What ‘Trendghazi’ and ‘Thielgate’ Say About the Future of News
This essay originally appeared in Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily tech newsletter. Sign up here.
First there was “Trendghazi.” Now there’s “Thielgate.”
If you don’t know what either of these are, chances are you clicked on the wrong newsletter. But allow me to explain. The former, a scandal over anonymous allegations that Facebook (FB) workers purposely omitted conservative-leaning stories from the website’s “trending” list, erupted in early May. The latter, the revelation that billionaire and Facebook investor Peter Thiel bankrolled a $140 million lawsuit against Gawker Media, is still erupting.
The two controversies are different sides of the same coin—a coin that came from Thiel’s pocket, apparently. In both cases, the PayPal (PYPL) co-founder’s money is illustrating that it can (at least theoretically) influence the dissemination of information.
Facebook has said it found no evidence of employee wrongdoing in curating the news feed on its “Trending Topics” page, though it is still changing the news selection process on the site. But its dedication to keeping its information fully free from potential bias would gain more credibility if it addressed this growing issue: Thiel, who has admitted to funding lawsuits against Gawker, is on Facebook’s board.
Whether or not you think of Gawker and its now-defunct Silicon Valley gossip site Valleywag—which publicly revealed Thiel as gay in 2007—as a news site or complete rubbish is irrelevant. At least in Thiel’s case, the company didn’t do anything illegal. And yet he called his campaign to crush Gawker “one of my greater philanthropic things that I’ve done.”
Others don’t quite see it that way. Take, for example, Jeff Bezos, another billionaire with a more overt news agenda: growing the audience for The Washington Post, which he bought in 2013 (oh yeah, and running a little company called Amazon (AMZN)).
“I don’t think a billionaire should be able to fund a lawsuit to kill Gawker,” Bezos said Tuesday during an interview at the ongoing Code Conference in Ranch Palos Verdes, Calif. “The best defense against speech you don’t like is a thick skin. If you can’t tolerate critics, then don’t do anything new or interesting.”
Well said, from one billionaire to another.