Brexit wasn’t the only thing that Donald Trump didn’t know about when Michael Wolff interviewed him last month. Trump hadn’t heard of Peter Thiel either. When Wolff explained that the PayPal cofounder and Silicon Valley venture capitalist had secretly financed Hulk Hogan’s winning lawsuit against Gawker—driving the gossipy news site into bankruptcy—Trump exclaimed, “Wow, I love him!”
Thiel seems to love him back. The quirky libertarian (he wants to build floating cities at sea to slip the surly bonds of government) is a California delegate for Trump; the lawyer he hired for Hogan is now going after Gawker for running an investigative (really) piece on Trump’s hair.
Trump and Thiel do have a lot in common: Both are thin-skinned, “disruptive” billionaires (though doubts persist about Trump’s net worth) who pose serious threats to a free press—Trump by banning news organizations from events, suing journalists, and promising, if elected, to “open up” libel laws. (Not impossible, an expert in media law tells me, if he stacked the Supreme Court.) But, so far, only Thiel has actually forced a publication into bankruptcy for saying things he didn’t like.
Worse, writes financial journalist Felix Salmon, Thiel has provided “a dangerous blueprint” that “could be used by any billionaire against any media organization. Sheldon Adelson, Donald Trump, the list goes on and on. Up until now, they’ve mostly been content suing news organizations as plaintiffs, over stories which name them. But Thiel has shown them how to go thermonuclear: bankroll other [people’s] lawsuits, as many as it takes, and bankrupt the news organization that way. Very few companies have the legal wherewithal to withstand such a barrage.”
This method of bankrupting by bank-shot litigation can circumvent the First Amendment protections that the Supreme Court established for journalists in the 1964 decision New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. And it comes “at a moment when the press is far more vulnerable, economically and culturally, than it used to be,” writes Nicholas Lemann, a former dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. “Journalists and their lawyers ought to be arming themselves for a protracted war.”