On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Gawker Media group had entered talks with ex-pro wrestler Hulk Hogan to settle a $140 million lawsuit over the publication of the ex-wrestler's sex tape. The idea that the future of his media company rests with a six-time WWF heavyweight champion might have Gawker founder and CEO Nick Denton asking himself: just how did I get here?
There's a two-word answer: Peter Thiel. The revelation earlier this year that the tech billionaire secretly financed Hogan's case against Gawker Media rocked the world of journalism. Thiel had long hated Gawker for its adversarial reporting on him and Silicon Valley, and had finally struck back. The story had everything — wealth, power, sex, revenge, the First Amendment. Above all, it was a classic drama about a rich man's war against the free press.
And most Americans could not care less, according to a poll by YouGov conducted for Vice News.
"All free expression cases are about unattractive expression"
The survey, taken right after the news broke in August, revealed that a majority of respondents didn't consider Thiel's mission to torpedo an unsympathetic media outfit a problem for free speech. "Do you believe the success of Gawker's opponents in the court system makes our free press more vulnerable?" the survey asked. Fifty-seven percent said no.
"It doesn't surprise me at all," said Nicholas Lemann, Dean Emeritus at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. "All free expression cases are about unattractive expression."
The fact is, cases testing the limits of free speech are usually centered around unsympathetic causes: pornography, obscenity, and the sense of humor of people like Hustler Magazine's Larry Flint. Occasionally there are more inspiring cases, such as the New York Times fighting to publish the Pentagon Papers, but those are harder to come by.
"The Gawker example is a more standard case, where you're defending something more sleazeball," Lemann said.
The antipathy for Gawker certainly wasn't any kind of class solidarity with the billionaire Thiel: Over half of the survey's respondents reported making less than $50k per year, with only 14 percent making $100k or more. (The survey sampled 1,000 people selected from an opt-in Internet panel stratified by gender, age, race, education, and region out of the 2014 American Community Study.)
"The media never has been a big winner of popularity contests, perhaps even less now in the Internet-age than before," Lemann added.
In fact, it's downright loathed by the public: Only six percent of people say they have confidence in the press, according to The Media Insight Project. A Pew survey from 2013 ranked journalism as one of the least respected professions, barely scraping by lawyers and business executives.
It's not a new phenomenon: even in its "golden age," the American media was widely derided, particularly on the right, whether it was Republicans at the 1964 convention spitting on reporters or President Richard Nixon's unrelenting hatred of the major newspapers (run and dominated, he privately said, by "the Jews").
In fact, 65 percent of respondents of the YouGov poll said that stunts like Thiel's "level the playing field for individuals who would not have the means to mount a case against big institutions on their own." In this case, the individual was Hulk Hogan, who with Thiel's help successfully sued Gawker for publishing a sextape of his back in 2012.
The respondents saw Gawker, not Thiel, as the "big institution" stepping on the little guy. (Thiel is worth $2.7 billion, according to Forbes, with stakes in Facebook, AirBnB and big data startup Palantir, valued at $20 billion. Gawker Media, now for sale, picked up a bid from Ziff Davis for a mere $100 million.) Still, on a scale of one to 10, from "not at all important" to "very important," 57 percent of respondents rated a free press the full 10.
Luckily for the media, America's press laws are generally not left up to plebiscite or legislation, but the courts. The cornerstones of the country's libel laws are a series of landmark Supreme Court cases, and more are likely on their way. Some will be about tech companies' privacy against government intrusion, like the FBI's standoff against Apple earlier this year, others about tech platforms as a public space, still others about the freedom of "algorithmic" speech.
Columbia itself just opened the doors to its new free press law center, the Knight First Amendment Institute, founded to preserve, protect and reshape First Amendment law in an era when its not that popular and companies like Gawker are financially stretched.
"Thiel is a) no dummy, and b) a lawyer," said Lemann. "He gets that this isn't just about him being mad at Gawker and there are much larger issues at stake. We're entering another era of defining First Amendment law through the courts."
Peter Thiel was just ahead of the curve.