Make Journalism Great Again: Netflix Documentary ‘Nobody Speak’ Sends a Cry for Free Speech
Briefly before Donald Trump became President of the United States, Terry Bollea (better known as the wresting superstar Hulk Hogan) and Gawker Media finalized their lengthy court battle over the wrestler-turned-television-personality’s sex tape. In March 2016, the jury found Gawker Media liable and awarded Bollea $115 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages.
The tone is set very early in ‘Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press’, the new Netflix Original documentary which chronicles the Hogan/Gawker battle. The film opens with former Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio showing the camera the hold on his personal bank account for $230 million. Director Brian Knappenberger is quick off the bat to make a statement about how many effects the case’s decision truely had on the media landscape and juxtapose the shady practices of America’s billionaires with the relentless efforts of the media.
The first half of the film focuses on the Bollea v. Gawker lawsuit. Gawker was founded as an outlet for the kind of gossip reporters came across but could not publish in mainstream meadia, and had continuously pushed the boundaries of journalism. The case initially started when Gawker posted a two-minute excerpt of a 30 minute sex tape of Hogan having sex with the wife of one of his friends on their website, which was sent to Gawker from an anonymous source. Hogan brought suit against Gawker claiming invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, publication of private matter, and violation of the right to publicity.
This suit was originally filed in the Middle District of Florida, where the federal judge denied Hogan’s motion for a preliminary injunction, finding that Gawker’s posting was protected under the First Amendment. Hogan then dismissed the case in federal court and brought a claim in Florida state court. Hogan again filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, which was granted by the state court judge. Meanwhile, Gawker removed the video but left up the commentary and posted a link to another website where the video could be seen.
The documentary comes at a very tense time for American politics. Since the election of President Trump, his administration and himself have waged a war on the “crooked” media and “fake news.” Trump on many occasions has spoken out against the press, even saying journalists are “the enemy of the people.” His press secretary Sean Spicer has barred reporters from The New York Times, BBC, BuzzFeed News, CNN, Politico, The Los Angeles Times and The Huffington Post from his daily White House press briefing.
There are many similarities drawn between Hulk Hogan and Trump throughout the film that help switch the focus at multiple points from the court case to the overall message. The biggest of these comparisons is the idea of character “puffery,” where these men have created larger than life public personalities. Gawker’s lawyers argued that Hogan/Bollea was a public figure who’d publicly bragged about the release of the sex tape and his 10-inch penis. Boella countered that with the argument that when he made those statements he was in the Hogan “character” and that Terry Boella was personally hurt by the realease of the tape and the invasion of his privacy.
While the film is very blatant in where its creators stand on the issue, they do question Gawkers motives and the idea of what is deemed newsworthy. Knappenberger does a good job on focusing on facts and credible sources -very in line with journalism ethics, by interviewing NPR’s David Folkenflik, The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan and many others. These candid interviews, along with footage of Hogan at the trial, paint a clear picture of how a legal battle over a sex tape morphed into an incredibly important case of a major public figure telling the news what can and can not be reported about him.
No matter your opinion on Denton, Gawker, or anyone else interviewed, it becomes clear in the second half of the film that this court case is much larger than Gawker and its editors and reporters trying to save themselves from bankruptcy and bad publicity. This is about the current threats the free press faces from people with an agenda or money that seek to silence them, and how far they will go to do so.
We start to see this bigger picture as Peter Thiel emerges as a major player; he donated $10 million to fund Hogan’s case against Gawker, intent on bringing down the website that outed him ten years ago, in 2007. Knappenberger also diverges into the sub-story on the Las Vegas Review-Journal, who’s reporters ousted the story that their own publication had been purchased by the billionaire Sheldon Adelson through shady back channels.
Adelson began as a power player in Las Vegas and as he ammased his wealth, eventually became an influential behind the scenes voice within the GOP. A joke was made about who would “kiss the ring” enough to earn Adelson’s favor and support (one of these people being President Trump). Adelson’s buyout was viewed as an attack on the paper by employees of the Review-Journal, moprhing what an an unbiased publication into a PR machine for Adelson. One journalist recalls to cameras that Adelson offered him $100,000 for his daughter’s chemotherapy if he recanted an article that was critical of Adelson’s corrupt practices.
What is not considered in the documentary is that the press has flourished with Trump in the political spotlight, giving papers like The New York Times record digital subscriptions (even after Trump tweeted about the paper “failing”). But how long this will last is unknown.
The film screams its cautionary tale, almost to the point of being belabored, but still manages to create an eerily acurate case for the endangerment of the free press. Trump, who is both powerful and wealthy like the other “villains” of this film, and his administration touting “alternative facts” and bashing any media organisation who speak badly about him, raises the question of what could come in the wake of this trial.
Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press is on Netflix now. You can watch the trailer here:
Hannah Brockway, Go Think Inititative Journalism Intern