The 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival comes to a close June 18 with the New York premiere of Brian Knappenberger’s Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, a deeply troubling Netflix original that looks into the growing battle between billionaires and the fourth estate, between a person’s right to privacy and freedom of the press. Knappenberger begins by exploring the landmark Bollea v. Gawker case, in which Hulk Hogan, whose real name is Terry Gene Bollea, sued online media outlet Gawker for posting nine seconds of a tape depicting Bollea having sex with Heather Clem, the wife of his then-best friend, Todd Alan Clem, better known as radio personality Bubba the Love Sponge. The jury awarded Bollea $140 million, bankrupting Gawker, but Knappenberger reveals that the case was about a lot more than invasion of privacy — it was really about control of the media by the extremely wealthy. And Hogan/Bollea is not that wealthy. “Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because this case is so sleazy and rests on sex that it’s not important; this is one of the most important First Amendment cases in American history,” says Leslie Savan, who blogs on politics and the media for The Nation. “We’re talking about the very notion of truth,” she later adds. Knappenberger speaks extensively with Gawker cofounder Nick Denton, who defends what the company did as well as its overall journalistic ethics, covering stories that others wouldn’t; Knappenberger also meets with Gawker cofounder Elizabeth Spiers; former editor in chief A. J. Daulerio, who posted the Hogan story and sees himself as a patsy; former deputy editor James Wright; Hogan lawyers David Houston and Charles Harder; and former Gawker executive editor John Cook, who is boldly outspoken about Gawker’s purpose. “I wanted to write true things about bad people, and that’s what Gawker gave us all the freedom to do,” he says. First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams notes, “The reason to save Gawker was not because Gawker is worth saving. The reason to save it is that we don’t pick and choose what sort of publications are permissible, because once we do, it empowers the government to limit speech in a way that ought to be impermissible.” Among the other talking heads offering compelling insight are Politico media writer Peter Sterne, associate professor of journalism Jay Rosen, Buzzfeed business reporter Will Alden, NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, and former New York Times columnist David Carr. The story takes a strange turn when it is discovered that there were potential improprieties involving Judge Pamela Campbell and that the lawsuit is being funded by billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who was outed by Gawker in 2007 and is now exacting a dangerous kind of revenge.
Knappenberger then shifts to Las Vegas, where the well-respected Las Vegas Review-Journal is sold to a mystery buyer. A stalwart group of reporters, including Mike Hengel, Jennifer Robison, and John L. Smith, risk their careers in discovering that it’s right-wing casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who is unhappy about negative articles written about him. “Some stories are worth losing your job over,” Robison says. The lengths to which Thiel, who later spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention and served on Donald Trump’s transition team, and Adelson, a major player in the political arena, go in order to try to silence the press are absolutely terrifying. Knappenberger (The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists) concludes with a look at Trump himself, who regularly attacks the media, calling them liars that spread fake news, threatening violence against them, and promising that “we’re going to open up libel laws and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.” Although some of the narrative shifts are a bit clumsy and the film gets too high and mighty at the end, Knappenberger’s point is clear, that the media is under attack from a small group of thin-skinned billionaires who believe they are more powerful than the truth and have made the press their avowed enemy. Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press is screening June 18 at 7:00 at IFC Center and will be followed by a panel discussion with Knappenberger and Human Rights Watch communications director Emma Daly, moderated by Masha Gessen. The film will be available on Netflix beginning June 23.