Thiel's political leanings are germane because he's on the board of directors of Facebook, which lately has been under fire for allegedly demonstrating a liberal bias in compiling the news stories it presents to users on the site's Trending section. Thiel joined Facebook's top executives when they met recently for a make-nice session with leading conservative political figures and pundits.
When that meeting took place, Thiel's role as a silent partner in financing the legal actions against Gawker -- most notably the suit brought by Hulk Hogan, which Gawker lost to the tune of $140 million in damages -- hadn't yet been made public. In other words, Thiel, furious at Gawker Media since 2007 for yanking him out of the closet as a gay man, was still in the closet as the moneyman behind an effort to run Gawker Media out of business.
There's a saying, "The rich are always with us," and, in that vein, the rich always have been with us as media moguls. For instance, William Randolph Hearst was able to start his newspaper and magazine empire thanks to the financial support of his parents. (In "Citizen Kane," inspired by Hearst, Kane's wealth came from "the Colorado lode.") Money from the MacArthurs has kept Harper's Magazine publishing.
More recently, Warren Buffett has expanded his newspaper holdings, while billionaires have acquired the Boston Globe (John Henry), the Washington Post (Jeff Bezos), the Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sheldon Adelson) and the New Republic (Chris Hughes). Hughes -- coincidentally, a Facebook co-founder -- lasted only four years as a magazine owner, but just as money isn't supposed to buy happiness it doesn't necessarily guarantee success in the media business.
It's fascinating that when the wealthy get involved in media, in most instances the properties over which they preside have been aimed at the masses rather than the upper classes. Why? Other capitalists wanted to reach the broadest possible audiences with the advertising for their holdings, the first significant American consumer brands: Campbell, Camel, Coca-Cola, Ford, Kellogg, Kodak, Heinz, Lucky Strike, National Biscuit, Quaker, Singer, Wanamaker and Wrigley.
Those mass brands brought more mass media, which helped generate more mass brands and so on. That's why American newspapers, which began as party mouthpieces, embraced objectivity: Marketers didn't want potential customers to be offended by anything they read in between the ads. So articles became straightforward rather than partisan or advocating a point of view, and political opinions were consigned to the editorial pages.
Decades later, the thought that Facebook's Trending section may be favoring news from liberal media at the expense of conservative media has stirred a storm among those who believe social media ought to be objective, or eschew a subjective view of the world. That approach might make Facebook like a daily newspaper from, say, 1950, publishing countless articles that took at face value Senator Joseph McCarthy's unsubstantiated claims of widespread communist infiltration of the federal government.
And you could make a case that the many tens of millions of younger, educated Facebook users -- the demographically desirable consumers sought by modern marketers -- would welcome not having to slog through partisan, factually challenged stories from self-styled media that actually inflame rather than inform.
Among those culprits: Fox News, the home of "math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better"; the Drudge Report, which last week illustrated a story about Bill Cosby's legal woes with a photo of him with Hillary Clinton -- from 2000; Freedom Watch, which told its readers the other day: "Obama admits again he is a Muslim. Why are networks scared to also say so?"; Alex Jones, whose Infowars website regularly chronicles the rise of "a one world government, a one world economy and a one world religion"; and James O'Keefe III, the perpetrator of stings against targets like Clinton and National Public Radio who insists he's an investigative journalist rather than a dirty trickster.
Also relevant is a powerful trend on Madison Avenue, as mass marketers that once avoided taking stands on contentious issues become increasingly willing to align themselves with progressive forces. Those younger, educated consumers are often progressive, too, meaning it's no longer as necessary for news media coverage to be objective to gather large audiences for large brands. Or, at least, no longer necessary to practice what critics call "false equivalence journalism," reporting on two sides of an issue as equally valid even if one is demonstrably false and the other demonstrably true.
Whatever happens at Facebook, at least most of the billionaires there seem devoted to traditional standards of journalism. Not so Thiel, who's apparently working on another way for the rich to control the media -- not through ownership, but through threats and intimidation.
There should be no debate on how dangerous that is.
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