‘Nobody Speak’ About False Equivalency

Netflix’s new documentary, Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press tells the story of the Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker lawsuit that led to an unprecedented ruling and Gawker’s shuttering. The second half tells the story of how Sheldon Adelson — a Nevada casino baron — secretly bought a majority stake in the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper. Ultimately the documentary tries to make the point that if billionaires can shut down or buy news media companies whenever they don’t like what they print, America’s democracy is in danger.

While I can’t disagree with their thesis, money has always been behind the major news media outlets. The first nationally influential newspapers were owned by robber barons who wanted to control reporting around their industries, and now the same thing is happening with the next generation of wealthy entrepreneurs. It’s not really as secret or surprising as Nobody Speaks makes it out to be. If you’ve seen or read Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, you know the argument that the media is controlled by the rich elite and corporate interests is an old one.

Above: Noam Chomsky’s documentary, Manufacturing Consent, 1992

Where Nobody Speaks really goes off the rails for me was the false equivalency between Gawker shamelessly publishing pornography of a B-level celebrity that led to it being shut down, and the film’s insinuation that this means Donald Trump will be able to shut down CNN or The New York Times because he doesn’t like what they report.

I’m no fan of Mr. Trump, and I agree that his combative attitude towards the media isn’t productive, but the precedent set by the Hogan/Gawker lawsuit is far from the same as Trump’s feud with the media today.

First, Gawker was not a reputable or highly successful bastion of journalism. They had been declining in popularity since 2011, and much of their content was hastily rewritten snippets from other sources who actually do their own reporting. Nick Denton, Gawker’s founder, has always been a cheap smut peddler, and it’s not like the quality of Gawker went up once they started making money like Buzzfeed’s has.

When one of Gawker’s editors got wind of a tape of Hulk Hogan having sex with a friends’ wife in a private bedroom, he jumped at the chance to splice out the juiciest 60 seconds and put it online. Why Gawker felt this tape was in the public’s (or anyone’s) interest to see is not well explained in the film.

Hogan is a second-tier celebrity at best, and the tape isn’t really news in itself. If Gawker wanted to report that Hogan might be sleeping with his best friend’s wife (as was the case), or that the 63 year-old former wrestler might be in some sort of love triangle (which might also be the case), or that in one of his sex tapes he voraciously uses the “n-word” (also true), that’s fine, and it might be news for some people. The line was crossed at publishing pornography that was not meant for distribution, and that was irresponsible and malicious on Gawker’s part.

I do agree with the film about the excessive size of the judgement against Gawker. Not only was the company asked to pay Hogan, Gawker’s owner (Denton) and the editor who published the tape were forced to make personal financial restitution to a total sum of $141 million. It ended up being enough to put Gawker into bankruptcy and I’m sure it will permanently affect the individuals’ personal finances for decades.

This was excessive, but I see it more as a judgement against websites that claim to be “journalism” when they’re really publishing unfounded rumors and stolen private material. Putting Gawker in the same category as The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal is an insult. They’re a world away from each other.

I also don’t doubt that part of the reason the judgement was so large was that Peter Thiel — Paypal’s founder and renowned venture capitalist — helped bankroll the lawsuit. Thiel had been outed by Gawker — another deep invasion of privacy that the film tries to spin as somehow for the public’s good — a few years before, and has since had a running feud with the site.

Thiel is an interesting and imperfect person: he’s extremely politically conservative, homosexual, smart, and possibly a sexist, but he is still a human being with the right to decide when he opens up about his sexuality and to whom. It’s understandable that he would be less than friendly towards Gawker.

If you have to be outraged at anything here, it’s the court system in Florida. Florida judges and juries have been known to make a few poor judgements (think George Zimmerman, forcing people to unlock their iPhones, and forbidding unmarried couples from cohabiting), but the damage to Hogan’s declining career by Gawker were probably pretty minimal. A few million dollars would have made sense; $141 million is an outsized penalty.

I was less familiar with the story in the second half of Nobody Speaks. Assuming the documentary’s telling is accurate, it’s too bad that Las Vegas Review-Journal reporters had to do their own investigation just to find out who bought their paper, but a billionaire buying a news outlet in semi-secrecy isn’t really that surprising.

As news consumers, we should be aware of who owns the news outlets we get our news from, and how much they control the stories reported in them. We should have more transparency when news companies change hands or are sued by celebrities, but despite the film’s warnings, I think that generally happens. The great thing about when news happens near a news room is that it’s surrounded by reporters — people whose job it is to find out what’s happening — so these things rarely stay in the dark for long.

Ultimately I was not convinced by Nobody Speaks, but I’d like to hear your take? What do you think about the lawsuit? Has there really been a meaningful turn against free journalism? Or has the tide long-since turned?

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