CLEARWATER, Fla. — When Gawker published a portion of Hulk Hogan’s sex tape in 2012, the gossip site did so to “harm” the former professional wrestler.
That was the message from Hogan’s attorney Shane Vogt to jurors on Monday, as Hogan’s $100 million civil trial against Gawker Media kicked off in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, will testify later in the day.
In his opening statement, Vogt characterized Gawker as an amoral news outlet, guided by the twin principles of “power and profit.”
Former editor A.J. Daulerio, who posted the sex tape excerpts three-and-a-half years ago, is a defendant in the case, along with Gawker founder Nick Denton.
Denton’s editorial philosophy, according to Vogt, is to “level the playing field, to bring down people like Mr. Bollea — entertainers, celebrities, sports stars.”
“What we’re going to prove to you is that they intended to harm him,” Vogt said.
Vogt showed the jurors internal memos, as well as a profile of Denton that ran years ago on NBC News, to highlight Gawker’s obsession with clicks.
He showed a chart indicating that the site enjoyed a traffic spike in October 2012 when the Hogan sex tape clips were published. Vogt also displayed Gawker’s internal chats at the time, in which staffers mocked Hogan.
“This is what qualifies as news at Gawker,” he said. “This is what they’re doing behind the scenes.”
The tape showed Hogan having sex with Heather Clem, then the wife of radio host Bubba “the Love Sponge” Clem. Vogt said that the tryst came at a dark moment in Hogan’s life, after his wife left him.
“The plaintiff’s name in this case is Terry Bollea. He is known professionally as Hulk Hogan, but the plaintiff is Terry Bollea, and he is a man,” Vogt told the jurors. “The defense may try to weave them together. He is a human being, he has imperfections, he has flaws, he makes mistakes.”
Gawker defended its actions in a statement Monday.
“Hulk Hogan was more than willing to talk about his sex life — including in two autobiographies, a reality TV series and Howard Stern’s radio show — until he didn’t like what Gawker had to say,” the company said in a statement. “Now he wants $100 million as compensation.”
Vogt rejected this idea.
“Their motivation here wasn’t some higher public purpose,” he said. “It wasn’t the truth. It was money. It was power.”
Gawker attorney Mike Berry delivered a decidedly shorter opening statement, emphasizing the newsworthiness of the post. He noted that Hogan had created an image of being a role model, an “American hero,” and wrote in his autobiography that he was “not the cheating kind.”
The sex tape, Berry said, had been the subject of previous news stories in the months leading up to Gawker’s publication, but now Hogan is “asking for lots and lots and lots of money.”
Hogan, dressed all in black, including his bandana, sat next to his attorneys. During Berry’s opening remarks, he avoided eye contact with the defense attorney and the jury. He looked down at his table, or stared straight ahead.
The jury of nine, which includes three alternates, is made up of six women and three men. Virtually all of the jurors are white, with the exception of an elderly African-American man.
Vogt noted that Gawker initially refused to take down the video after receiving a cease and desist order. The video remained on the site for six months until it was removed under a court order. That court order was ultimately reversed by an appellate court, but the video remains off Gawker’s site.
“If they had taken down the video when they got the cease and desist letter, we wouldn’t be here,” Vogt said.