Gawker's Nick Denton Calls Silicon Valley Billionaires "a Thousand Times More Powerful" Than Congressmen

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Nick Denton

The Gawker owner says the media needs to counterbalance the growing power of the wealthy.

Does Gawker owner Nick Denton regret posting Hulk Hogan’s sex tape?

“I think the story is fine,” he said onstage Thursday at Vox Media’s Code Conference when pressed by Recode executive editor Kara Swisher. He also noted that Gawker received “no blowback from the piece when it was published.”

Hogan — the reality star and former pro wrestler whose real name is Terry Bollea — sued Gawker after it published a 2012 story that included a clip of a sex tape. In March, a Florida jury awarded $140 million in damages to the wrestler, but Denton said that he expects to prevail when he appeals the verdict, noting that a federal judge has already deemed the story newsworthy. 

The lawsuit has incited a debate about the First Amendment since it was revealed last week that Peter Thiel spent about $10 million backing Hogan in the legal battle, one of a string of suits that the billionaire is reported to be behind. Denton identified two other suits that he says are likely also funded by Thiel because they share the same attorney, Charles Harder. 

Denton said he’s believed for a while that PayPal co-founder Thiel was one of a few people who could be behind the Hogan lawsuit, saying that he had heard gossip that a wealthy backer was funding the legal battle. But why did Thiel do it? Denton’s not sure, though he points to a New York Times interview on May 24 in which Thiel said “it’s less about revenge and more about specific deterrence” while also noting his friends had been damaged by reporting from Gawker’s Valleywag blog. “It’s a little hard,” said Denton. “If he was sitting here we could just talk about this.” 

Denton appeared onstage alone with interviewer Swisher at the Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., event. Swisher tweeted ahead of the conference that Recode looked for someone from Silicon Valley to debate with Denton but no one was was willing or able to join the conversation. 

Thiel’s antagonism toward Gawker likely stems from a 2007 story from the website’s Valleywag blog in which it outed the billionaire as gay. But Denton, an openly gay man, argued that it was a well-known fact that Gawker deemed newsworthy and publishable. 

Swisher was hard on Denton, pressing him to explain the newsworthiness of many Gawker stories and asking him which stories he has regretted publishing. He mentioned a story that outed a little-known executive that Gawker later pulled from the site. “I didn’t see the point in the story,” he said, noting that he agreed with people like Swisher who criticized Gawker for publishing it. 

But, he argued, a figure like Thiel is different. “A Silicon Valley billionaire is a hundred times — a thousand times — more powerful than a Congressman” but subjected to less scrutiny, Denton explained, noting that people give up a lot of private information to tech companies. “I think there’s an imbalance, and part of the way in which that balance is corrected is through news and journalism and gossip.”

He also said that Silicon Valley's elite often wield power from behind-the-scenes. "People want to know what the powerful are doing," Denton added. "They can't expect to hide entirely in the shadows."

Meanwhile, he called CEO Jeff Bezos — who on Tuesday at Code said public figures should develop a thick skin to deal with critical press — a “wise man.” Denton continued: “I think it’s smart to recognize that the new power, like the old power, will have a legitimacy insofar that it does allow criticism.”

What now for Gawker? When asked about filing for bankruptcy, Denton said he hopes to win an appeal of the Hogan case and he’s exploring several strategic opportunities for the company, which also includes blogs Jezebel, Deadspin, Gizmodo and others. “An independent media is more important than it’s ever been,” he added. “The public figures are richer and more powerful and the news media is poorer and less powerful than it’s ever been. There needs to be a counterbalance.” 

But Denton does say he regrets, from a business standpoint, how many enemies Gawker has taken on because of the “fearlessness” of its reporting. “I’d like to find a way to more easily be critical, and at the same time recognize in the same piece or the same discussion that someone being criticized isn’t all bad,” he said. “I want nuance to work more effectively in a commercial setting.”