Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press written and directed by Brian Knappenberger examines critical issues related to First Amendment privileges in this dangerous time when information and facts are likened to inaccurate weather reports in a climate of political post realism. The documentary concerns the litigation of Terry Gene Bollea (Hulk Hogan) v. Gawker Media, the publisher responsible for Gawker.com. In concert with the problems of money influencing a free press in the legal wrangling between Bollea and Gawker, the filmmaker examines the mysterious circumstances surrounding the purchase of The Las Vegas Review-Journal and the consequences for reporters as they attempt to do investigative journalism without bias.
Against the backdrop of both of these situations, Knappenberger raises many important questions. The central ones are these: 1)to what extent should the weapons of political influence, money and personal animus be allowed to de-legitimize and dilute press freedoms? Should facts and information that expose corruption or portray individuals in an unfavorable though truthful light be published in the service of the public interest, or should they be suppressed to protect individual privacy concerns?
In this documentary the filmmaker clearly emphasizes the high stakes in Bollea v. Gawker. The defendants cannot pay the monetary award being sought by Hogan (over $100 million), for publishing an infamous sex tape of Hogan and his friend’s wife. The defendants lose in a jury trial when Hogan’s high priced lawyer David Houston manages to finally come up with a winnable argument after first trying and failing in Federal court with a completely different approach. The defendants lose to the big money provided by a hidden puppet master that keeps the case rolling and the court fees piling up. Freedom of the press is violated and stifled by big money.
Knappenberger interviews defendant Nick Denton, British blogger and journalist who was the founder and owner of the blog collective Gawker Media, and the managing editor of the New York-based Gawker.com, which was shut down in late 2016, bankrupted by the lawsuit. Univision Communications bought Gawker Media for a reported $135 million, and to some extent Denton was able to walk away solvent with his head held high in the cause of justice, though the case was lost. The same didn’t abide for A.J. Daulerio.
In the filmmaker’s interviews with Daulerio, Gawker’s editor-in-chief who published a small portion of the infamous sex tape, Daulerio is clearly shaken by what has happened. Some articles indicate that he felt Denton abandoned him. After the final judgment in Hogan’s favor after a jury trial that went badly for Denton and Daulerio, Daulerio’s assets were frozen and he was unable to gain access to moneys in his accounts.
In addition to interviews and commentary by those connected with the litigation, the filmmaker uses archival material and video footage from news sites. He examines Gawker’s mission and function in the wide network of news organizations. And he digs behind the story of the litigation and jury trial to expose the individual who brought Gawker down with his own money and power base because of a vendetta he had against Gawker.com for outing that he was gay. The Hogan case was bankrolled by Trump loyalist and silicon valley billionaire Peter Thiel who called his financial support of Bollea’s case “one of my greater philanthropic things that I’ve done.”
Knappenberger identifies that Gawker was a tabloid which presented news of celebrity misdeeds, drug use, sexcapades, outings and untoward behavior. Everyone understood that this was material that mainstream media eschewed until the information was out and about and could no longer be ignored. As an example Gawker covered the Bill Cosby revelations and Tom Cruise’s Scientology shaming and even Hillary Clinton’s emails. Indeed, everyone was fair game, and it appeared that no one was sacrosanct if the material was salacious, fascinating enough and verifiable. Though it was arguable as to how newsworthy the information was, nevertheless, it was protected under the First Amendment privilege of free speech.
Enter the scandalous Hulk Hogan sex tape of Heather Clem and Hogan, recorded for private use by Hogan’s friend, Bubba the Love Sponge Clem, a Tampa radio Shock Jock who didn’t inform Hogan he was being videoed. The tape was leaked to Gawker.com and Denton and Daulerio decided to post a two-minute section from the 30-minute video which included 10 seconds of sexually explicit material. Hogan explained the incident at length on the Howard Stern Show: he was given Bubba Clem’s blessing and encouragement because Hogan was extremely depressed at the time.
How does someone like Hulk Hogan who intentionally pumps up his sexuality on Howard Stern’s and Bubba’s shows with claims to having a ten-inch penis cry foul when this image/character is touted and even promoted by Gawker.com? Hogan’s lawyer with Thiel’s money (purportedly $10 million), finally found an argument that would sail with a sympathetic judge and a jury, who were amenable and felt sorry for Terry Bollea. For trial and litigation purposes, Hogan became two people: he was Terry Bollea in his private life and the character Hulk Hogan in public. Terry Bollea was permitted to litigate for millions in damages on the basis of “invasion of privacy, infringement of personality rights and intentional infliction of emotional stress.”
It was Terry Bollea who Houston put on the stand (though he strangely looked like Hulk Hogan), to argue that he was very hurt at the ill treatment he received, in private was very different from the uber masculine character of Hulk Hogan, and did not have a “ten-inch penis.” He was not the public figure in the sex tape but a private citizen whose privacy was trampled when Gawker published the tape online.
The media site’s attorneys claimed that the sex tape was protected by the First Amendment because the wrestler was a public figure who had spoken and written about his sex life publicly. For its part Gawker lawyers argued it would not agree with the court order requiring the removal of the post and article because it deemed the order “risible and contemptuous of centuries of First Amendment jurisprudence.” The argument lost in the jury trial. Though there was an appeal and Gawker lawyers attempted to get the Florida State judge to dismiss the case with two motions, the judge refused. Peter Thiel’s “philanthropic” urges had won the day; Gawker.com was history.
In the last half of the film Knappenberger underscores another situation where objective, fact-based, truth-based reporting is overwhelmed by power and money. The Las Vegas Review-Journal facing hard economic times in the era of Social Media and reduced readership is bought. Reporters do not know who the owner is until a journalist investigating the gaming industry is removed from the story. Journalists who up to this point in time were unbiased investigators, learned that the new ownership wanted them to do their jobs and “lay low.” In the filmmaker’s interviews of the reporters, it is clear that the part of the job they believe they are hired to do is investigate issues which should be exposed to keep the public informed to make better political choices. By the conclusion of the segment, the reporters are determined to continue or they will leave and try to work elsewhere.
Knappenberger’s documentary is chilling for its currency. He clearly sounds the alarm that the press and reporters cannot be free if big money is an ever-present threat to bankrupt them with litigation fees. Such an undermining of the First Amendment is not in the interest of the public but to satisfy personal or political agendas of a questionable nature.
The documentarian adds the coda of the election aftermath and the current administration’s demeaning cries of “fake media” whenever the heat of truth is turned up. Though Knappenberger’s film deals with news sites that used verifiable information, it ends with the sinister conclusion that there are sites that raise doubt with no verifiable sources or facts. These cannot be fact-checked, nevertheless they are lauded to be credible by those in power because such sites are politically favorable and the “fake news” sites are not.
The film is disturbing especially in its reminder of how the president has achieved some measure of political support by labeling excoriating stores of him as “fake.” Clearly, a free press, facts, information are vital to a functioning democracy. The film’s themes underscore this truth and remind us that we must be ever vigilant to search out as many news sources as possible on a particular story, sources from different perspectives. It is a dangerous time when we are driven to do our own form of research and thoughtful processing to test the validity of what is printed, what is online, what is videotaped, what is streaming.
This takes time and a large swath of the population does not have the time to devote to such examinations. But the filmmaker reveals that citizens should make the time and hold the press and media to account because they should manifest the principles of our nation. Without their pulsating truth, our democracy’s light darkens.