Sex tapes, press freedom and our possible slide toward authoritarian rule in ‘Nobody Speak’

 

Hulk Hogan and Gawker. Probably not two names that rush to mind when you think about the health of America’s democracy. But, as Brian Knappenberger’s “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” shows us, the collision of the two sensational brands could serve as a crucial point in terms of a free press.

The documentary uses the case of Hogan suing Gawker and publisher Nick Denton and former editor A.J. Daulerio over the release of a sex tape as a jumping-off point for a case study of the threat faced by a free press.

As with many conversations today, “Nobody Speak” starts with footage of Donald Trump, as the then-candidate threatens to “open up those libel laws on the press” during a campaign speech. But we’ll get back to him.

Just because many see Hogan and Gawker as sleazy, as First Amendment rights lawyer Floyd Abrams states early in the film, doesn’t mean the case isn’t hugely important. The question isn’t whether Gawker is worth saving; it’s simply a protection of First Amendment rights.

Interviews with Denton and Daulerio, as well as with several journalists and lawyers both inside and outside the case, set up the backstory on entertainer Hogan and his suit against Gawker. The film follows the blow-by-blow of what turned out to be a pretty clear-cut case in the eyes of the judge and jury. Motivations are examined, and both sides’ cases are presented, but before the story gets bogged down in the minutiae, the movie gets around to its main interest: the man who was funding Hogan.

Silicon Valley investor and entrepreneur Peter Thiel admitted to backing Hogan in his case against Gawker in hopes of financially destroying the company and Denton, which he effectively did. Was Thiel motivated by Gawker’s story years earlier outing him as homosexual? Was he being vindictive for Gawker taking aim at the Teflon kings of Silicon Valley? Was Thiel simply striking the first blow in a concerted effort to undermine independent journalism, something the presidential candidate he supported (Trump) has made part of his modus operandi? Likely all of the above, according to the film.

The movie reveals Thiel to be both personally vindictive and a serious threat to a free press. The ugly precedent established, the film then turns on its heel and addresses another case of a billionaire causing problems for the press. While a common observer may have ambivalent feelings about Hogan v. Gawker, anyone who cares about a free press would certainly feel sympathetic to the plight of the hard-working journalists at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. They were left in the dark when their paper was sold, so they got to work doing what they do best: reporting. They discovered that Republican political kingmaker and Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson was behind the move.

With the integrity of their paper in question and their ability to perform their jobs constrained, a mass exodus occurred at the Review-Journal, in another striking example of what happens when the rich and powerful decide to limit the ability of the press to do its job.

The film moves into its third and final stage with a quick and disturbing rundown of some of Trump’s many attacks on the media, and a film that at times feels disjointed starts to congeal around the ugly truth. In the paraphrased words of Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University: Billionaires are proclaiming they are not vulnerable to the truth but more powerful than it.

“It’s possible we are sliding toward authoritarian rule,” Rosen says.  

Amid the litany of Trump’s outlandish attacks on the media, which terrify anew even though many are only weeks old, a chorus of voices emerges backed by a triumphant score. David Folkenflik of NPR declares the present as a “moment of real definition for the press,” and Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post warns that if we lose a free press, “We’ve lost what America is and what it stands for.”

It is heartening to see shots of American citizens speaking truth to power at town hall meetings, joining in the role the press has always had, a role that has always been protected under law. But as the Gawker case proves, the powerful can often quash anyone with less power or money. So, it is important that the citizenry and the press not lower their voices in the face of a threat from their own leaders, but, rather embolden themselves to push even harder to shine the light on truth and justice.

“Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” screens at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday at Alamo South Lamar and 7 p.m. Friday at Alamo Ritz.

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