Today the founder of Gawker Media, Nick Denton, announced that his bankrupt company would settle claims with three litigants: the wrestler Hulk Hogan, the scientist Shiva Ayyadurai, and the journalist Ashley Terrill. According to documents filed in federal bankruptcy court, the three settlements total $32,250,000. In a post on his personal blog, Denton wrote, “After four years of litigation funded by a billionaire with a grudge going back even further, a settlement has been reached. The saga is over.”
Ayyadurai, who sued over several Gawker Media stories that cast doubt on his claims to have invented email in 1978 at the age of 14—seven years after internet pioneer Ray Tomlinson sent the first electronic message using the technology widely recognized by experts as underlying the contemporary email system—will receive $750,000. Terrill, who was the subject of a story published by Gawker about her involvement in a feud between the co-founders of the dating app Tinder, will receive $500,000. Hogan, who was awarded in $140,100,000 in damages over Gawker’s coverage and publication of a brief excerpt of a video in which he could be seen having sex, will receive the remaining $31,000,000. As part of the settlements, the stories about Ayyadurai, Terrill, and Hogan will be removed from Gawker’s website. Two other stories concerning Ayyadurai, which were published by Gizmodo, were deleted in September in the course of Univision’s acquisition of Gawker Media’s assets.
All three litigants were represented by the Los Angeles entertainment attorney Charles J. Harder, who received financial backing from the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel in a decade-long effort to destroy Gawker Media. Thiel publicly acknowledged funding Hogan’s lawsuit, but has given contradictory answers about his involvement in other cases. In May, he told the New York Times that he was in fact supporting other litigants against Gawker, but seemed to claim at a press conference this week that he supported Hogan’s case alone.
In his post announcing the settlements, Denton argued that Gawker Media anticipated prevailing against the Harder-backed litigants—echoing his initial response to the enormous Hogan verdict handed down in March. “We have had our day in trial court, and we lost,” he wrote at the time. “We will have our day back in appeals court, and we will be vindicated.” Several months later, in June, the judge overseeing the Hogan trial refused to stay the verdict to allow Gawker Media to appeal, forcing the company to declare bankruptcy and sell six of its seven sites to Univision. Shortly thereafter, Thiel vowed to support Hogan through the lengthy and expensive appeals process.
Thiel’s promise apparently changed Denton’s calculation. An “all-out legal war with Thiel would have cost too much, and hurt too many people, and there was no end in sight,” Denton wrote today, citing Harder’s decision to target individual writers and editors, like former Gawker writer Sam Biddle, current Gizmodo Media Group executive editor John Cook, and former Gawker editor-in-chief A.J. Daulerio—who has been subject to excruciating collection efforts from Hogan’s attorneys despite having a net worth of negative $27,000. “The Valley billionaire, famously relentless, had committed publicly to support Hulk Hogan beyond the appeal and ‘until his final victory.’ Gawker’s nemesis was not going away.”
While Denton suggests that the settlement means a victorious Thiel will finally stop prosecuting his vendetta against the company and its employees, Harder has continued to threaten the company’s successor, Gizmodo Media, with ruinous litigation. Harder even targeted individual staffers, like Cook, over critical comments in the press. Given the titanic sum Harder secured for Hulk Hogan—nearly a quarter of Gawker Media’s sale price—there is no reason to believe that Harder and Thiel’s battle-tested strategy for silencing critical journalism is going away any time soon. Suing news outlets over accurate stories continues to be a lucrative business. And Thiel has money to burn.