Sean Parker on his wedding, redwoods, and death threats

Things have been a bit crazy since Parker's controversial multimillion-dollar nuptials in an old-growth forest on the California Coast. He talks with CNET's Paul Sloan about being the Internet's punching bag.

Paul Sloan Former Editor
Paul Sloan is editor in chief of CNET News. Before joining CNET, he had been a San Francisco-based correspondent for Fortune magazine, an editor at large for Business 2.0 magazine, and a senior producer for CNN. When his fingers aren't on a keyboard, they're usually on a guitar. Email him here.
Paul Sloan
5 min read
Sean Parker's wedding picture, as posted to his Facebook profile. Mark Seliger

So much for the honeymoon.

Sean Parker -- Napster co-founder, first Facebook president, portrayed on the big screen by Justin Timberlake -- had expected to spend early June relaxing with his longtime girlfriend and new bride, Alexandra Lenas.

Instead, the newlyweds and their newborn are holed up at an undisclosed location in Menlo Park, Calif., while Parker works the phones to get out his side of a story he describes as "simultaneously the silliest and the most damaging PR crisis that I've had to deal with."

If you've missed the uproar, just Google "Sean Parker wedding." You'll get on the order of 717,000 results. Or try, "Sean Parker wedding Big Sur." That'll produce scores of results, many with headlines like this: "Internet Mogul Sean Parker Trashes Big Sur Redwood Forest to Create a Fantasy Wedding."

It's all driving Parker crazy, on a number of levels.

A quick recap: Parker's troubles began last week when, three days after his June 1 wedding, The Atlantic's Alexis C. Madrigal wrote about a report from the California Coastal Commission. The agency detailed the work Parker had done at a campground he leased for the ceremony from The Ventana Inn, a resort just off the ocean. Workers hired by Parker built, among other things, "multiple structures including a gateway and arch, an artificial pond, [and] a stone bridge..."

The key problem, according to the report, is that Parker didn't have the necessary permits for construction on what the agency says is a "privately run public campground." There are plenty of details in the report, which includes photos of the campground, and you can read the whole thing here.

Parker wrote an e-mail to Madrigal explaining his side, which The Atlantic published. Without going into all the specifics, Parker makes some persuasive points. He says he worked with an organization called Save the Redwoods to locate the spot and that the group suggested Ventana because it was private and had previously hosted events. He also says he was then dependent on Ventana for things to be in compliance. As Parker tells it, 20 days before his wedding, the California Coastal Commission shut down his construction crews based on outstanding Ventana Inn violations from long before Parker was involved (an article in the local Monterey County Weekly discusses those outstanding violations).

Parker at the premiere of 'Downloaded' during the 2013 SXSW festival Getty Image

With his wedding near at hand, Parker said, he didn't want to deal. So he did what rich people can do: He threw money at the problem. He agreed to pay $1 million to settle with the Commission, and another $1.5 million to, among other projects, help build campgrounds for underprivileged kids.

"The last thing I wanted to do 20 days before my wedding was get into a battle with some commission," said Parker.

The settlement, which required approval by the full Commission, was signed off on Friday morning during a public hearing. During the hearing, in fact, Parker won considerable praise for his cooperation and for making the state aware of outstanding violations that were not his fault.

"By my addition, it's six years of violations which we didn't know about and had nothing to do with the wedding," said Mary Shallenberger, who chairs the Commission. "...I thank Mr. Parker for having his wedding there so we could discover all the violations."

After the first Atlantic piece went live, hundreds of reporters jumped on the story. Madigral used Parker's wedding as a "parable for Silicon Valley excess," and others focused on the idea that he was destroying old growth forest, something he vigorously denies. Each report, he argues, added some detail that became "truth by repetition."

"Everything from the bogus price tag on the event to the idea that we built 'castles' in the forest," he said. (For the record, Parker wrote in his letter to The Atlantic that he spent roughly $4.5 million on "prepping the site" and cleanup. As for "'castles' in the forest," here are photos, from the Coastal Commission report, of wedding prep and constructions -- Parker gives more details in the Atlantic letter.)

Then the threats started appearing on his Facebook page, and Parker and his bride cancelled their honeymoon to deal with the mess. Throughout it all, reporters and news outlets, including CNET, never bothered to contact him, said Parker, so he started reaching out to people he knew, which is how I ended up on the phone with him for almost two hours.

"There were over 200 articles in a 72-hour-period, and not one reporter called me for a comment," said Parker. "No one even bothered to try to reach me or my PR person."

Death threats via Facebook
Parker said he wrote directly to some commenters on his Facebook page. Some threats he deleted.

"There are crazy people on Facebook typing death threats," said Parker. "There were people -- eco-terrorists -- on my own Facebook page saying, 'Let's find this guy and put him out of his misery'...Psychopaths are hunting me."

And so the 33-year-old billionaire, not one to keep his emotions in check, is fighting back and ignoring the advice of his handlers, who want him just to shut up until the whole thing blows over. They clearly don't know their client.

It's going to be a hard campaign. Let's be blunt: Stories about Sean Parker drive clicks, and this is an easy story, especially if you ignore its many nuances and complexities.

Parker is also more image-conscious than most tech moguls, doing the red carpet stroll at times and often wearing suits that seem more Paris than Palo Alto. So this whole episode has him in a bit of a state, wondering why, in his view, the world is choosing to pick on him as the symbol of greed when his lavish ways pale in comparison to some.

"I had a forest wedding where I made everyone wear silly outfits," said Parker, referring to the medieval theme. "Why is that an example of largesse? You could accuse me of being goofy, or whacky, but there was nothing particularly ostentatious about it."

Making matters worse is that whole movie problem. Much to Parker's displeasure, if the general public has an image of him, it was created by Aaron Sorkin, who wrote "The Social Network," a Hollywood account of Facebook's early days. It's the smooth-talking, hard-partying, big-spending Justin Timberlake -- and that's a guy that Parker says just isn't him (though he has thrown some famously big parties).

"I suppose I need to get used to this, since I'm forever conflated with the JT character in the 'The Social Network,'" he said. "I'm no longer me. I'm this symbol, created in Aaron Sorkin's imagination."

Updated at 9:50 a.m. PT: Added details from the California Coastal Commission hearing.