It’s been said by some economists that widening wealth inequality is unimportant if everyone is getting somewhat richer. I’ve never agreed. That much money concentrated at the very upper region of a society will come back to haunt, in the form of undue political power or in other ways. The Libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel insinuating himself in the Gawker-Hulk Hogan trial is just such a case in point.
If you’d told me five years ago that Gawker might go under because it needlessly published a Hulk Hogan sex tape, I would have thought, Yes, that sounds about right. A dicey if occasionally righteous publication from the start, the site had come to house a few too many immature, prurient, destructive employees. They chose their fights stupidly, myopically, maybe fatally.
That seemed to be the end of the story: Hulk Hogan is dumb, and Gawker even dumber, somehow making him seem sympathetic. That’s not how it had to be. If the site had leaked just the part of the video in which the former professional wrestler made his ugly racist remarks, the company would have been widely supported. But Gawker being Gawker, it pointlessly aimed for the crotch. End of story, it seemed.
But then it was revealed that Thiel had been quietly bankrolling the Hogan suit, trying to use his endless cash to put the publication out of business as part of a personal vendetta. It’s a chilling action, one that creates a template for the megarich to cow our press, a bloodless analogue to Russian plutocrats “relieving” journalists of their duties. It’s even worse behavior than Thiel being a delegate for a bigoted, xenophobic horror like Donald Trump, who has himself threatened to curb the powers of the press should he become President. If the country is guided by the thin skin of the super-rich rather than the parchment of the Constitution, we’re not exactly America.
In the Washington Post, Vivek Wadhwa writes of Thiel’s wrongheaded gambit and Silicon Valley’s general resistance to media scrutiny. The opening:
Gawker infringes on privacy and publishes tabloid-like stories that damage reputations. It is one of the most sensationalist and objectionable media outlets in the country. It also has not been kind to me. So it’s not a company that I would expect to be defending. But I worry that the battle that billionaire Peter Thiel has clandestinely been waging against it will be damaging to Silicon Valley by furthering distrust of its motives.
For better or worse, Gawker is entitled to the same freedom as any other news outlet. If it crosses the line, as it likely did with wrestler Hulk Hogan, the courts should deal with it. Silicon Valley’s power brokers should not get involved because they have access to resources that rival those of governments. They can outspend any other entity and manipulate public opinion.
Silicon Valley has more than an unfair advantage; its technologies exceed anything that the titans of the industrial age had. These technologies were built on the trust of the public — and that is needed for an industry that asks customers to share with them with literally every part of their lives. This enormous influence should come with restraint and an understanding that those with power will be scrutinized — sometimes unfairly and unjustly.•