Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist and Facebook board member who secretly bankrolled lawsuits to undermine Gawker Media, said he might turn the now-defunct news and gossip website Gawker.com into a conservative investigative outlet if he is successful with his bid to buy the domain.
On Wednesday, following a speaking engagement with friend and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman at Stanford University, Thiel met with students at a small reception, where he outlined his view on the current state of the news media. One of the people Thiel met with was a student journalist who peppered the billionaire with questions about Gawker, which declared bankruptcy in 2016 after losing a $140 million invasion of privacy lawsuit to former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan. Thiel had covertly funded that lawsuit, and others against Gawker, to the tune of $10 million.
Ruairí Arrieta-Kenna, a Stanford senior who spoke with Thiel as part of a group of student organizers of the event, told BuzzFeed News that Thiel said that the previous incarnation of Gawker “did not even earn the right to be called a news outlet” and that it published “glorified pornography and not reporting.” With Gawker.com now up for sale due to bankruptcy proceedings, Arrieta-Kenna also asked Thiel, who bid for the company’s assets, what he would do with the site if he were the winning bidder.
“[Thiel] said he might make it into a conservative investigative reporting site,” said Arrieta-Kenna. “He said it might look into stories that the liberal media wasn’t looking into and he would hire more conservative reporters.”
A spokesperson for Thiel said that it was "not true" that the billionaire wanted to develop a conservative investigative outlet with Gawker.com. He declined to comment on the quotes attributed to Thiel.
Thiel’s statements to the students is the first public evidence that he may have plans to do something with the Gawker website if he is successful with his bid. Many critics were worried that the billionaire had simply bid for the site and its remaining assets to eliminate its online archive. Gawker originally drew Thiel’s ire when it published a story about him being gay in 2007, and its archives contain several stories about the billionaire and his sexuality.
Earlier this week, the Freedom of the Press Foundation announced plans to archive online content that was at risk of being specifically taken offline by the rich or powerful. The project’s organizer, Parker Higgins, specifically cited the possibility of Thiel eliminating the Gawker archive as a motivation.
“I was invited to the reception … and I noticed after a few minutes that the other students circling Peter weren’t asking him any serious questions,” said Arrieta-Kenna, the editor of Stanford Politics, a campus magazine. “As a student journalist, I jumped in and began to ask him what I thought were tougher questions about his views on the state of media and journalism today, especially considering his relationship with Gawker and his support of some right-leaning publications.”
Arrieta-Kenna was one of a handful of student organizers for the event, dubbed “Cardinal Conversations,” though he said he had little involvement in its planning. Wednesday’s event featured a discussion between Thiel and Hoffman, who are both Stanford alumni, and was moderated by political commentator Niall Ferguson.
Following that event, Thiel held court with about four students for about 15 minutes. Two of the other students who spoke with BuzzFeed News asked to be sent questions about the conversation to their emails. Another said he was part of the conversation but did not recall any discussion about Gawker. That student also said that he left for parts of the conversation.
Arrieta-Kenna said he was surprised Thiel was so candid with him in their discussion, in which the PayPal cofounder also talked about his views on the current state of the media. Thiel said that his issue with the current state of the media is that it was too biased, and called the Washington Post “an arm of the Democratic party,” according to Arrieta-Kenna. The Post, which published an an opinion piece authored by Thiel before the 2016 election, is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who had previously criticized Thiel’s support of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. Thiel additionally said he believes the New York Times was biased.
The venture capitalist also brought up Fox News, and said he didn’t like that the television outlet was so slanted toward the right. He noted that, as much as he dislikes CNN, he respected the cable news outlet for proclaiming to be neutral.
“He lamented that journalists today claim there is no such thing as being unbiased so they don’t even strive to be unbiased,” said Arrieta-Kenna.
BuzzFeed News previously reported that Thiel is exploring the possibility of developing his own conservative news network and had engaged the Mercer family, the main benefactors of Breitbart News, as a possible source of funding. Thiel’s plan for that network would be to provide a rival to Fox News.
It’s unclear how owning and operating Gawker would fit in with Thiel’s plan for a television network. Currently, the Gawker estate has ended the bidding for the remaining assets and is sorting through those bids to determine a winner. Among the known bidders are conservative provocateur and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, who offered $500,000 for the site according to Vanity Fair, and Kevin Lee, the CEO of marketing firm Didit, who declined to disclose how much he bid. Thiel has also not disclosed how much he offered for Gawker.com.
William Holden, Gawker’s bankruptcy plan administrator, declined to comment.
Sources close to the process say that the estate also talked to other potential buyers, but BuzzFeed News could not confirm those people submitted offers before last month's deadline. Among those that were interested in buying the asset included HC2, the holding company of hedge fund mogul Philip Falcone; marketing agency d50 Media; and Dustin Curtis, the founder of blogging platform Svbtle.
Representatives at HC2 and d50 Media did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Curtis declined to answer questions via text message but told BuzzFeed News, “Looks like you have the information already :).”
Even if Thiel was the highest bidder for the assets, sources have said that Holden has told other prospective buyers that offers are not being assessed on their financial merits alone. Two sources said that Holden has been evaluating the motivations of buyers and what they would do with the assets following an acquisition. Before the announcement of the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s plan this week, one former Gawker executive had explored the possibility of archiving Gawker’s contents with the help of university libraries, including one at New York University.
The Gawker estate is still examining the possibilities of a lawsuit against Thiel and is waiting to begin discovery to understand his role in the funding of litigation against the former New York–based news organization. Whoever buys Gawker's assets would ostensibly own the rights to pursue litigation against Thiel.
Andrew Granato contributed additional reporting to this story.
This story has been updated with a statement from Peter Thiel's spokesperson.