Film Review: ‘Nobody Speak: Trial of the Free Press’

One of the hallmarks of America’s democracy is freedom of speech and press, prescribed by the First Amendment of our constitution. But recently, the media has encountered fierce resistance and caused observers and citizens alike to question what’s going on in our country.

Shouting “fake news” may seem like a punch line or perhaps something to quickly end an argument, but the impact of those two words highlights a bigger issue, one that highlights the public’s unawareness about what’s happening to a basic constitutional right and the role of the media in our society. A good look at this is with the new Netflix documentary “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” which largely centers around former wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media.

Directed by Brian Knappenberger (The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists), this 1 hour 35 minute film provides a glimpse at how a celebrity won a $140 million judgement against a media company. Normally that might not beg a second look, but in Hogan’s case, he had received clandestine support from billionaire venture capitalist and PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel which resulted in Gawker being forced to sell itself in order to cover its debt.

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The film provides a good background to a story you’d might normally see among tabloids where a celebrity sues the publication over false rumors. In this case, it’s about Hogan’s sex tape which Gawker published. While that case in of itself may not be worth sitting around and watching for more than an hour, the tale gets more complicated when there’s rumors of not only additional footage of the former wrestler making homophobic and racist remarks, but also the introduction of Thiel’s involvement.

The billionaire’s involvement may seem strange at first, but then you realize his agenda was one of a vendetta, brought forth by an article written nearly a decade ago that revealed that he’s gay (Thiel publicly admitted it in 2016).

“Nobody Speaks” looks to cast a spotlight on a trend of billionaires and influential individuals buying media properties and havingsway over coverage. To illustrate this, Knappenberger shares the dangers of Thiel’s involvement along with the example of business magnate Sheldon Adelson buying the Las Vegas Review-Journal. There have been other cases of wealthy people buying up media properties such as Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos’s purchase of the Washington Post and the Sulzberger family’s ownership of the New York Times, and Kanppenberger looks to paint a picture that this could have an impact on news coverage, damaging the concept of a free press.

The danger of not having a free press is quite evident today, and one just has to look at a recent tweet from Donald Trump featuring an animated GIF that seems to provoke an attack on CNN, one of the many media adversaries the president has accused of being “fake news”.

While you might not agree with everything that Gawker published during its existence (I certainly don’t), the message in “Nobody Speak” is relevant to everybody who believes the media serves a legitimate purpose, regardless of what our leaders consider to be “fake news”. Could Knappenberger have chosen a different story to illustrate his point? Probably. It doesn’t seem that having someone back Hogan’s case was wrong in any sense and could disclosing Thiel’s involvement have changed the verdict? Maybe not. But we should take things with a grain of salt as we’re presented them and look at all the facts before passing judgement on things presented by any one outlet, individual, or government.

After watching this film, it seems to leave you walking away rooting for Gawker and media, but it probably could have added some additional balance. What that would look like is unknown to me, to be honest. Gawker’s involvement in this film certainly made it a more entertaining film worth watching, especially in light of current events.

Regardless of whether you’re pro-fake news or pro-journalist, “Nobody Speak” is a interesting look at the changing media landscape and is something you should watch. What I took away from this is that amid all the craziness going around, the free press must endure, one without fear of undue influence from billionaire owners and that can really speak truth to power. While the media remains under assault on various fronts, “Nobody Speak” shows that there are still those fighting the good fight and remain dedicated to the charge of informing the public.

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