In the months since filmmaker Brian Knappenberger wrapped his documentary, “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press,” a goon of a Montana millionaire tackled and assaulted a reporter for having the effrontery to ask him a question he didn’t like.
A West Virginia reporter was arrested for trying to question Donald Trump’s Health and Human Services director at a public event.
Both, to the universal derision and smirks of right wing talk show hosts, politicians and their thoughtless fans.
The Netflix documentary records the Gawker Media trial, a joke of a court case financed by an authoritarian, malevolent Pay Pal billionaire with a grudge, and the secret purchase of a critical newspaper by a Vegas gambling mogul and GOP bankroller determined to silence his critics. It’s damning enough without adding on each latest right wing outrage against America’s watchdogs — the free and supposedly independent press.
But America is operating under new rules. The message, one participant in Knappenberg’s film suggests, is that a fact-averse class of oligarchs has decided “We are more powerful than the truth,” and the rabid lemmings who believe them. The oligarchs fear facts will upset the worldview they’ve been pushing, and their fans in the right wing media and those who only get their “news” that way buy into that fear.
Gawker Media was a rude and seemingly ruthless gossip, snark and ridicule website group that mostly aggregated other reporters’ work, and did just enough reporting of their own to enrage silicon valley folks and others as the company earned a fortune “exposing hypocrites.” The late media critic David Carr of the New York Times described them as “the mean girls” of modern journalism.
British journalist Nick Denton and his minions gained their fame, and got into trouble, for pursuing vendettas.
You could see it all over their various platforms — Gawker, Jezebel, Valley Wag and Deadspin, among others. They hounded crackhead Toronto mayor Rob Ford, offering to pay for video of him breaking the law, sucking on a pipe. To this day, they never loose an opportunity to mock Gwyneth Paltrow, and various sites in the group developed odd fixations for low-level ESPN employees or former Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler’s wife. Their Internet artillery often seemed — and seems — aimed at not just the powerful, but gnats.
When they got their hands on video of Hulk Hogan having sex with bottom-feeding Tampa radio broadcaster Bubba the Love Sponge’s wife — with Bubba apparently taping it and getting his jollies — they posted it.
And threats from Hogan’s lawyer couldn’t make them take it down. When a Federal court tossed out Hogan’s laughable lawsuit — the wrestler Hogan, aka Terry Bollea, has bragged about his sexual prowess and adventurism in the media, and the right-wing-friendly TMZ website had first reported on the sex tapes — they moved it to state court, where an agenda-pushing judge got the kangaroos hopping mad enough to ensure Gawker’s ultimate destruction.
Knappenberger’s film uses media critics (David Folkenflik of NPR among them), academics and fellow journalists, as well as some of the principals, to paint a portrait of the shifting and shifty nature of that trial. There was accidental blowback — Hogan’s real fear was of tape of him exchanging racist and homophobic slurs with his dirtbag buddy Bubba would get out. That got him fired from World Wrestling Entertainment. The judge prejudiced the jury in rather naked fashion. And Gawker screwed up, its editors coming off as smug, amoral punks, something the film soft-peddles.
But odd twists in the case made one and all wonder just what Hogan REALLY wanted, and who was paying the bills and calling the shots on his suit, which dropped one accusation in its pursuit of a $100 million judgment solely to ensure that Denton, A.J. Daulerio (the editor/reporter who posed the video) and Gawker were not covered by insurance in that judgment. They’d be bankrupted by it.
Enter the Silicon Valley billionaire and political pal of Donald Trump, Peter Thiel, the puppetmaster who paid the bills, pulled the strings and got his revenge. Thiel’s extreme politics — he’d make Ayn Rand blush — and deep-seeded grudge are discussed and exposed, as is his connection to the whole Trumpian anti-press zeitgeist.
Anybody who follows the media has formed an opinion of Denton (the bearded bloke pictured above), and it’s not generally a nice one. Petty, vindictive, something of a hypocrite himself when it came to his own company and employees, the nicest one could say of him was you wouldn’t want to cross him. The film scrubs his image in the effort to make this Brit a crusader for American journalism.
But Knappenberger, of “We are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists” and “Truth and Power,” sensed that wasn’t going to fly. So he adds on a much more cut-and-dried David assaulted by a rich Goliath case to the film’s final third. The sudden 2015 sale of the only newspaper of note in the gambling and arch-conservative political mecca Nevada was secretive, and quite disturbing to the staff of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
And being reporters who have covered the seedy world of Vegas deal brokering and backroom political payoffs, they found out who was actually their new owner. Sheldon Adelson, an aged, uber-rich casino mogul and big-time moneybags for GOP causes, now owned the newspaper that published a columnist, John L. Smith, Adelson had sued for a book that offhandedly mentioned Adelson as one of the “sharks” who now run Vegas.
You can guess the rest.
“Nobody Speak” is a little unbalanced, and top-heavy, thanks to the overwhelming focus on the more murky Gawker trial.
And its overall thesis of power-punishing-the-press, gets lost in a lot of other ideas. One of which posited by Leslie Savan of The Nation magazine, who argues that Hogan and Trump and their ilk are muddying the difference between truth — with real people like Terry Bollea and Donald Trump who can be held accountable for their lies — and “characters” they’re playing, whose “puffery” gives them a legal defense for being unaccountable.
It’s a lot to take in, and all of it distressing and depressing. Unless, of course, you aren’t fact-averse, and take no umbrage at being lied to — repeatedly — by people who think themselves above the law, beyond any nation’s reach, “traitors” only if you get mad enough to do something about them.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with profanity, sexual subject matter
Cast: Nick Denton, Hulk Hogan, Peter Thiel, Donald Trump, Elizabeth Spiers, John L. Smith, David Folkenflik
Credits:Written and directed by Brian Kndappenberger. A Netflix/First Look release.