In America, the cutting-edge meaning of the First Amendment — that it’s about protecting the speech you don’t like — often gets tested by the outer limits of sleaze. Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler, became a First Amendment poster boy because the magazine he was selling was so offensively shabby and low-minded. (That’s what made it a more defining stress test for free-speech rights than, say, Playboy.) In our era, the rough equivalent of Jerry Falwell’s 1984 defamation suit against Hustler, which ultimately went to the Supreme Court (Falwell lost, 8-0), may be Hulk Hogan’s invasion-of-privacy suit against Gawker. It was about a celebrity sex tape, and things don’t get much sleazier than that. But the stark difference in outcome, as captured by Brian Knappenberger’s riveting and resonant documentary “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press,” illustrates how our priorities as a culture are shifting, and not for the better.
“Nobody Speak” isn’t just about the Gawker case. It casts a wider net, interweaving several key tales of how the forces of our time — namely, private money and President Trump — are now trying to squash the essential power of the press. What the film offers is evidence of a pattern, the shadows of a disturbing trend that add up to a warning: If we, as a society, don’t push back against the chipping away of the freedom of information, it’s only going to get worse, until it eats us alive.
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The decimation of Gawker is Exhibit A, and Knappenberger is eager to fasten onto the larger implications of the case. “Nobody Speak” is 95 minutes long, and its entire first hour hour is devoted to chronicling, in dramatic detail, the 2016 trial that pitted Hogan, the former WWF superstar (who, by that point, was well past his prime as a wrestler), against Gawker, the news-and-gossip website that specialized in serving up the kind of inside information — often petty, but not always — about the egotistic foibles of showbiz, politics, and media that respectable journalism prided itself on leaving out.
Gawker, of course, was as famous for its tone as its content; it specialized in a brand of high-handed blood-sport flippancy that seemed to fuse the spirits of Hedda Hopper, Oscar Wilde, Spy magazine, and a particularly vengeful hanging judge. (Gawker didn’t just kick you when you were down; it kicked you with a lip-licking grin.) As the movie reveals, Nick Denton, the British founder and editor of Gawker, created a kind of attack-dog karma that came back to haunt him.
Yet what got the site in legal trouble was simply the fact that it posted excerpts from the Hulk Hogan sex tape: the murky home video that depicted Hogan (née Terry Bollea) having sex with Heather Clem, the wife of his best friend, a radio host known as Bubba the Love Sponge. Hogan’s attorney filed a federal injunction against Gawker to get the tape taken down, and when Gawker refused to comply, they became the bull’s-eye of a lawsuit.
The suit seemed to be based on the sheer embarrassment the situation caused Hogan, but the trial, as it plays out in “Nobody Speak,” is a carnival of contradiction. It was held in Hogan’s backyard of St. Petersburg, Florida, setting up Denton and his team as snooty decadent New Yorkers tossing spitballs at the heartland. (The judge, Pamela A.M. Campbell, opened the trial with a blanket condemnation of the elitist media.) And Hogan’s arguments appeared to be shaky at best, since he’d actually talked up the sex tape himself, exploiting it for his own publicity purposes on venues like “The Howard Stern Show.”
Yet Hogan claimed that when he did so, it was only in the guise of a fictional character. He said, in essence: “I’m not a roaring, handle-bar-mustached dyspeptic goon who slams bodies and uses heads as chairs! I just play one on TV!” He claimed that when he discussed the sex tape or the size of his penis on Howard Stern, he was speaking entirely as Hulk Hogan, fictional character. He claimed that Gawker, by contrast, was guilty of invading the privacy of Terry Bollea, a good citizen who was completely separate from Hulk Hogan. Few would dispute that wrestling is about creating a blowhard alter ego. Yet legally speaking, this was a borderline crackpot defense, though one made for an age in which people were about to elect the host of “The Apprentice” as president.
The other supremely dicey aspect of the Gawker trial is that Denton and his team were never allowed to present evidence to support their most powerful argument: that the real reason Hogan wanted to wipe the sex tape off the map is that sections of it featured him making homophobic comments and using the N-word (multiple times). It was those sections, rather than the sexual activity that Gawker (barely) showed, that he feared would destroy his career and reputation. And that’s why he wanted the tape suppressed.
When the judgment finally came down, Hogan was awarded $140 million in damages, enough to bankrupt Gawker out of existence. Tellingly, Hogan had withdrawn the aspect of the suit that hinged on emotional distress, which meant that the payment for damages would no longer be covered by Gawker’s insurance. And that, as it turned out, was the point: The whole lawsuit — or, at least, Hogan’s side of it — had been bankrolled by Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire, Ayn Rand freak, and Trump supporter who was a sworn enemy of Gawker. Back in 2007, the site outed Thiel as gay, and it had also run a number of scathing items about the financial condition of several of his companies. He wanted his revenge.
It must be said that Peter Thiel had every right to lend his full financial support to Hulk Hogan; “Nobody Speak” is too cavalier about calling him on the carpet for it. The true threatening miscarriage of justice in the Gawker trial was simply the insane amount of money levied against Gawker, which exceeded even the penalties in wrongful-death suits. It was the jury system — and the anti-media demagoguery of the Trump era — that was out of control and off the rails.
That said, a trend is undeniable: America’s billionaires have begun to use their resources to shape justice, media, information, reality. And that certainly includes President Trump, who we see numerous clips of threatening to ratchet up the nation’s libel laws. The final section of “Nobody Speak” follows the Las Vegas Review–Journal, the paper of record for Nevada, and how it got purchased (in secret) by the billionaire right-wing casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who was sick of reading scandalous tales of his business practices. The story of how the paper’s reporters had to employ their muckraking skills just to uncover who their new owner was — in doing so, nearly all of them lost their jobs — makes for a valiant, if painful, chapter in American newspaper journalism. The thing is, it’s a tale that adds fresh meaning to the phrase “follow the money.” “Nobody Speaks” demonstrates that when there’s enough of it to tip the scales of information, either you can’t trust the truth of what you’re reading, or you won’t be reading it in the first place.