Gawker CEO: I'm 'slightly impressed' by Thiel's 'Count of Monte Cristo' revenge

Gawker strikes back

Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel's attack on Gawker shows "the power of the billionaire class," the online media company's founder and CEO Nick Denton told CNBC on Friday.

Denton also said Gawker has evolved over the years, becoming more responsible. "I'm different than I used to be. And I think our writers and editors have also grown up," he said in the "Squawk Box" interview.

While Gawker has been known for controversial reporting, Denton said he and the public are sick of everything turning into an internet "flame war."

Denton said he was surprised by Thiel's decade-long commitment to lawsuits against Gawker, including financing Hulk Hogan's suit against the site. "I'm slightly impressed. It's kind of like a 'Count of Monte Cristo' revenge fantasy for billionaires," he said sarcastically.

However, Denton said he's glad Thiel is "finally out in the open" on the lawsuit, which provides the opportunity to see their "true interests."

"It becomes a story about the power of the billionaire class, particularly the power of the billionaire class in Silicon Valley. They have money. They have wealth. They have anonymity. They have special purpose vehicles. They have offshore accounts," Denton said.

"They are exercising their power from behind the scenes," he continued. "I think it's more important than ever that there be an independent media to hold them to account."

Denton said he wants the facts to come to light on the lawsuits against Gawker, which he said were "designed to drain the site."

In an open letter to Thiel posted on Thursday, the majority owner of Gawker blasted the co-founder of Founders Fund for funding lawsuits in a "vindictive decade-long campaign."

Denton also challenged Thiel to an "open and public debate" about journalism's role in society.

Partner at Founders Fund Peter Thiel participates in a panel discussion at the New York Times 2015 DealBook Conference at the Whitney Museum of American Art on November 3, 2015 in New York City.
Neilson Barnard | Getty Images | The New York Times

In 2007, Gawker outed Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and early investor in Facebook, as gay.

In defending that story, Denton told CNBC: "The story was actually saying that Silicon Valley is a largely straight, white, male preserve. Here is a figure [Thiel] — who's known widely in Silicon Valley to be gay, an extremely successful, talented venture capitalist — we should be celebrating the full diversity."

"How many people need to know in a city or a society or in a community [before publishing]? Is it hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands?" argued Denton, who said he's also gay, as is the writer of the story that outed Thiel.

"Why on Earth maintain this kind of cone of silence around a gay public figure's personal life in a way you would never do about a straight person?" Denton said.

In an interview with The New York Times this week, Thiel acknowledged he funded lawsuits against Gawker, including spending about $10 million on one by the wrestler Hulk Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea.

In March, a jury in Florida awarded Bollea $140 million in his case against Gawker for publishing a sex tape.

Thiel told the Times his role in the Gawker suits was "less about revenge and more about specific deterrence."

"I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people, even when there was no connection with the public interest," Thiel said.

Gawker is appealing Bollea ruling. But as legal costs mount, the company has decided to explore strategic options, including a sale. Gawker has hired investment banker Mark Patricof of Houlihan Lokey to lead the review.

Gawker's Denton sick of giant internet flame war

With 4 million users in the U.S. coming each day to Gawker properties, which include also tech site Gizmodo and sports site Deadspin, Denton said: "We have to act with a greater degree of responsibility."

Denton downplayed Thiel's behind-the-scenes role for the change, instead saying it's part of a broader internet phenomenon to get away from the "tidal wave of obnoxiousness."

"It's fine to be rude, it's fine to be critical, fine to make an argument," Denton said. "But when everything becomes some kind of a big giant internet-wide flame war, then I think we're all a little bit sick of that. So I think Gawker has adjusted to that, too."

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Earlier this month, Gizmodo reported it interviewed former Facebook workers who said the social network "routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers" in its trending section.

Facebook denied bias. But after meeting with several leading conservatives and addressing concerns from Sen. John Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Facebook said it would tweak the process.

"We're no strangers to controversy," Denton told CNBC. "That's why people come. And the advertisers come for that audience."