September 29, 2023

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Geek Review: Nobody Speak: Trials Of The Free Press

A Netflix documentary looking into attacks on the free press from the rich and powerful.

“Fake news” is a cry tossed around by all manner of people, often in the form of politicians from either of the two big American parties that don’t like something some journalist just published.

The new documentary Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, available on Netflix, presents the potential danger of these actions.

Documentarian Brian Knappenberger works off the thesis that a free press is vital to a strong democracy, particularly as it is the only profession specifically protected by the Bill of Rights, and that the press is currently under attack by secretive, wealthy, powerful people.  Now, obviously, President Trump would be someone that who would seem to leap right to the forefront of this sort of behavior, and while Trump is cited in his own words multiple times, he’s not the main focus of the film.

No, instead, Knappenberger spends the first half of his documentary covering Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit on the currently-bankrupt newsblog Gawker.  There are a few shots of Trump and others in the early going, but the film starts off as a rather straightforward (and seemingly trivial) account of how Hogan sued Gawker for publishing a sex tape of Hogan and another man’s wife.  It is only gradually that the “real” force behind Hogan’s lawsuit comes out, though there are a few hints here and there about how Hogan couldn’t have afforded much of what he was doing during the suit and how Hogan’s attorney’s dropping a key charge actually made Gawker itself more vulnerable, making the whole action look like a personal vendetta against the blog as opposed to simply wanting to get over some pain-and-suffering type of situation the onetime wrestling superstar may have felt.

As it turns out, and as anyone who more or less followed the case knows, that was correct.  A billionaire named Peter Thiel with a personal grudge against Gawker was financing the lawsuit, seeking nothing less than to end Gawker.

Now, to be fair, Gawker is generally shown as being, shall we say, less than a staid or traditional form of journalism, but that in and of itself is the point of many of the documentary’s talking heads:  you don’t get to pick and choose who the First Amendment applies to.  The real danger, according to the film, is not that some somewhat sleazy online publication went under.  It is that with a precedent set by Thiel that individuals who may not be held accountable to the public by anyone but the press can engage in the sorts of actions that only those with sufficient wealth or power can accomplish to undermine what the film describes as a necessary thing for a democracy:  a rebellious, independent free press that has the ability to report on what it deems important information the public needs to know.

Which leads to this question:  how important was Hulk Hogan’s sex tape?  I ask because the first half of the film is basically that, whereas the other big examples of billionaires trying to undermine the press, is squeezed into the second half, and that’s only after Knappenberger has covered Thiel and his involvement in the Gawker lawsuit rather heavily.

Given the film ends by showing Trump’s own attacks on the press, this is the sort of movie that many might dismiss outright, and that many others might be inclined to agree with if they can get through all the Hulk Hogan material.  The media has its own problems with trust, but maybe that’s the point.  Maybe there are too many people putting their trust in institutions that discourage answering the sorts of questions a free and vigorous press would be inclined to ask.

That might be scarier than anything a billionaire can do.

Eight and a half out of ten fired reporters.