Ever wondered how somebody who wears a handlebar moustache keeps themselves relevant in the mainstream for over 30 years?
Let’s run through it – become a global phenomenon with his Hulkamania gimmick in the WWE, starred in hit films such as Rocky III, then he followed the likes of the Hiltons and Kardashians and starred in a reality show. What followed after that would not only shock his fans but potentially change how the First Amendment is judged forever.
Back in 2012, a report of a sensitive videotape starring WWE Hall of Famer Hulk Hogan (real name Terry Bollea) started making the rounds on the internet. After rumours had been flying around for a while, the website Gawker.com published a 1:40 highlight reel of said video, which featured Hogan and Heather Clem, wife of Hogan’s best friend, Bubba the Love Sponge. This would turn out to be a historic court case in which Hogan claimed that Gawker violated his privacy, whereas Gawker was defending their right to publish the article and video under the First Amendment of the United States Consitution.
Hogan then took out a lawsuit in Florida State court against Gawker Media in for $100,000,000, alleging defamation of character and invasion of privacy. This came after numerous other attempts to sue Gawker hadn’t stuck. Gawker’s defence to the lawsuit was that Hulk had made his sex life a matter of public interest, therefore they were free to post this content under the First Amendment. Hogan vs. Gawker eventually went to trial in 2016.
Here is where everything gets a bit sketchy in details. In between the publication of the tape and the trial in 2016, Hogan had been on radio shows puffing out his chest and making jokes about the tape, among other things, and overall he gave off a boastful vibe about it. However, when it came to trial, the Hulkster said that he was bragging about it while in character and that when he appeared as Hulk Hogan, that wasn’t really him; he then said that as Terry Bollea, he was deeply hurt that this tape had come out to the public eye. So it created a very interesting concept where the leader of Hulkamania had two sides of his personality, one which was of interest to the public eye, and one which wasn’t. The action he took against Gawker wasn’t as Hulk Hogan, but as Terry Bollea, who had been strongly affected by the distribution of a private tape. Essentially, in public he always has kayfabe turned up to the max – even outside the court he said he was gearing up for another title run, so maybe Hulkamania will live forever.
On top of this, Bubba the Love Sponge stated that Hogan and his wife Heather knew they were being taped, whereas Hulk had firmly denied this, saying he knew nothing about the recording. It made part of the case a state of hearsay where you aren’t really sure whether to believe what anybody is saying.
The story behind the tapes leaking was that Bubba used to keep these tapes in a desk at his radio station (not sure why anybody would leave these sensitive recordings at work, but there you go) and a rival DJ who was vying for Bubba’s spot broke in with the intention of leaking them. Police and FBI notes reportedly confirmed these suspicions, but the DJ involved was never charged or convicted of any crime.
Hogan also had a separate lawsuit out against Bubba and Heather Clem, for recording the video without his knowledge or consent. So you would think that he would be seeking similar terms to the Gawker lawsuit, right? Who would you be more annoyed at – The team who published the video when it fell into their lap, or the friend who supposedly secretly recorded you without consent? However, the Hulkster and Bubba settled out of court, for just $5,000. In Hulk’s eyes, the difference between videotaping secretly and publishing is $99,995,000. The key point in the settlement, however, was not monetary, but in exchange for Hogan dropping his suit, Bubba would plead the fifth amendment and not take the stand in the upcoming trial vs. Gawker.
The trial itself lasted two weeks, but halfway through the trial, Hogan dropped a charge, which completely perplexed the people at Gawker. The charge Hogan dropped was the infliction of emotional distress, which for me would arguably be my main charge if something like this happened. Once that charge was dropped though, Gawker was no longer covered by their insurance policy. This meant that Gawker, that Nick Denton and that AJ Daulerio, the editor who posted the article and video, were all personally liable.
From taking this charge out of the lawsuit though, Hogan didn’t stand to win as much money, which again is another cause of confusion for the team at Gawker. The Hulkster’s 2009 divorce had left him on the verge of bankruptcy, so anybody would imagine he would be looking for the highest sum possible. It then became evident to everybody that the goal was not to maximise Hulk Hogan’s recovery of damages, but to bankrupt Gawker itself. What were his motivations for doing so, though? He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would try to be malicious towards a publication. His motivations were obviously monetary, but that struck up so much rumour and confusion amongst Gawker’s lawyers, who played the game completely wrong once they suspected somebody was behind Hogan pulling the strings.
Gawker had paid roughly $13m in legal fees during the trial, so how could somebody who was on the verge of bankruptcy just a few years beforehand afford such an expensive trial? All of the pieces had started to click into place for the Gawker team, and it wasn’t spelling anything good for the company.
It came out that Hogan had indeed not funded this case, but it had been backed by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, who is best known for being a co-founder of PayPal. What you may not know here is that back in 2007, a blog from Gawker Media named Valleywag outed the billionaire as gay. According to reports, it doesn’t seem like the article itself angered the paypal co-founder, but a comment at the end of the article made by Denton. “The only thing that’s strange about Thiel’s sexuality: why on earth was he so paranoid about its discovery for so long?” He took this to mean that Denton was implying psychological issues that he had, which started his motivations to take down a site that he felt spewed negativity.
The trial itself was obviously well funded by Thiel, and Hogan had the best possible team. Gawker stood no chance and the judge ordered Gawker to pay $115m in damages and $25m in punitive damages, including $10m from Denton and $100,000 from AJ Daulerio. Bear in mind, the judge ordered them to pay what is possible on the high end of a wrongful death lawsuit. Completely extortionate, and it filled most journalists with a sense of dread.
Gawker appealed the decision but eventually settled for $31m to Hogan, which was still enough to see them put out of business, which was Thiel’s goal all along. He called funding this lawsuit as “one of my great philanthropic things I’ve done in my life”.
However, this was not philanthropy, this was a major sign of what power billionaires have over society. Obviously, in this world, and especially in America, money is power, but this lawsuit showed that if you get in the way of a big-time player, your days are numbered. Whether or not you agree with Thiel’s motivations for pursuing Gawker in such a fashion, this lawsuit affected hundreds of people who were not involved. Gawker was a huge company, employing roughly 300 people, and that extended to sites like Kotaku, Jezebel and Deadspin. Do you think Thiel thought of all of these people when he was suing Gawker? Of course not. He was an angry billionaire who has enough cash that when he throws his toys out of the pram, he can potentially harm many regular, hard-working people.
The billionaires of the world now have the power to control whatever they wish – Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post now, John W. Henry owns the Boston Globe, Sheldon Adelson owns the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Billionaires control the narrative now, and it’s not necessarily the most shocking piece of text you’ll read this week, as it’s been going on for decades, but since 2010, it’s been a lot more prevalent. Many media companies are owned by the elite, feeding you what the elite want you to consume.
Hogan’s trial against Gawker became a symbol of the fight for the free press. While Gawker’s article could sometimes be on the edgy side, and some of their content has been labelled in a very negative light, at the end of the day, Hulk’s greed put a lot of people’s jobs on the line. The people who were working at Gawker who were not responsible for this post had their careers and their futures put into jeopardy because both Thunderlips and Thiel had a point to prove, and they won.
In this story, there were no real good guys. Thiel had revenge on his mind and endangered hundreds of people’s livelihoods, as well as disregarding the First Amendment. Hogan was fueled by an opportunity for money, but content in the full tape, which contained racial slurs proved that he isn’t the guy everybody loved in the 1980s. Gawker was a largely toxic community that spread vicious rumours and didn’t care who they hurt in the process, but did they deserve to go out of business? It’s not for me to say.
Thankfully, Gawker was purchased by Univision, who saved a lot of the jobs that were on the line, but Hogan’s case against Gawker really set the precedent that free press is no longer free, and if you want to play, you better have an awful lot of money to bring to the table, because one story about a billionaire and one video of a millionaire could see your whole company shut down.