When Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker over a sex tape he’d made with the wife of his friend, Bubba the Love Sponge, went to trial last year, Brian Knappenberger was, like many, captivated by the “salacious and tabloid” nature of it. But he was also intrigued by the First Amendment issues at play.
“This was a complex case,” Knappenberger says.“I saw this as a People vs Larry Flynt sort of case. I initially had a fair amount of sympathy for Hulk Hogan.” (That changed a bit when it was revealed Hogan may have been seeking to suppress the sex tape because the unreleased portion showed him making racist and homophobic comments.)
By the time the verdict came down, with its crushing $140 million damages against Gawker and its editors, Knappenberger (The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz and We are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists) knew he had his next documentary.
“One way of looking at this case was that the media was on trial—the judge, Pamela Campbell, inappropriately lamented about the state of online journalism to some of the jurors,” Knappenberger says. “This year, there was a bigger picture resonance.”
Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press mimics Gawker by luring viewers with sensational details—scenes of Terry Bollea (Hogan’s real name) discussing the differences in penis size between him and his alter ego—devoting a disproportionate amount of time to the trial before tackling weightier issues facing the press in this dark new era: a crusading tech billionaire, Peter Thiel, secretly funding Hogan’s lawsuit to gain revenge on Gawker either for outing him as gay or for its negative coverage of Silicon Valley culture; the secret purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the main newspaper in Nevada, by Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire right-wing casino magnate who had been displeased with the paper’s coverage of him; and the rise of a billionaire president with secrets of his own who routinely attacks the press with an overt hostility and a reckless disregard for the truth rarely seen before in American politics.
Knappenberger says “there did seem to be a connection between what was happening in that courtroom and the rise of Donald Trump—there was the hatred of the media that was bubbling up in the Trump campaign and you see echoes of it in the courtroom.”
“We need to defend journalism and articulate why it’s important and it’s weird that we’re at a point where we have to do that,” Knappenberger says. “But things are shifting and changing with new technology. The questioning of power and the freedom of expression needs to make it through.”
Knappenberger doesn’t portray Gawker as paragons of modern journalism, although he does, unfortunately, let editors like AJ Daullerio off the hook to a certain extent by leaving out the details of his rampant drug use and some of the publication’s worst decisions like posting a video of a young woman having sex—possibly against her will—in a public bathroom.
“There are times where Gawker stepped over the line and may have deserved to feel some pain in the Hogan case,” he says, but in an era when the media includes bullies and rumor-mongerers like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones, “to say there is no room for them at all in a country that privileges expression of the worst kind was too harsh.”
In the film, famed First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams makes the case for the director, saying, “The reason to save Gawker is not because Gawker is worth saving. We don’t pick and choose what sort of publications are permissible because once we do it empowers the government to limit speech in a way that ought to be impossible.”
Knappenberger found Thiel’s behind-the scenes flaunting of his wealth to manipulate the justice system concerning because he says Silicon Valley already lacks an adversarial press; the power players there view the press as an extension of their public relations machine and do not think they should be questioned. “There are some great journalists, but it’s not enough compared to the amount of money and power these people have in our society—the Silicon Valley press consists of people showing up at the product launches and clapping.”
That section of the film and the one about how the Las Vegas Review-Journal reporters had to do their own investigation simply to find out who had bought their paper, costing many of them their jobs in the process, are depressingly powerful and show that candidate and now President Trump is not acting in isolation in his attempt to blunt and even damage the media.
The film raises several issues—privacy versus the rights of the press in the era of the internet and social media; the rise of billionaires seeking to control the story in ways that are reminiscent of William Randolph Hearst’s worst traits—that would have still loomed large even if Hillary Clinton had won the electoral college in addition to her victory in the popular vote.
For Knappenberger, who says there is legitimate grounds for criticizing the press—though often because its members grow too cozy with celebrities, billionaires and politicians—making the movie was depressing, but he is feeling optimism in the post-election reaction. “People are remembering what the press is there for, and there’s a soul searching in the press so that now there’s a reawakening about being adversarial to power and there’s now really incredible journalism being done.”