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Billionaires are saving...I mean, destroying American journalism

A shocking twist in a lawsuit against the website Gawker reveals that billionaires may be determined to crush an independent American news media.

"You have to be wealthy to be great, I'm sorry to say."

-- Donald Trump, earlier today.

I'm not a tech groupie, so I'm kind of embarrassed to say that I never heard of Peter Thiel, a founder of PayPal and one of the earliest investors in Facebook, until he emerged as a character, of sorts, in George Packer's The Unwinding about the decline and fall of the United States of America. Billionaire. Donald Trump convention delegate. Interesting guy...I learned from Packer's account that Thiel is obsessed with using technology to defeat death (and on that score, we're all rooting for him.)

While Thiel is determined to live forever himself, it turns out he does support death -- as long as you're the gossip-and-news website, Gawker:

A billionaire Silicon Valley entrepreneur was outed as being gay by a media organization. His friends suffered at the hands of the same gossip site. Nearly a decade later, the entrepreneur secretly financed a lawsuit to try to put the media company out of business.

That is the back story to a legal case that had already grabbed headlines: The wrestler Hulk Hogan suedGawker Media for invasion of privacy after it published a sex tape, and a Florida jury recently awarded the wrestler, whose real name is Terry Gene Bollea, $140 million.

What the jury — and the public — did not know was that Mr. Bollea had a secret benefactor paying about $10 million for the lawsuit: Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and one of the earliest investors in Facebook.

2007 article published by Gawker's Valleywag blog was headlined, "Peter Thiel is totally gay, people." That and a series of articles about his friends and others that he said "ruined people's lives for no reason" drove Mr. Thiel to mount a clandestine war against Gawker. He funded a team of lawyers to find and help "victims" of the company's coverage mount cases against Gawker.

I believe that the 1st Amendment is an absolute right -- yet like any right it comes with responsibilities. Gawker is a popular site that's been irresponsible -- even reckless -- at times. I'm not exactly sure how publishing a sex tape of an (aging) pro wrestler is "news," and I'm always queasy about stories "outing" people as gay, even when it involves hypocritical politicians who say one thing and do something else. At the same time, Gawker's also published some righteous work that cuts through some of the BS that pervades our public sphere. It should he held accountable when it makes a mistake -- but the notion that billionaires can use their wealth to drive news organizations that they don't like out of business is a terrible, terrible precedent.

I'm old enough to remember when billionaires were going to save journalism. To be fair, this is not a new notion (remember "Citizen Kane") nor is the idea that a wealthy press baron might use the power of the press to destroy his enemies (remember Walter Annenberg?). But increasingly as the era of obscenely profitable, stockholder-owned media collapsed at the end of the 20th Century, and with no way to "monetize" people like you reading the news online, there's now little motive to own a news organization outside of the kind of influence that only a multi-millionaire or billionaire -- with money to burn -- can buy.

So billionaires are saving journalism...or are they destroying it? Many have said that the $250 million purchase of the Washington Post by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, one of the wealthiest men on Planet Earth, has re-energized a once-foundering news org. Perhaps -- but some people also noticed when the Post published 16 negative stories in one frenetic 16-hour period about Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has criticized billionaires like Bezos and said he wants to raise his taxes.

Coincidence? Perhaps.

But Thiel's Gawker gambit lifts the veil on how the American kleptocracy hopes to control the American media in the 21st Century -- by buying and controlling some key news sites...and using their endlessly deep pockets to destroy journalists who are non-compliant.

Look, 2016 has been just a terrible, terrible year for the media in these United States. Consider, for example...Donald Trump. Trump's rise suggests the need for a more aggressive investigative reporting, and yet news orgs -- both newfangled and traditional -- are laying off skilled journalists by the boatload and throwing their money into video for smartphone-addled junkies who find things like "words" to be a hindrance.

And it's only likely to get worse. Trump, if handed the presidency, has pledged to use the power of the Oval Office to crush what's left of any independent media in this country; he hopes to re-write libel laws to make it easier for the Peter Thiels of the world to use the American judicial system to obliterate the 1st Amendment. I don't believe for one minute that you have to be wealthy to be great, but in 2017 that dollar-drenched storyline will be coming to a website, a newspaper, or a nightly newscast near you.