MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
OK. A Silicon Valley billionaire has made it his mission to put the digital media company Gawker out of business. The billionaire is Peter Thiel. The other man at the center of the storm is Nick Denton, creator of Gawker. Denton spoke with NPR's David Folkenflik.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: For those who don't know Gawker and its sister websites, they broke the story about the college football star who was fooled into believing in a fictional girlfriend. They also revealed how editors at Facebook pick trending news stories. Founder Nick Denton created Gawker 13 years ago, after a stint at the "Financial Times," and he based it on this conceit, telling the story behind the story.
NICK DENTON: We prided ourselves on creating a workplace, an environment, in which journalists can be free - free to write stories that are true and that are interesting, and with that kind of freedom comes a certain amount of risk.
FOLKENFLIK: The private lives of public figures recur as a constant theme. Take CNN anchor Anderson Cooper whose sexual orientation, Denton says, was well known in New York media circles. Denton himself is openly gay.
DENTON: I think, it's untenable to keep that as something, which is communicated only orally, amongst members of the elite or some community. I think, it's kind of ridiculous to do a story about Anderson Cooper and not mention this key fact about him, you know, which is as relevant as, you know, the fact that he has silver hair.
FOLKENFLIK: Gawker also outed one of Cooper's earlier boyfriends, a man otherwise unknown to the public. On such reporting, Denton has built out an empire of seven sites. Together, they generate about 4 million online visitors each weekday. All that now is in peril. The story as we knew it - or thought we knew it, went like this. Gawker posts a story about the former professional wrestler known as Hulk Hogan. Gawker posted a brief video in which Hogan is shown having sex with the wife of his supposed best friend.
DENTON: No picture, no footage, no story. The people these days require some visual evidence in order to believe what they read.
FOLKENFLIK: Denton says there was a gap between Hogan's all-American persona and his private behavior. Hogan claims an invasion of privacy. He sued in Florida and won a $140 million judgment. It's on appeal. And that's where the story took a corkscrew twist. Someone else was footing Hogan's bills.
DENTON: I did suspect that it was somebody in Silicon Valley for the reasons of - given their reaction to critical coverages, you know, tends to be more thin-skinned. And Silicon Valley billionaires have more resources than your average New York or LA millionaire and so it was guesswork really.
FOLKENFLIK: He was right. A Gawker site outed PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel as gay nine years ago and Thiel's never forgotten. Financing Hogan's lawsuit and several others, Thiel told The New York Times that backing the lawsuits against Gawker was an act of philanthropy. Commentators at The New York Times and The Washington Post said Thiel's hidden assault on Gawker was an attack on the broader press. Count media critic Michael Wolff out, he writes for USA Today and the Hollywood Reporter.
MICHAEL WOLFF: They're sadistic, cruel, mean.
FOLKENFLIK: And there Wolff used a very, very, very profane word saying Gawker has to take the responsibility for what it publishes.
WOLFF: And to me, in any rendition of the world, it would be a better place without them. It's one of those anomalous situations in which people - I guess they call themselves journalists - they're just thugs.
FOLKENFLIK: Gawker has dissected Wolff's personal life too. Wolff says all he sees is baffling anger at people that staffers view as elites. Amazingly enough, Denton and Wolff are friends of a sort. Denton admits in some moments Gawker has gone too far but that it serves a purpose - holding the powerful accountable.
DENTON: It's harder now for journalists to do stories about billionaires, like Peter Thiel, without having at the back of their minds the fear that maybe somebody deep-pocketed, you know, with limited resources is going to come after us and can my organization afford to defend me?
FOLKENFLIK: For himself, Denton says, things are calm, like in the eye of the storm. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.