By Barry Rubinow
We hear it loudly every day. The press is under attack! Our First Amendment rights are being systematically compromised by the current administration!!! “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press,” Brian Knappenberger’s fascinating feature documentary, delves deeply into this important issue. The film, currently streaming on Netflix, goes beyond the constant barrage of hysterical talking heads on cable news to expose characters and motivations both surprising and disturbing.
The biggest section of “Nobody Speak”, and its most compelling, is the Hulk Hogan versus Gawker.com legal case that has grabbed headlines the last few years. Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, had been secretly videotaped having consensual sex with a friends’ wife and the website Gawker.com had posted portions of the tape.
Hogan/Bollea was suing Gawker for $100 million in damages. As sensational as this case was — involving sex, a fading wrestling superstar, and someone named Bubba the Love Sponge who liked to tape his wife having sex with other men — the real threat to free speech and a free press was much more sinister than the issue of whether the sex tape of a celebrity constitutes news.
When Hogan/Bollea won a $140 million dollar verdict, basically bankrupting Gawker and its founder Nick Denton, the news came out that Hogan’s case was being financed by tech venture capitalist and billionaire Peter Thiel. Thiel is one of the most mysterious, enigmatic characters in Silicon Valley and Washington, DC, where he is an adviser to the president. Thiel had an ax to grind with Gawker, and used the Hogan case to bring down the company that had outed him as a homosexual years earlier. The fact that a wealthy individual could enter a case he is not involved in, and influence the outcome for his own personal reasons, is what gave Brian Knappenberger pause, and a reason to dive into the making of this film.
The next case is one that seems completely unrelated, the recent purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper. Everyone working at the paper was told that the buyer was a mysterious corporation, but investigative journalists do not accept information that easily. They used their skills to dig and found out that the real buyer was billionaire Las Vegas businessman and Trump supporter Sheldon Adelson. Many of the longtime journalists working at the paper were fired and Adelson had a new vehicle to spread the word about his personal view of what was happening in Vegas and beyond.
The case that freedom of the press is being attacked is undeniable, but it is not the biggest threat. In fact, it could be argued that freedom of speech has never been more healthy and robust than at the present time. Anyone with an Internet connection can speak to the world in numerous ways, from Facebook to YouTube to Twitter to blogs, using text, audio, video, photography, a virtually limitless way to communicate. This was inconceivable not too many years ago. The rise in ratings for cable news and subscriptions for the big newspapers could also help make this case for a thriving First Amendment. There is a much more malevolent threat posed in this film, and that is the threat to what is truth itself; what is real and what is fake.
Knappenberger puts it this way: Billionaires like Peter Thiel, Sheldon Adelson and Donald Trump are saying, ‘We are more powerful than the truth, we are able to overcome the truth. We are able to silence voices that disagree with us and determine what the actual story is by sheer force of money.’ More than Trump’s misogyny, arrogance and pathological narcissism, it is this constant playing with the truth that is the most disturbing and dangerous. It makes you feel like you’re in that room at the carnival funhouse where the floor keeps going down and then back up. It’s unsettling to the point of nausea. It’s impossible to feel any stability. There are plenty of reasons to feel unstable in today’s world, among them North Korea, Vladimir Putin, Syria, and so on. It’s critically important to hold on to the truth, the whole truth, so that we know how to view our leaders and the world.
Rubinow is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and editor who worked as Senior VP, Creative for The Documentary Channel