Documentarian Brian Knappenberger took a keen interest in the lawsuit Hulk Hogan brought against Gawker. Not because of the tawdry details, though there were plenty of those: The wrestler sued the media company for invasion of privacy over a sex tape it published in 2012 featuring him and the wife of his friend Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.
Knappenberger was more interested in what the trial meant for the First Amendment. As soon as the jury sided with Hogan — and put Gawker on the hook for an astounding $140 million — the filmmaker knew he had to get to work on his next movie.
Of course, that was long before he realized how much deeper the story went. It was before the revelation that Peter Thiel, a wealthy entrepreneur with a grudge, bankrolled the lawsuit that put Gawker out of business; before Thiel supported Donald Trump for president; and before Trump, who promised during his campaign to “open up our libel laws,” became leader of the free world.
Sometimes documentaries come along at the ideal moment. Chalk it up to luck or a futurist’s understanding of the zeitgeist, but Knappenberger’s “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” is right on time as it begins streaming on Netflix on Friday. It’s a crucial moment to consider what it means for the First Amendment, not to mention society, that a billionaire with a bone to pick could use his money to get the legal system to do his bidding.
Thiel had despised Gawker ever since it published a story about him in 2007 with the title “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.” And he wasn’t alone. Gawker had a well-earned bad reputation. A pioneer of online journalism, the company prized speed over fact-checking and became infamous for its questionable news judgment and snarky, cavalier attitude. Its “Gawker Stalker” feature was the tip of the iceberg, raising privacy concerns with its crowdsourced map that tracked the movements of celebrities.
But Gawker also broke legitimate stories, including one about the many women who had accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault.
As legendary lawyer and First Amendment advocate Floyd Abrams puts it in the movie: “We don’t get to pick and choose what sorts of publications are permissible.”
And yet, Thiel did. He didn’t see his court case as a threat to the First Amendment, he explained, because he didn’t view Gawker as a journalistic enterprise. The co-founder of PayPal (and an early Facebook investor) declared putting Gawker out of business his most philanthropic deed. He maintained that the company was “a singularly sociopathic bully.”
“But that’s an absurd thing to say in a media environment in which Alex Jones basically says Sandy Hook didn’t happen,” Knappenberger said in a recent interview, referring to the conspiracy-theory-spewing Infowars radio host, who also spread lies about “Pizzagate.” “Gawker is singularly sociopathic for posting this tape of a public person who had bragged about his sex life? It’s not necessarily tasteful, but it’s certainly not sociopathic.”
“Nobody Speak” shows that the Hogan-Gawker case is only one piece of a worrisome trend. In Nevada, for example, another moneyed magnate and Republican donor, Sheldon Adelson, secretly paid $140 million to buy the Las Vegas Review-Journal — a newspaper that had been critical of him in the past. Adelson, like the man he supported for president, has a history of suing journalists who write unflattering stories about him.
The wealthiest citizens clearly exert outsize power in our society, which becomes more problematic as the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen. The Fourth Estate’s job is to hold the powerful accountable, and yet the distrust of institutions — especially the news media — puts free speech in a precarious spot.
“Technology and other factors like inequality are shifting and changing the ground we walk on,” said Knappenberger, whose films “The Internet’s Own Boy” and “We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists” also deal with technology and society. “The way those forces are rubbing up against what you might think of as traditional values — freedom of speech and democracy and acquisition of power and money — that stuff is really shifting, and I don’t think we quite know where it’s going.”
Knappenberger said he could tell at the time that what was happening with Hogan and Gawker was connected to what was happening on the campaign trail.
“Trump was always in this film from the beginning,” he said. “There was a palpable hatred of the media” in the courtroom. The judge on the case, Jeb Bush appointee Pamela Campbell, had no sympathy for Gawker. Nor, apparently, did the jury.
“There’s legitimate criticism,” Knappenberger said of journalism. “That it’s too corporatized or too cozy with power. For too long, [journalists] traded softball stories for access, and people are starting to call bulls---.”
But the director is heartened by the response to the new presidency as reporters have been energized by a hunt for scoops that has led to seemingly nonstop breaking-news bombshells.
Meanwhile, Trump’s ability to change libel laws appears to be limited, despite a menacing tweet after a New York Times story he didn’t like.
That doesn’t make the threat against free speech and real facts any less real. Let’s not forget what happened in that Florida courtroom.
“This became something much, much bigger, and it does point to something critical at the heart of what’s going on right now,” Knappenberger said. “If money is leveraged against civil liberties and speech, what else is important? It’s not that that’s the only important thing. It’s that how do you care about anything else? How do you tackle anything else without speech?”