It seems fitting that perhaps one of the most important First Amendment cases of our time revolves around the publication of a sex tape featuring renowned former WWF superstar Hulk Hogan sharing a bed with the wife of his best friend, Bubba the Love Sponge. That’s the kind of stuff of which good First Amendment cases are always made. In his enthralling new documentary Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, director Brian Knappenberger paints an unsettling picture of the changes taking place in our media landscape, the increased levels of distrust in journalists and scrutiny of the press and how the long arm of capitalism may inevitably step in to quash what it does not deem financially worthy.
As anyone with a passing interest in journalism and press rights knows by now, Gawker Media and its founder Nick Denton were sued (and subsequently bankrupted) by Terry Bollea (Hogan’s real name) and his legal team for publishing portions of the sex tape that had been making the rounds of the upper echelons of various tabloid publications for years. Though the case was initially rejected by a Florida federal court, the judge there ruling that blocking the publication of the video would constitute a First Amendment violation, Bollea found himself more successful in Florida state court in St. Petersburg, where the Hulk Hogan character is a local treasure and most people have never even heard of Gawker, let alone had much sympathy for its corrosive style and brash attitude about exposing the dirtiest details of people’s lives. The extent of the damages awarded to Bollea was particularly disturbing, $140 million in total, exceeding by several multiples the typical payout for even the most egregious wrongful-death suits. Despite its lurid nature, the case has raised important questions about privacy in an age of immediate public broadcast, about when private relations become public matters and, most importantly, about how far an independent publisher can go without the support of a millionaire behind the scenes.
The story behind the story here though is the funding of this litigious assault by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, a man who has had a personal score to settle with Gawker Media for years. Gawker published a piece discussing Thiel’s sexuality back when doing so in Silicon Valley was decidedly unfashionable, along with publishing several scathing reports about the financial state of his various companies. Though often harsh, Gawker dogged Thiel the way it dogged any Silicon Valley resident claiming to be forming some sort of Libertarian technology utopia. As Gawker itself puts it in a piece titled “This Is Why Billionaire Peter Thiel Wants to End Gawker,” it was “creating a counter-narrative to the mythos of the free-market, death-destroying, Randian Übermensch that Thiel and his friends were peddling.” While Thiel is fully within his legal rights to put his full financial support behind any lawsuit he pleases, it is an undeniably chilling reminder that the free press only works when the people in control of the money want it to work.
Knappenberger juxtaposes the story of this case and Gawker’s demise against that of the secret 2015 acquisition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by wealthy, uber-conservative casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, undertaken arguably to control the paper’s coverage of him and his various enterprises based there in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Review-Journal was largely considered a standard-bearer among Nevada’s news media, often publishing things Adelson and his family found unsavory about them and their business practices. Adelson had previously sued the paper’s star columnist, John L. Smith, for $15 million for libel over several relatively benign passages Smith had written about Adelson in a book about the history of Las Vegas and its historical figures and hotels in the development of the Vegas casino industry. Adelson even offered Smith a six figure sum large enough to cover the medical bills of his child fighting brain cancer at that time, as long as Smith acknowledged that he had intentionally defamed Sheldon Adelson with his publication. Smith refused, and Adelson ultimately relented and withdrew his suit.
The identity of the paper’s new owner was initially kept secret from its reporters, forcing them to turn their investigative skills inward to find out whose interests they were truly serving, and forcing the paper the break the details behind its own mysterious buyout. Once the Adelsons finally admitted that they were behind the purchase, existence in the newsroom grew grim. Smith was ordered to cease writing about Sheldon Adelson, his family or its businesses. Smith subsequently resigned. Following him was a large chunk of the newsroom, including all three journalists who had helped uncover the hidden identity of the paper’s new owners. The purchase demonstrably took between 20 and 100 people out of the newsroom who might have revealed something Sheldon Adelson didn’t want in the public eye.
Nobody Speak is a warning, a grab by the shoulders and a stern shake. We have entered one of the most intense periods of media distrust and scrutiny in recent memory. What becomes of reporting that uncovers the misdeeds and the abuses of power by the elite and wealthy when the powerful become powerful enough to bend the coverage of them and their world to their will? The state of strong adversarial journalism is a precarious one; it’s fragile and it can disappear before we know it.