A billionaire board member of the world's most powerful media company has been using a fraction of his enormous wealth to try to take down a news website critical of him, anonymously funding lawsuits targeting the site.
Peter Thiel, the influential Silicon Valley investor and cofounder of PayPal, acknowledged this week that he was the mystery financial backer funding wrestler Hulk Hogan's attempts to sue the snarky news and gossip blog Gawker into oblivion over a sex tape.
The fiercely libertarian, Donald Trump-supporting billionaire sits on the board of Facebook, the social-media platform where more than a billion people access and consume news on a daily basis.
People are now wondering whether this will have a chilling effect on the freedom of the press and the ability of journalists to speak (sometimes disrespectfully) truth to power.
Thiel's ire with Gawker stems from an article outing him as gay (titled "Peter Thiel is totally gay, people"), as well as others that he says "ruined people's lives for no reason." (Disclosure: The author of the article, Owen Thomas, worked for Business Insider from 2012 to 2013.)
Thiel frames himself as a defender of free speech and journalists. He gave $250,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2008. At the time, he said that "as a true believer in the critical importance of free speech, I am delighted to support CPJ's fight for the rights of journalists around the world."
In an interview with The New York Times published Wednesday, he denied that his actions were contradictory. "I refuse to believe that journalism means massive privacy violations," he told Andrew Ross Sorkin. "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."
Plenty of journalists think otherwise.
Peter Thiel is going 'thermonuclear'
Over at Fusion, Felix Salmon pulls no punches, accusing Thiel of "reinventing the concept of philanthropy so as to include weapons-grade attacks on America's free press." (Speaking with The Times, Thiel, who suggested he had funded other cases against Gawker, framed his legal assault on Gawker as a form of philanthrophy. He said it was "one of my greater philanthropic things that I've done," adding, "I think of it in those terms.")