December 21, 2016
Previously enjoyed: Reporting on Donald Trump’s hair gets Gawker threatened with (another) lawsuit
by Julia Fleischaker
As the dumpster inferno known as 2016 burns toward its embers, we’re revisiting some of our favorite MobyLives posts from the past year. This one originally ran on June 16.
Billionaire tech investor, libertarian, and Donald Trump delegate Peter Thiel made news last week when it was revealed that he had anonymously bankrolled the lawsuit that effectively forced Gawker to file for bankruptcy. But, to Gawker’s dismay, and the dismay of people who enjoy the notion of a free press, it seems like Thiel, or at least Thiel’s lawyer, isn’t done yet. Yes, J. K. Trotter reports in Gawker that, according to attorney Charles J. Harder, Donald Trump’s hair must be defended from scrutiny and the big bullies at Gawker.
One day after the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel revealed his clandestine legal attack on Gawker Media to the New York Times, Gawker reporter Ashley Feinberg published a lengthy investigation that sought to solve the enduring mystery of Donald Trump’s infamous mane, which she described as a “cotton candy hairspray labyrinth.”
Feinberg’s piece, which looked at a possible connection between Trump’s hair and a hair-extension company called Ivari International, was well-received, and Gawker links to positive tweets from “staffers at the Times, the Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic; and at least three winners of the Pulitzer Prize.”
But if you were under the impression that praise-worthy journalism is somehow inoculated against campaigns like Thiel’s, you’d be mistaken. Last week, Thiel’s lawyer-for-hire, Charles J. Harder, sent Gawker a letter on behalf of Ivari International’s owner and namesake, Edward Ivari, in which Harder claims that Feinberg’s story was “false and defamatory,” invaded Ivari’s privacy, intentionally inflicted emotional distress, and committed “tortious interference” with Ivari’s business relations. Harder enumerates 19 different purportedly defamatory statements—almost all of which were drawn from several publicly available lawsuits filed against Ivari.
Harder’s demands included the immediate removal of the story from Gawker, a public apology, the preservation of “all physical and electronic documents, materials and data in your possession” related to the story, and, notably, that we reveal our sources.
According to Talking Points Memo, the tipster that kicked off Gawker’s investigation “claimed to know about Trump’s hair and said he relied on ‘microcylinder intervention.’” In her subsequent investigations, Feinberg learned that only one company uses this technique, and that company had once been located in Trump Tower, on a “private floor reserved for Trump’s own office.”
In a response, Gawker President and General Counsel Heather Dietrick notes that, aside from being ridiculous on its face, the demand for retraction is surprising because “[Ivari] had ample requests from our reporter to contribute to the article, and because you take no issue with the central thesis of the piece—that Mr. Ivari has worked on Donald Trump’s hair.”
Harder has pursued numerous cases against Gawker on Thiel’s behalf, but it’s not clear yet whether the tech investor is behind this latest legal move, as today’s Gawker points out:
In other words: A Thiel-funded attorney is helping a man sue Gawker Media over an article that comes nowhere near invading his privacy, concerns a clear matter of public interest, and explicitly states that the subject is not guilty of a crime. Remember: Thiel told the New York Times that “it’s precisely because I respect journalists that I do not believe they are endangered by fighting back against Gawker.”
Again, it should be noted that, while Thiel has acknowledged funding multiple legal attacks, including Hogan’s, nobody knows for sure whether he’s behind all of Harder’s efforts to harm the company, or just some of them, or if he can even control what his money is used for.
Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.