In August 2016, the New York City-based website Gawker, which focused on celebrity gossip, announced that it would be shutting down. This was the result of the lawsuit that the wrestler Hulk Hogan (real name Terry Bollea) had filed against the company for publishing a sex tape in 2012 that Bollea claimed violated his privacy and damaged his reputation.
Bollea won the $140 million lawsuit, bankrupting Gawker. The case assumed interest because Bollea’s legal team was bankrolled by Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley czar who had been outed as gay by Gawker in 2007. Among media circles, there was near-unanimous outrage at the ability of deep pockets to muzzle inconvenient media voices.
The new Netflix documentary Nobody Speak adopts this line too. Its director Brian Knappenberger painstakingly dissects the Florida trial that led to Bollea’s victory against Gawker, but it reserves face-to-face interviews with the dramatis personae of only the losing side.
Both Nick Denton, the editor-in-chief of Gawker, and AJ Daulerio, who published the Bollea story, are given space to offer their arguments, a ringing endorsement of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. Less charitably, the documentary casts aspersions on the judge who presided over the case.
In the second half, the documentary moves to broader territory, tackling the Thiel question. It shifts focus to billionaire Sheldon Adeslon’s 2016 buyout of the Las Vegas Review-Journal at about the same time that his attempts to swing a lawsuit in his favour petered out. The paper’s journalists, who are interviewed by Knappenberger, worry that the casino magnate would use this purchase to curry opinion in his favour.
And as with most things in 2017, Donald Trump is not far from the scene. The documentary speaks of the President’s disdain for conventional media, focusing on his rallies during the Presidential race when he openly criticised such icons of American news gathering as New York Times and CNN as “fake news”.
For all its earnestness, Nobody Speak fuses entirely disparate issues to present an image of a sinister challenge mounted on the American media. For starters, its championing of Gawker – at one point in the documentary, constitutional lawyer Floyd Abrams says, “We don’t pick and choose what sort of publications are permissible because once we do, it allows the government to limit speech” – strikes as disingenuous.
The issue, which the documentary entirely omits to mention, is of public purpose. If a journalism trial reaches the courts, it is for the courts to decide if public good is served with the story under inspection. If Bollea’s sex life served a public role, the judiciary would have thrown his case out. Who finances the trial is of little relevance. Even if Thiel was being vindictive for Gawker outing him, and he chose to support Bollea financially for that reason, that does not matter ultimately.
Neither Thiel’s outing nor Bollea’s sex tape served any public cause and were bald intrusions into individual privacy. The media’s outrage at Gawker losing the trial is especially tone-deaf because the same setup has been vociferous about protecting individual privacy against government surveillance and military espionage.
On the other hand, the prospect of billionaires buying out media houses is indeed a matter worth investigating, but this too is a more complex issue than Nobody Speak allows. From Rupert Murdoch to Jeff Bezos, powerful corporate groups have owned and continue to own media interests. What we are then getting at is the larger issue of media ownership and ways to finance a media ecosystem that is not beholden to corporate interests.
Finally, the documentary’s dovetailing into Trump and “fake news” does not entirely wash. It is no secret that bicoastal media groups failed to estimate Trump’s popularity with Middle America due to a crowding out of voices from that region. And while fake news is a real problem in the age of social media, mainstream media is also guilty of blind spots and ideological tunnel vision.
Nobody Speak raises some valid questions but tries to be too many things at once. Most significantly, its attempt to provide a serious critique of the media ecosystem fails when it lionises a desperately clickbaity website as a champion of journalistic virtue.