Book Review: "Conspiracy" Tells Hulk Hogan & Peter Thiel's Side of the Gawker Story...and That's It

Full disclosure: While I write for Deadspin, a former Gawker Media Group website, I did not start there until after the former Gawker Media sites were sold to Univision and rebranded as Gizmodo Media Group.

In June, it was reported by TechCrunch that author/PR specialist/sometimes media columnist Ryan Holiday was writing a book about billionaire Peter Thiel’s plan to destroy Gawker, which succeeded via funding Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the independent blog empire. At the time, I wasn’t sure what to think of it, and not just because Holiday’s columns about Gawker were a bit excessively one-sided. The TechCrunch article read like a press release and claimed that Holiday’s advance was rumored to be a hefty $400,000, which felt more like Holiday bragging via proxy (regardless of whether or the reported payout was real). However, the article did indicate that Holiday had an on the record interview with not just Gawker founder/former owner Nick Denton, but also Thiel, who’s notoriously tight-lipped. Even if it ended up being a bit of a hagiography, it would have value as Thiel’s version of what happened.

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Well, the book is out today, February 27, 2018, and it does focus on Thiel’s accounting of what happened. The intermediary who hooked Thiel up with lawyer Charles Harder, identified as Mr. A (and revealed last week by BuzzFeed’s Ryan Mac to be Australian businessman Aron D’Souza) also spoke to Holiday, as did Harder himself and even Hogan. The book absolutely does have value in outlining exactly how the plan came together, but it tries to be more, and that’s where the seams start to come apart.

In the source notes, Holiday laments that other than Denton and former editor A.J. Daulerio, who posted the heavily edited Hogan sex tape at the center of the lawsuit that killed Gawker, nobody from the defunct site would talk to him. Reached by Fightful for comment as to why, in his view, that was, former Gawker Executive Editor John Cook responded succinctly: “Because he's a liar and a fraud with a longstanding grudge against Gawker, which reported truthfully on his PR clients.” Such reporting includes a 2014 post titled “New York Observer Hires Known Fraud Ryan Holiday to Help Run Tech Blog,” where writer Nitasha Tiku notes that Holiday has admitted to lying about things like—wait for it—the size of his book advances.

Reading the book, the slant felt too powerful. The moment that got the ball rolling on all of this, Owen Thomas’s 2007 post reporting on how homophobia in Silicon Valley made Thiel reluctant to be public about the fact that he’s gay, is noticeably mischaracterized. Holiday characterizes it as devoid of empathy, and while the headline (“Peter Thiel is totally gay, people”) is famously flippant, the text is a thoughtful rumination on the subject matter.  Holiday also glosses over how Thiel’s public criticism of Gawker in that era was reporting things on his investment fund’s collapse and his friends doing stupid things in public.  Perhaps even worse, at one point, during the chapter about the initial leak of Hogan’s past racist comments to the National Enquirer, one bit appears to be made up out of whole cloth: That Daulerio later admitted to considering leaking it. Not only did that never happen, but the source notes for that chapter don’t point to anywhere that Daulerio might have said it and he didn’t even have access to it, anyway. Hogan’s side has always had pet theories about someone tied to Gawker having done it, but, per rules set by the judge in the sex tape lawsuit, only Gawker’s lawyers had access to the partial transcripts of Hogan’s comments. Sharing it with their clients—much less leaking it—would have literally cost Gawker the case, and everyone involved was certainly not that dumb.

I did get value out of the book, but of course I would. I covered the case heavily, and anything new—like Hogan claiming that he was smuggling a gun in his fanny pack during an FBI sting to catch blackmailers “selling” the sex tapes to him—is going to catch my eye. If you’re looking for Hogan-specific content (and I really need to point this out on a wrestling website), there isn’t much at all. Hearing from the Thiel/Hogan side about how this all came together is legitimately interesting...but that’s just about all there is, and the best stuff (like Thiel and D’Souza admitting to considering illegal options for revenge against Gawker) is quickly being covered online. Perhaps what might have been the juiciest topic—D’Souza making cryptic comments about capitalizing on the “Gamergate” movement, which heavily targeted Gawker Media, gets brushed aside when Thiel and Harder refuse to discuss it on the record. And even if you want to make sure you catch all of it, the almost 300 page book is a very quick read because it’s almost astonishingly padded. In between the narrative of what happened, Holiday routinely tries to quote Sun Tzu, invoke historical figures he deems analogous, or some combination of the two. This feels like it takes up close to half of the book. Space that could have been devoted to more background or nuts and bolts about Hogan, the lawsuit, or the titular conspiracy is wasted as Holiday gazes at his navel. Most readers will likely skip several paragraphs at a time to avoid the faux-intellectualism.

In the long run, this book’s historical value may not be in reading it as much as what feels like an inevitable role in the Gawker Media Group bankruptcy proceeding. Slowly, the Gawker estate, controlled by a trustee, has been inching towards pursuing legal action against Thiel. As it would happen, you’re not actually supposed to maliciously bankrupt a company, and bankruptcy law allows you to recover money from whoever is responsible. While the investigation that can be undertaken is limited by the terms of the Gawker estate’s settlements with Hogan and other Harder clients, there’s still room to move. Whether Thiel and company were aware (and didn’t care) or not is unclear, but still, the question remains:  Why would Thiel lay out a blueprint of how he did this after considering all sorts of other, illegal options? Especially one that would end up in a book titled “Conspiracy” that would be heavily promoted with a media tour? Well, for starters, the key interviews were conducted before the potential action against Thiel became much of an issue in bankruptcy court.

(Holiday told Fightful that the interviews “started in fall of 2016;” while the matter of the estate going after Thiel was first broached in early October 2016, the ball really got rolling about six months later.)

The book doesn’t really acknowledge that this could become a problem for Thiel, which is kind of the point that Holiday misses. Whatever you think about Gawker, its tone, and its editorial stances, the reasonable conclusion is that Thiel, backed by a team of lawyers, either:

  1. Didn’t bother to check if there were any laws barring what he was planning, or
  2. Knowingly violated federal bankruptcy law and didn’t care because he could just throw money at it.

Maybe there IS a good reason that nobody else ever did this before Thiel.


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