May 24, 2016 ยท 2 minutes

I’m impressed.

A few months back, I wrote about Nick Denton’s curiously relaxed response to the $140m judgement against Gawker in the Hulk Hogan lawsuit. The judgement came not long after Denton broke his longstanding rule against external investors, taking somewhere south of $40m from Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.

What if, I speculated, it wasn’t Denton or Gawker who was actually footing the bill for whatever Gawker ends up paying Hogan, but Vekselberg. What if that was the reason Denton was willing to concede such an insane amount of control over Gawker to his new investor, including approval over hiring and restrictions of any future sale of the company?

It was a conspiracy theory, of course, but one based on hints from well placed sources:

Wild speculation? Actually, not entirely. In fact it's the persistent rumor I keep hearing from people familiar with the goings on at Gawker.  That Denton’s deal with the devil was for the civil equivalent of a get out of jail free card, in return for the heart and soul of Gawker. 

Today in the New York Times, Denton has seen that conspiracy theory and raised with an amazing one of his own. What if Hogan has a secret billionaire backer of his own?

Per the Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin:

[I]n recent weeks, in the face of several new lawsuits brought against Gawker that are unrelated to Mr. Hogan’s case and seem to personally attack certain Gawker writers, Mr. Denton is having second thoughts. All of the new cases, like Mr. Hogan’s, were brought by Charles J. Harder, a Los Angeles-based litigator, working on a contingency basis...

Mr. Denton has begun to question whether Mr. Harder has a benefactor, perhaps one of the many subjects of Gawker’s skewering coverage. “My own personal hunch is that it’s linked to Silicon Valley, but that’s nothing really more than a hunch,” Mr. Denton told me. “If you’re a billionaire and you don’t like the coverage of you, and you don’t particularly want to embroil yourself any further in a public scandal, it’s a pretty smart, rational thing to fund other legal cases.”

Neither Denton nor Sorkin offers any names for the possible billionaire backer. Popular Valleywag punching bags include Peter Thiel, Marc Andreessen (Pando investors both), Sean Parker, Marissa Mayer, Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Jack Dorsey… and, well, about a thousand other people. Any one of them could, I suppose, have decided to wage a proxy war on Gawker and Denton.

Then again, Valleywag is dead and none of the site’s stories ever really landed a blow on the great and good of the Valley (as I’ve written before, the young reporters Denton favored for his tech vertical seemed more obsessed with embarrassing junior tech workers than actually breaking any big scandals). Given that ineffectiveness, why would Dorsey or Thiel or Parker or anyone else risk the reputational embarrassment if their involvement were ever exposed?    

[Update: According to Forbes, the secret backer is Peter Thiel. Jesus Christ.]

Still, it’s an entertaining thought: Denton’s Russian oligarch proxy funding a legal fight against Hogan’s Silicon Valley oligarch proxy. Russian billionaire vs American billionaire, like some lunatic remake of Rocky IV.

Certainly way more entertaining than an aging wrestler brawling with a tired and embattled media mogul.