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Tech Titans Raise Their Guard, Pushing Back Against News Media

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SAN FRANCISCO — After the news that one of Silicon Valley’s stars secretly funded a lawsuit to bring down a gossip site, the overwhelming response in the tech community has been: More power to him.

Peter Thiel — Facebook investor, PayPal co-founder and a billionaire with a highly developed instinct for revenge — is being hailed by the Valley’s elite for his stealthy actions against Gawker Media, whose Valleywag gossip blog outed him as gay and irritated other important tech people during its brief existence. The suit, brought by the professional wrestler Hulk Hogan over a sex tape, resulted in a $140 million verdict against Gawker.

With its response, the tech community’s message is clear: Treat us the way we want to be treated or we might retaliate. Even though Silicon Valley professes to be for free speech — this is where Twitter was invented, after all — the reaction opens a window into the thinking of the digerati, who are becoming more guarded and elusive even as their products make the world more transparent.

Given Mr. Thiel’s “beliefs and objectives, I can’t fault him for his approach,” Parker Thompson, a partner at the venture capital firm 500 Startups, said in an interview.

Mr. Thompson was just one of dozens of techies in Silicon Valley who talked or tweeted their approval of Mr. Thiel and their disapproval, or worse, of Gawker and Valleywag in the last few days.

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“Click bait journalists need to be taught lessons,” said the billionaire Vinod Khosla, whose efforts to close off public access to a beach on his property were covered by Valleywag.

Gawker “desperately persisted in trying to destroy people without basis. No accountability,” said the venture capitalist Chris Sacca.

“Thank you @peterthiel,” wrote Jessica Livingston, co-founder of the influential start-up incubator Y Combinator, which was occasionally tweaked by Valleywag.

At least one tech billionaire, however, is on Gawker’s side. Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, tweeted, “People who oppose even the slightest common sense limits on Second Amendment should understand the same principle applies to First.”

Late Friday, First Look Media, which was founded by Mr. Omidyar, said that in keeping with its mission to protect the First Amendment, it would be helping to organize supporting briefs for Gawker’s appeal.

“The possibility that Gawker may have to post a bond for $50 million or more just to be able to pursue its right to appeal the jury’s verdict raises serious concerns about press freedom,” Lynn Oberlander, general counsel for First Look, said in a statement.

“We welcome the support at the appellate level,” Gawker said in its own statement.

In some ways Silicon Valley’s reaction is not surprising. A journalist’s job, at least in theory, is to ask questions and print the truth, which means it is less than loved in citadels of power. But in Silicon Valley, even the media hates the media.

“Gawker can burn in hell,” the TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington said on Twitter, though he also called Mr. Thiel “cowardly” for not being open about financing the lawsuits against Gawker. TechCrunch began as a site that worked hand in hand with start-ups to chart their progress.

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For Ken Shotts, who teaches ethics and strategy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Mr. Thiel’s secret campaign against Gawker brought to mind General Motors’ pursuit of Ralph Nader 50 years ago. G.M. set private detectives on Mr. Nader to get the dirt on him that would nullify his criticism of its Corvair car. G.M. went beyond the pale, and was punished. The president of G.M. was forced to appear before Congress and apologize for harassing and intimidating the company’s critic.

“Companies face constraints,” said Mr. Shotts. “That’s a good thing. Individuals are less constrained, and billionaires hardly at all.”

From this perspective, what Mr. Thiel did was less of an aberration and more of that old Silicon Valley stand-by: a new product launch. It is now out of stealth mode and getting good reviews among potential users.

As a result, Mr. Shotts said, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see more cases like this.”

The situation is complicated by the fact that these days rich tech companies, their owners or venture capitalists are as much the owners and producers of the media as the subject. With the traditional media in a weakened state, it is a trend that seems to be accelerating.

Andreessen Horowitz, one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent venture firms, owns a stake in BuzzFeed and recently increased its investment in Medium, a platform that also produces content. Facebook came under scrutiny this month after reports from Gizmodo, a Gawker property, that it was playing down conservative news.

Facebook and Andreesen Horowitz declined to comment.

“Gawker tried to have it both ways,” Venky Ganesan, managing director of the venture capital firm Menlo Ventures, said in an interview. “They wanted to be taken seriously as journalists, yet they didn’t follow all the norms.”

Twenty-five years ago, tech coverage was the domain of geeks and trade reporters — people who understood their way around a motherboard, were excited by it and wouldn’t dream of crossing certain boundaries. Now, with tech at its zenith, much of the coverage of the industry is still done by enthusiasts. Combine this with the need to get the power players to come to the media’s conferences and there is a real reluctance to look behind the scenes.

Elizabeth Spiers, who was the first Gawker writer and is now an entrepreneur, noted on her blog that the “tech press is largely fawning toward successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, and mostly unintentionally.”

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The result, she wrote, is “a sense of entitlement in the industry where denizens of Silicon Valley expect the media to actively support them and any negative portrayals are met with real anger and resentment, even when they’re 100 percent accurate.”

Sam Altman, the president of Y Combinator, tried to chart a middle ground between Gawker and Mr. Thiel in a series of posts on Twitter.

“Gawker is disgusting for outing people, publishing sex tapes, etc.,” he wrote, but also posted that “it’d be bad if rich people could start silencing the media.” He concluded by blaming the legal system.

Danielle Ivory contributed reporting from New York.

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