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Gawker's Denton says Silicon Valley billionaires need thicker skin

But Gawker owner Denton is optimistic higher courts could rescue his digital news empire from a $140 million verdict bankrolled by PayPal founder Peter Thiel.

Pool, Getty Images

Silicon Valley billionaires with unprecedented power need to get used to the discomfort of press scrutiny, Gawker Media owner Nick Denton said Thursday.

Gawker, a digital news organization, is fighting a devastating $140 million verdict in a case that was secretly funded by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel.

"A Silicon Valley billionaire is a hundred times, a thousand times more powerful than a Congressman," Denton said at Recode's Code conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. "For the good of society, there needs to be a counterbalance, even if the billionaires don't like it."

In March, former wrestler Terry Bollea -- better known as Hulk Hogan -- won a $140 million jury verdict against Gawker for publishing his sex tape. The award could potentially bankrupt Gawker Media, but the case grew thornier last month after Thiel confirmed he funded millions of dollars of Bollea's legal fees and is said to be aiding other suits against Gawker. The revelation raised concerns over whether the rich could create a chilling effect by funding these kinds of suits.

Thiel, who was outed as gay by Gawker publication Valleywag in 2007, has said he is fighting a bully that has ruined people's lives. Thiel was one of the founders of PayPal and is a director of Facebook.

Denton said on Thursday that tech billionaires in Silicon Valley aren't used to the scrutiny that public figures in Hollywood and New York have dealt with for years from the likes of gossip publications like the New York Post's Page Six and TMZ.

He acknowledged that Gawker overstepped the line in the past, getting carried away with its characteristic snarky tone and its zeal to publish stories no other outlet dared touch. "Sometimes honesty and truth can be a cloak in which one is shielding obnoxiousness," he said. "I cop to that."

Despite the $140 million award in the Bollea case, Denton said the company is "pretty confident" a higher court will rule in its favor or reduce the verdict on appeal.