The revelation that billionaire Peter Thiel secretly funded a libel lawsuit against Gawker has provoked a lot of handwringing in media circles.
“Be very, very worried,” tweeted Mother Jones Editor Clara Jeffery. Nevermind that most of us don’t publish celebrity sex tapes – how many other fabulously rich people are trying to take down media outlets from the shadows? Now that Gawker is facing a $140 million verdict, will more billionaires try the tactic? It’s hard to know, but we do know the ones who have gone after journalists more directly.
Sheldon Adelson: The casino magnate and major GOP donor sued a Wall Street Journal reporter over an article that described him as “foul-mouthed.” The suit is ongoing. Adelson also sued former newspaper columnist John L. Smith into bankruptcy over a passage in a book. Adelson more recently bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal, where Smith worked. The columnist resigned after being told he couldn’t write about Adelson.
Frank VanderSloot: The Idaho businessman and Republican donor sued Mother Jones over an article about his company’s contributions to Mitt Romney’s super political action committee. The story noted the company’s “history of run-ins with regulators.” Mother Jones won the case, but only after “the take-no-prisoners legal assault … consumed a good part of the past two and a half years and has cost millions (yes, millions) in legal fees.” And, in an eerie harbinger of this week’s Thiel news, VanderSloot said he was creating a $1 million fund to pay the legal expenses of people suing the “liberal press.”
Donald Trump: In 2009, Trump filed a $5 billion defamation suit against a book author who wrote that the reality TV star wasn’t actually a billionaire. Trump lost. As a presidential candidate this year, Trump said he’s “going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” Trump also recently told a Washington Post reporter, “If you write this one, I’m suing you.”
Jeff Greene: The Palm Beach, Florida, billionaire filed a $500 million libel suit against the Tampa Bay Times over articles published during his unsuccessful 2010 Democratic primary campaign for U.S. Senate. One story dealt with his role in a condominium complex sale, and another described partying on his 145-foot yacht. The newspaper recently settled.
Koch brothers: After New Yorker writer Jane Mayer wrote about the role of billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch in building the Tea Party movement, she learned that a private investigator was trying to dig up dirt on her. According to her subsequent book, someone was trying to smear her, providing a dossier of bogus plagiarism charges to other reporters. Mayer traced the effort to people close to Koch business interests.
Steve Wynn: Was a Frontline documentary killed out of fear of litigation from a billionaire gambling tycoon? That’s the contention of the documentary’s reporting team, led by famed journalist Lowell Bergman, according to a Daily Beast account. Wynn sued a hedge fund manager who was interviewed for the film after the businessman spoke at Bergman’s investigative reporting symposium. Wynn lost the suit, but Frontline decided not to air the film. Frontline blamed the cancelation on editorial problems. Bergman (a co-founder of The Center for Investigative Reporting) pointed to “the chilling atmosphere that exists today when you have potential deep-pocket litigants.”
The list grows longer when it comes to foreign billionaires. A Saudi Arabian prince, for example, sued Forbes for underestimating his fortune on its list of billionaires. He settled in 2015. A Russian oil tycoon sued the Economist for a 2008 article that suggested that he was cozy with Vladimir Putin. A Canadian billionaire sued the Israeli newspaper Haaretz for criticizing his management of a soccer team. And on and on.
As for Gawker, “it’s not a very sympathetic candidate for First Amendment hero,” says Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. “Nonetheless, if it can happen to them, it can also happen to The New York Times.”
The scary thing about the ultra-rich filing libel suits, Scheer said, is that they don’t care what it costs them or whether they’re even likely to prevail. “They’re not making a cost-benefit analysis the way any rational plaintiff would.”
“Their objective is not to make money, but to either score a point or chill the media,” he said. “Whenever that happens, it’s a cause for real concern.”
Correction: An earlier version of the story misspelled Vladimir Putin’s name.