This spring it was revealed that Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel had been funding the lawsuit that sunk Gawker Media. Now, a new fellowship is offering funding for journalists to investigate Thiel's business dealings. The nonprofit behind the fellowship, MuckRock, which helps people file public records requests, insists it's not after payback for bankrolling the suit against Gawker--it's just after good journalism. MuckRock co-founder Michael Morisy explains to Bob why he's looking for a few FOIA fellows to help the public learn more about Peter Thiel's "contributions to society."
Long-Ge by Kronos Quartet
The Penguin by Raymond Scott
Freelance journalists and researchers, there's a great new fellowship opportunity for you, big bucks to ply your trade. The only criterion is that you vow to focus your attention on the dealings of a single man, Peter Thiel. You know Peter Thiel as the cofounder of PayPal and as an early investor in Facebook. He is rich. You may also know him as the guy behind the seasteading movement and the funder of scientific research on how to - live forever. Or, you may know him as the man who brought down Gawker Media.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Behind a high profile court case of Hulk Hogan versus the gossip website Gawker was a secret. Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, got nearly $10 million to pay for his legal team from Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel.
BOB GARFIELD: That lawsuit came with a $140 million judgment that sent Gawker Media spiraling into bankruptcy. Underwriting that suit, Peter Thiel, who said it was payback for outing him as gay in an article published in 2007 and was, he proclaimed, quote, “one of my greater philanthropic things I've ever done.” Michael Morisy is co-founder of MuckRock, the organization behind the Thiel Fellowship. Michael, welcome to On the Media.
MICHAEL MORISY: Thank you so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael, what’s MuckRock?
MICHAEL MORISY: [LAUGHS] MuckRock is a tool that works with a variety of journalists, media organizations and also independent people which makes filing Freedom of Information Act requests and public records requests easier.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so I want to read a passage to you from your request for Thiel Fellowship applications. It reads as follows, quote: “Prospective fellows could also help bring greater appreciation, attention and understanding to a number of other fields that Thiel has shown interest in, from life extension to the creation of new nations at sea. Ah, that sounds like it's rooted in genuine respect, if not actual awe.
MICHAEL MORISY: Well, I think Peter Thiel has shown that he is willing to use the legal system in any way that suits his ends, and we want to make sure that we use public records, which are a very protected form of reporting, and satire, which is another very protected form of media, to respond very carefully.
BOB GARFIELD: Satire? Oh, my stars, you mean, [LAUGHS] you mean this fulsome language is being playful?
MICHAEL MORISY: Well, the article, the announcement, we had a little fun with that, but we think the issue is incredibly serious. We think that when multibillionaires are able to take sort of well-established media organizations and drive them secretly out of existence, that's a really concerning precedent. It’s concerning for individual journalists, it’s concerning for major media organizations. And it means that a lot of reporters, a lot of editors are now thinking twice about the subjects they pursue, that I’m going to spend more on lawyers to vet stories before they come out. And that's a really concerning precedent.
BOB GARFIELD: Your concern is that billionaires with endless resources can secure gigantic judgments, not only that put an organization like Gawker out of business but which will give other news organizations pause when they start digging into other people's dirt.
MICHAEL MORISY: Absolutely and a chilling effect even on individual journalists because that’s one of the things that Peter Thiel did, is he named individual editors, individual writers and held them personally liable, which traditionally we hadn’t seen.
BOB GARFIELD: And what exactly do you hope to get from those who become [LAUGHS] the Thiel Fellows?
MICHAEL MORISY: What we want to do with this fellowship is give resources to reporters who can help explain what some of these large and powerful and, quite frankly, very secretive companies that Peter Thiel has helped fund and helped create, help the public understand what's going on with them.
BOB GARFIELD: One in particular is on your radar. It’s a company called Palantir.
MICHAEL MORISY: It’s a private company that's reportedly valued at $20 billion, and a lot of its revenues coming from no-bid contracts with government agencies. And this company says that it can do what nobody else can do and that cities need its technology to keep their people safe. But we have almost no idea of what taxpayers are actually paying for when their cities, when their states, when the federal government signs up with Palantir.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I’ve got to ask you this, even though I suppose you could ask this of any investigative reporter undertaking any investigation of anyone, anywhere, ever, but sometimes there's smoke and no fire. If, at the end of the research, your Thiel Fellows have found nothing unsavory, if there are no shenanigans afoot, no abuse of money or influence - everything is all above board, in fact, he's a visionary and genius – will MuckRock publish the good news?
MICHAEL MORISY: Oh, absolutely. I mean, MuckRock has been completely transparent with almost everything we do. We actually publish the requests that our staff files, no matter how they turn out. And we plan to be completely transparent with this project, as well. And I, I certainly hope we don't find anything. It would be wonderful news if, if Peter Thiel and all of his associations are perfectly clean and above board and there is no waste, fraud or abuse going on. That's, that's my hope and dream.
But I think, you know, when you have a, a $20 billion company, there's a lot that can go wrong. It doesn’t mean that the people involved are all evil but almost invariably in very large operations, very large mistakes are made.
BOB GARFIELD: So what are we talking about here, bringing to bear the very kind of journalistic resources against Thiel that he suppressed in the Gawker case?
MICHAEL MORISY: I don't think this is payback, this is not revenge. This is not saying, Peter Thiel’s an evil man out to destroy the world or use the blood of the young to live forever, as some people have written. This is an influential person, this is a public figure who is building these companies that takes taxpayer money and, and they deserve scrutiny. But because of this previous legal case, there is more fear about covering this company, more fear about covering this individual. And we want to do what we can to counteract that, not as payback but just because we think that's what good journalism is.
BOB GARFIELD: No attempts at prior restraint, no injunction request by Peter Thiel, no efforts underway, as far for as you know, to chill investigations before the fact?
MICHAEL MORISY: We haven't received any yet.
BOB GARFIELD: Have you had 9, 10,000 applicants, none? Give me a range.
MICHAEL MORISY: The applications are open through the end of the month and we’re going to be looking at ‘em on a rolling basis after that. I think we’ve had seven or eight applications, so far.
BOB GARFIELD: Was one of the – was any of those applicants Nick Denton?
MICHAEL MORISY: [LAUGHS] No, but I'll be keeping my eye out for him.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Michael, thank you very much.
MICHAEL MORISY: Oh, thank you so much. I really appreciate the time.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael Morisy is the co-founder of MuckRock.
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STEPHEN COLBERT: …where will the 1% go to rebuild our society? Luckily –
- Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel has the answer, funding the creation of a network of artificial libertarian islands.
Finally, a haven as connected to land as libertarians are to reality.
[CLINTON-TRUMP DEBATE PROMO/#BlatherBingo]
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BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman, Paige Cowett, Micah Loewinger and Sara Qari. We had more help from Leah Feder and Noah Kernis. And our show was edited - this week by our Executive Producer Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Casey Holford. Jim Schacther is WNYC’s vice-president for news. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I’m Bob Garfield.