Gawker still is, a major shit-stirrer that has made many rich enemies over the years. Beyond Valleywag, Gawker properties famously got their hands on an iPhone prototype, narrowly avoiding criminal charges, and turned off all the TVs at the Consumer Electronics Show. Gawker has no shortage of enemies, but also many fans. We will update this post with any responses we receive from these particular likely enemies of the blog.
Elmo is a writer with Real Future.
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kashmir Hill is the editor of Fusion's Real Future. She has hacked a stranger's smart home, lived on Bitcoin & paid a surprise visit to the NSA's Utah datacenter, all while trying to prove privacy isn't dead yet. Contact her at email@example.com. PGP: D934E5E9.
Kristen is a technology reporter for Fusion. She enjoys tea, giraffes and the occasional app.