How Elite Billionaires Like Sheldon Adelson and Peter Thiel Are Restricting Press Freedom in America

With one vengeful tycoon in the White House, another the brains behind Hulk Hogan's $140-million lawsuit and Adelson controlling a Las Vegas newspaper, a new documentary depicts the ways U.S. journalists are increasingly being silenced

Sheldon Adelson at the National Israeli-American Conference in Washington, October 2015.
GARY CAMERON/REUTERS

Late last month, NASA was forced to publish an unprecedented denial after conspiracy theorist Alex Jones stated on his radio show that the agency had kidnapped children to serve as slaves on Mars.

“There are no humans on Mars,” a NASA spokesperson told The Daily Beast website. A couple of years ago, any conspiracy theory hatched by Jones wouldn’t have elicited a response from even the vilest of tabloids. However, one particular Jones fan changed all of that: listener #1, President Donald Trump.

The transformation of Jones into a media figure even a respected institution like NASA cannot ignore is only a small part of the dramatic process reshaping the relations of the American media to the society in which it operates. It seems we have lost the most basic rationale of media reporting: exposing the truth so that the authorities and public opinion can do the rest.

When the president and a good portion of the public believe in “alternative facts,” journalists and their perception of the truth become a nuisance – and even the enemy.

A new Netflix documentary, “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press,” chooses to focus on a strange but significant step in this process, shedding light on the new challenges facing journalists in the 21st century.

The film, directed by Brian Knappenberger, deals with a civil suit that was heard last year, but which didn’t receive the appropriate amount of public attention. The March 2016 ruling was reported by the media, including Israeli outlets, but was viewed mainly as a gossip curio. This was not surprising, since it involved a sex tape featuring the world’s most famous wrestler, an annoying but outspoken gossip website, and an almost unimaginable damages figure – some $140 million.

Just like fast food, this tabloid tale was quickly digested in anticipation of the next one. But now, just a year on, the Bollea v. Gawker case is considered an important milestone in the history of American journalism, and a case that future historians will analyze at length while trying to chronicle the media’s slow decline.

A précis of events: Hulk Hogan, the ring name and image adopted by Terry Bollea, was documented having sex with the partner of one of his best friends. Part of the sex tape reached the news-gossip website Gawker in 2012. The website, which featured stories the mainstream media shuns, chose to publish the footage.

Bollea was America’s greatest wrestler, the person who had turned the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) into an international brand. At the age of 60, facing an expensive divorce and a failing reality show, his career was on the ropes. In suing Gawker, he claimed that the invasion of his privacy had also badly hurt his livelihood. Gawker argued that the freedom of the press was entrenched in the U.S. Constitution, and thus was more important than Bollea’s privacy.

Terry Bollea, aka Hulk Hogan, in the St. Petersburg, Florida, courthouse, March 2016.
Dirk Shadd/The Tampa Bay Times via AP

The documentary follows the trial, but homes in on the oddities that cropped up during the legal proceedings. First of all, Bollea was permitted to conduct the trial in St. Petersburg, Florida – a city that considers him a local hero and one in which sophisticated New York media types, like the editors of Gawker, are not popular figures. The judge, Pamela Campbell, even opened the trial with a statement in which she berated the elitist media.

Bollea had to adopt an interesting line of defense, since he had previously appeared as a guest on a show in which he spoke with pride about the sex tape. In court, he argued that the wrestler Hulk Hogan was only a character. He claimed that Hulk Hogan – the guest on that show who had volunteered information about the size of his penis – was proud of the leaked sex tape, but that he was only a character. Bollea, in contrast, is a real flesh-and-blood person who was deeply offended by the invasion of his privacy and was therefore seeking damages.

The judge wouldn’t allow Gawker to present its main argument, which was that Bollea knew about the making of the tape and its leak, and was not bothered by the footage that reached Gawker. Bollea’s main aim, Gawker said, was to deter it from obtaining the entire video in which he allegedly used racist terms when talking about black people. According to Gawker, this was an attempt, using many bells and whistles, to silence the website.

The judge did not let the jurors hear this line of defense or to listen to the rest of the tape. Bollea won his case.

Where does the money go?

Just as those present in the courtroom were unfamiliar with the tape’s later sections, they were also unaware of a significant factor underlying the trial – although there were hints throughout the process. For example, Bollea’s lawyers opted to remove charges of negligent infliction of emotional distress from the claim. This was seemingly an unwise decision by a legal team looking to extract maximal damages from a website that had allegedly hurt their client. In fact, the only beneficiaries of this move were Gawker’s insurers, since the website was covered for inflicting bodily injuries. However, deleting this clause left Gawker totally exposed, with no insurance. Thus, the $140 million compensation awarded to Bollea was a death sentence for the website, which went bankrupt and shuttered in August 2016. Its founder, Nick Denton, was held personally liable to pay $10 million in damages, also bankrupting him; the chief editor on the story, A.J. Daulerio, was ordered to pay $100,000.

Gawker Media founder Nick Denton arriving in a courtroom in St. Petersburg, Florida, March 2016
STEVE NESIUS/AP

Two months after the ruling, the New York Times revealed what lay behind the case’s oddities: Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire known for his Midas touch, admitted he had spent more than $10 million on lawsuits against Gawker, mostly in the Bollea case. This solved the riddle of the deletion of the emotional distress claim: Thiel was working behind the scenes, taking over the prosecution. He wasn’t interested in increasing the amount of damages awarded to Bollea if the insurance company paid and Gawker continued to operate. For him, it wasn’t a suit about silencing, but one about elimination. Thiel wanted to shut down Gawker – and he succeeded. In an interview with the NYT, he bragged about closing the website, saying it was one of the best philanthropic deeds he had ever done.

Thiel’s hatred toward Gawker was long-standing. It started with a short gossip story posted in 2007, titled “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.” Outing him could have given Thiel cause for filing a lawsuit, but he didn’t want financial compensation. He wanted revenge, and he waited over eight years for the opportunity.

In Silicon Valley, the 49-year-old always stood out as being different from the others: a wunderkind who was born in Germany and raised in America, who saw Ayn Rand as a role model and a man with an avowedly libertarian worldview. He tried his luck as a lawyer, but at the end of the 1990s decided the big bucks lay in new technologies. With a few partners he established PayPal, with the declared aim of realizing his worldview – creating a means of payment that would bypass the sovereign state. The money he made from selling PayPal was channeled into several projects: for instance, he was one of the first investors in Facebook, where he still serves on the board of directors.

Thiel calls himself a philanthropist, but the billion-dollar question is: Where does the money go? Among other things, he is interested in studies that aim to slow the aging process. According to extensive reporting in Inc. magazine last year, he was part of a project involved in buying blood from young men and transfusing it into older men (a process called parabiosis). He also invested in the Seasteading Institute, which wants to establish a libertarian utopia in the middle of the ocean. Its publications claim it is developing permanent autonomous communities at sea.

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel speaking during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, October 2016.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

These are but two examples of donations made by Thiel, but there are numerous others. Like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, he has no problem pouring heaps of money into projects he deems worthy; the difference lies in the objectives. One of these projects, you may recall, was Trump’s presidential run. Thiel was one of his biggest and earliest supporters, and one of very few in Silicon Valley.

At the core of Bollea’s suit against Gawker lay the conflict between the individual’s right to privacy and the freedom of the press. Thiel’s intervention shifted the scales in one direction. Few journalists shed tears over the closure of Gawker, which really did give the profession a bad name. But Denton reminded the media that tabloid news is still news. He reminded everyone that Gawker was the first outlet to dare report on the sexual assault allegations against comedian Bill Cosby; about Tom Cruise’s alleged role in recruiting Scientologists; and about Hillary Clinton’s secret email account.

Like many investigative journalists before him, Denton says that when you allow a single violation of press freedom – because a particular media outlet is distasteful to you – the way opens up for further assaults. Trump, with his savage attacks on numerous journalists and media outlets in the United States, is a classic example of this.

What happens in Vegas...

Thiel is the antihero of “Nobody Speaks,” but he’s not the only one. The documentary covers another story that was widely covered by the media, including in Israel: the acquisition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

In December 2015, it was reported that the paper had been sold to an anonymous buyer, and journalists at the daily – one of the more highly regarded regional papers in America – were outraged. A workers’ meeting, at which a representative of the investor told them about the acquisition without disclosing the investor’s name, rapidly turned into a circus. Journalists refused to work for a publisher whose name remained unknown, and several editors and journalists started investigating the matter. It emerged that the person behind the acquisition was billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson.

Miriam and Sheldon Adelson attending a cornerstone-laying ceremony for the building named after them at Ariel University in the West Bank, June 28, 2017
AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

The 2005 book “Sharks in the Desert,” by John L. Smith, describes prominent figures in the history of Las Vegas. He devoted one of the book’s chapters to Adelson’s rise to the top, and how he went from a simple Boston family to owning the casinos of Macau. This was no biting exposé, and only one part of it infuriated the billionaire: his alleged involvement in the slot machines business early in his career. Smith also referred to the involvement of crime organizations in the field, but made no direct accusations against Adelson.

According to a report on the public radio station NPR, the mere mention of slot machines was enough to enrage Adelson. The tycoon, worth an estimated $30 billion, sued Smith for $15 million. Smith was at the time busy trying to help his daughter combat cancer. The journalist agreed to make changes to the book, in order to create distance between Adelson and the sensitive topic of slot machines. But Adelson insisted on a very specific formulation of the apology, demanding that Smith admit that he deliberately libeled him in an attempt to hurt him.

Smith, a veteran journalist with a popular column in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, refused to say he had lied. Later, he says in Knappenberger’s documentary, Adelson’s representatives offered him $200,000 to cover his daughter’s medical costs, as long as he didn’t reveal this. Smith refused again and declared bankruptcy in 2007. His daughter’s treatment was ultimately financed by his neighbors, colleagues and acquaintances in Las Vegas.

When the Journal was purchased by the Adelson family in late 2015, Smith was told that his stories about Las Vegas gambling would not make any reference to the paper’s publisher. “I was forbidden from mentioning his name in my columns. I couldn’t mention any business his family was involved in,” he says in the documentary, adding with a wry smile, “I understood that his purchasing the paper was not intended to make me feel comfortable.”

After three decades of writing about gambling, Smith resigned from the paper in April 2016, laconically citing “difficulties with the new management.” Since then, the chief editor, along with other editors and correspondents, have also left. Deputy Editor James Wright was one of them. He summarized the affair simply: “The acquisition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal caused the departure of between 20 and 100 people who could reveal something Sheldon Adelson didn’t like,” he told Knappenberger.

Like Thiel, Adelson has a relationship with another billionaire-casino owner who has recently moved to Washington. The three are united in their outlook on the media. After endless direct attacks on journalists and specific media outlets, Trump broke all records recently by showing an old video clip from a wrestling arena, in which he is shown knocking down a rival on whose head the CNN logo is superimposed.

Adelson and Thiel recognized this potential long before last November’s election. In early Republican primaries in February 2016, Trump promised in a speech in Texas: “We’re going to open up those libel laws. So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money.”

Trump doesn’t only talk. USA Today reported last year that he has filed no fewer than 3,500 libel suits in his lifetime. His main objective is to intimidate and silence, but Thiel and Adelson represent something new and smarter.

With deep pockets that suffice for any objective, they have found creative ways to silence and even reshape the media in a manner that suits them. All three of them, but not just them, have a fundamental belief: they are immune to any criticism. As far as they’re concerned, the media can still function – but it must steer clear of the tycoons.

With one of them occupying the Oval Office, this could turn out to be the Golden Age of the billionaire elite.

President-elect Donald Trump with high-tech billionaire Peter Thiel at Trump Tower in New York, December 14, 2016.
Albin Lohr-Jones/Bloomberg