Everything about the trial seemed too absurd to be real.
Hulk Hogan, one of the most successful WWE stars of all time, got caught on tape having sex with the wife of his best friend, a man whose radio persona was Bubba the Love Sponge; this tape was leaked to Gawker, where an edited clip of it played and played and played, played through the cease-and-desist letter from Hogan’s lawyer, until Hogan sued Gawker for invasion of privacy. And in a Florida courtroom, Hogan (real name: Terry Bollea) was awarded an astonishing $115 million in damages — $15 million more than he asked for and many millions more than Gawker could possibly afford. The site was dead.
And while at first it seemed like the death blow was delivered by Bollea alone, it came out shortly after the verdict that Bollea had a backer: Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley billionaire and subject of a Gawker story from 2007 that (probably) everyone had forgotten about except for him, titled “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.” Thiel gripped that grudge like a toddler with a teddy bear and then, in secret, sponsored Bollea’s lawsuit with the intention of blowing Gawker to smithereens. “Gawker has been a singularly terrible bully,” Thiel told the New York Times, so was deserving of this special treatment. This in no way contradicted his belief in a free press, Thiel insisted, because Gawker was a special case: “It’s precisely because I respect journalists that I do not believe they are endangered by fighting back against Gawker.”
Brian Knappenberger, director of The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz and We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, was riveted by the Gawker trial and unnerved by its result. He saw it as a dangerous precedent-setting tactic for the wealthy who would prefer truth not be spoken to their power, a strategy that, as he put it, Thiel probably sees as an “innovation.”
Knappenberger’s new documentary, Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, digs into the Gawker story and its aftermath, as well as other efforts by the rich and influential to control, undermine, and in some cases destroy the free press: billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s covert purchase of The Las Vegas Review-Journal, how Donald Trump is “fueling a wave of hostility” toward the media, and what it all could mean for journalists — and citizens who value journalism — in the future.
At what point while you were watching the trial unfold did you decide that you wanted to make a documentary about it?
It came in stages. We were really, really interested in the Hulk Hogan/Gawker trial just by itself. It was the first time a sex tape like this had gone to trial and as salacious as this sounded at the time, I thought there were some really big picture, privacy versus First Amendment issues at stake. I thought it was really important. And my work lives in that territory. But what really clicked in was with the $140 million verdict, the requirement that Gawker put up $50 million right away, which was the death sentence of Gawker. And then the revelation that Peter Thiel was behind Hulk Hogan’s suit. I think, fair to say, that’s when the documentary itself just clicked in.
Do you remember your early impressions of all of these polarizing people — Nick Denton, Hulk Hogan, Peter Thiel — and did those views evolve as you filmed?
Let’s put it this way: I had some empathy for Hulk Hogan’s case in the trial itself. I think this case was complicated, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I found it so compelling. It’s not an easy case. It’s clearly at the fringes of acceptability. But the Peter Thiel revelation made it something different. It made the whole thing — I don’t know if I felt differently about the participants so much as it felt like there was a bit of Kabuki theater going on, up to that point. The real motivations were just not known. You didn’t know the real forces at work.
Is there room to think that everyone here is wrong? The guys at Gawker and Hulk Hogan and Peter Thiel?
Yeah! There is room. I will say, yes. That’s entirely true. And what’s wild about the Peter Thiel revelation, and when that started to snap into focus a little bit, was that, should this have meant the death penalty for Gawker? That’s when it becomes kind of a different story. One of the things Peter Thiel said was that Gawker was “a singularly sociopathic bully.” And that’s absurd, in a media environment where you have Alex Jones saying the Sandy Hook shootings were fake, and somebody killed someone on Facebook Live last year, and one of the big stories on Facebook leading up to the election was that John Podesta was involved in a child sex trafficking ring, that caused someone to go in a pizza parlor with a gun.
Look, Gawker was annoying and offensive, and they may have crossed a line at times. Some people loved it, some people hated it, and some of the people that hated it the most also read it every day. Some of the targets of its most vicious takedowns were also its biggest fans. It’s a complicated publication that invited a lot of hatred. But the idea that they’re singularly sociopathic, or there’s no place for a Gawker in this entire media ecosystem, in a country that privileges free speech and expression and protects even hate speech, [is absurd].
A language question for you: Why call it a sex tape if Hulk Hogan didn’t agree to its release? Isn’t it really revenge porn? Do you see this type of violation as fundamentally different from something like the celebrity photo hack?
The case I think the Gawker side would make there is that, Hulk Hogan is a public figure that spent a lot of time talking about his sex life. And his sex life was a part of his character. He talked about it on Howard Stern and lots of Florida shock jock radio. And he talked about this incident and said before he didn’t remember who it was [in the tape with him]. So I think their case was, essentially, that Hulk Hogan himself had made it news. That seems very different than a revenge porn incident.
But even if Hulk Hogan is out there talking about it, that’s not the same thing as showing a tape. Like if Taylor Swift wrote a song about a guy she had sex with, and talked about that in interviews, that wouldn’t mean she consented to the release of a tape of the encounter itself.
That’s true, although TMZ and the Dirty had already posted screenshots of this encounter, and the existence of this tape was very much already in the news. And, by the way, I don’t necessarily defend that as journalism. Like I said, I was compelled by this case, because it was on the fringes of acceptability. I made a film about — in which a sex tape is at the center of it, and the case has been made that I probably had a better fair use argument to use that sex tape than they did, and of course I didn’t. Clearly it’s a complicated case. I do think there’s an element of The People vs. Larry Flynt in this. But is that the death sentence? Does that mean that Gawker should not exist? I think without Peter Thiel’s money, secretly financing this, no.
I thought I knew how weird Peter Thiel was before I saw this movie, but there was so much more to learn. I had forgotten that he didn’t think women should have the right to vote. What a sizzling take. How did you determine how much biographical information about him was necessary to tell your story here?
First of all, a lot of thought went into that — how much should we put in, how should we portray it? He’s been involved in lots of things that most people find pretty odd. And that’s particularly relevant in his notions about democracy, in an age where he clearly has the ear of President Trump. So a lot went into that thinking: How do we portray him? We could have made him even weirder. He gives you no end of material.
I also wanted to be responsible and understand there was enough to do to just keep it to the facts, to portray who he is. Generally speaking, I think he has this kind of extreme libertarian view. I think he does believe that democracy is outdated. He believes in a kind of benevolent dictator that can better solve the problems of mankind. I think he’s bought heavily — and that’s a Silicon Valley ethos, when the charismatic leader of the company is gone, it’s not as innovative, there’s not as much direction.
Well, Uber is about to find out.
Exactly! So I think he bought hard into that. There’s a combination of that libertarian notion and that Silicon Valley ethos that he really embodies. He’s an interesting person and I think it’s clearly relevant, what his political views are.
“Silicon Valley has not had a lot of patience or a lot of respect for journalism, that’s for sure. They don’t seem to understand the basic notion of a free, adversarial independent press. There’s virtually no adversarial press in Silicon Valley. What amounts for press in Silicon Valley is really just people showing up to product launches and clapping.”
Obviously Peter Thiel is on the side of Trump, but I was struck by one of Nick Denton’s remarks from the beginning of the film because it seemed very Trump-like: He said that the mainstream media is lying most of the time.
Yes, I think that’s very interesting. And actually when I watched the film — when you watch a film that you made at different times, different things stand out. And that has started standing out to me more. I think when Gawker started, they were a kind of protest against traditional media. They’re skewering mainstream media. A particular class of elite, New York media is what they save their most venom for. Conde Nast kind of publications. And that’s kind of fueled their publication for a very long time. And I think that there’s legitimate criticism, for sure, of mainstream media. That it has become too corporatized over time, too cozy to power, that it has traded softball stories for access to power and celebrity. That was the stuff that Gawker fought and stood against. I think those are the criticisms that a lot of people respond to with media. Conservatives have really tried to seize that mantle, that narrative, and turned it against the press. So when you’ve gotten to the point where Trump is calling the New York Times fake news media, it’s really going down a rabbit hole.
So your focus, at the start, was the trial. At what point did you decide to include Trump and his attacks on the media in here?
Trump was in this right from the beginning. We couldn’t separate what was happening in this courtroom in Florida from the larger, bizarre election cycle. And to some degree, this trial was a referendum on the media. At one point the judge — inappropriately, in some people’s view — lamented the state of online journalism, in front of the jurors, which you’re not supposed to do. So clearly, the media was on trial here. That was the beginning of this rise of Trump, this daily lashing out at the media, stoking a hatred of the media. It really was immediately. It was bizarre watching the film the day after the election. It felt very different.
You point out that Silicon Valley’s rise has coincided with journalism’s fall, and I’m curious what you make of that kind of power trade.
First of all, Silicon Valley has not had a lot of patience or a lot of respect for journalism, that’s for sure. They don’t seem to understand the basic notion of a free, adversarial independent press. There’s virtually no adversarial press in Silicon Valley. What amounts for press in Silicon Valley is really just people showing up to product launches and clapping. With a few exceptions, but some of those exceptions tend to get in trouble. Techdirt does great journalism and they wound up getting sued for $15 million by Shivva Ayyadurai [who claims to have invented email]. They’re in a fight for their existence.
So [Silicon Valley] hasn’t traditionally had a lot of respect for [journalism]. And clearly [journalism’s] economic engine is fueled by advertising and a lot of that advertising has come at the expense of journalism. Journalism is in a very vulnerable place, because it has lost that revenue. So there’s a real sort of battle here for the truth. Clearly Silicon Valley is powerful. There’s just so much money and power there. And it largely goes unquestioned. It’s something we, as a culture, need to keep our eyes on.
You only briefly mention Jeff Bezos and his purchase of the Washington Post in the film. What do you make of his strategy, which is to be (so far) the only Silicon Valley major player who wants to influence the press by participating in it instead of standing against it?
He’s someone I’ve thought a lot about. One of the things I found troubling about both Thiel and Adelson is their actions were taken in secret. You didn’t know Peter Thiel was funding Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit and you didn’t know it was Sheldon Adelson who bought the paper, which, in both cases, is new. Wealthy individuals buying newspapers isn’t new, but what’s so egregious here is the secret element.
Jeff Bezos buying the Post, by most people’s accounts, it’s a pretty traditional stewardship. He’s hands off. Clearly he has an excellent staff of reporters who I seriously doubt would put up with meddling. And he’s out front about it: You know it’s him. It’s a source of civic pride in some ways. But at the same time, you’ve got to watch how WaPo covers a story like Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods. That’s something you’ve got to keep an eye on. How are they covering Jeff Bezo’s interests? Do they still have that dogged journalistic cred?
You mentioned earlier what you think Silicon Valley doesn’t understand about an independent, adversarial press. What is it you think the average American doesn’t understand about that, about the press and its function?
If you look at polls, the media is not doing well. Very low poll numbers. Although people tend to really love the — media is a bad word anyway, it’s so broad — but people love the media that they consume on a daily basis. But they hate the general concept. Maybe that parallels a disillusionment with institutions in general. I think there is legitimate criticism of the press, this kind of corporatized press that has, for too long, not questioned power. I think people sense that, and sense that it could do better, and maybe are beginning to forget what the purpose is at all. I feel like part of the job of the film is to encourage people to support good journalism financially, to subscribe to good journalism, and to stand up for the actual concept itself, of why do we need it.
What do you think will be Gawker’s legacy, say, 10 years from now? will people think of them as a force for good or evil or both?
In this media environment, I think they seem pretty quaint. I think what a lot of people were responding to was the tone, the snarkiness. And that’s not to excuse all of what they did. There’s clearly articles that they ran that are indefensible, a lot of which they took down. The Conde Nast story comes to mind for me. But in the long run, I think they broke some good stories. I think they were an entertaining, sometimes incredibly annoying, sometimes artful, sometimes offensive, sometimes over the line. But they broke some good stories. You actually feel their legacy, a little bit, in news organizations that are still very much alive. It’s kind of amazing how many people used to work at Gawker that are doing great work now. It’s remarkable as a kind of feeding ground for so much journalism now. It was innovative, and it was artful, at times. It was petty and annoying at other times. So I think that the idea that there’s no place for it at all, in an entire landscape of media, that’s a shame.
Watching this film, I was reminded of how Gawker really struggled to get out of its own way here. They don’t try to make themselves likable. And A.J. Daulerio tells that very misguided joke during his deposition about how he’d only decline to post a sex tape if it starred a child under the age of four.
That’s just an extraordinary mistake, if he thought that was a joke — and clearly it was, but it lost it for them. Yeah, they weren’t able to get out of their own way, were they? They didn’t take the tape down when they had the opportunity. I talked to John Cook about that, actually. When he watched the film and saw the cease and desist letter from David Houston [Hogan’s attorney], and he was like, “Well, that was a path not taken!” People said it’s a perfect storm of events that led to this. And clearly one of the forces in that storm was their own mistakes.
It’s a real contrast to go from the attitude of a place like Gawker to the Las Vegas Review, where you have these journalists who scan as really unimpeachable, should-get-their-own-Spotlight types.
Yup. And I wanted to include that because I think there’s an issue with local newspapers. There was a time in which there were healthy, competing local newspapers all across the United States and that’s largely gone now. I wanted to get out of the New York media world.
Was there anything you wish you could have kept but had to cut?
It always is that way, in a film. But we cut an entire story we had done some filming on that might surface again as a short. We also covered the Mother Jones story — they were sued by an Idaho billionaire, Frank Van Der Sloot, and they were able to raise money to cover the legal costs and they were victorious in that, but that was a pretty scary time for them.
What else do you think people should know about the film?
You talked a little bit about the tone Trump has set, and I do think he is fueling — stirring — a kind of wave of hostility toward the press. There’s no doubt. We’ve seen lots of examples about that just in a couple months. That reporter who was arrested for asking Tom Price a question, saw that reporter pinned against a wall by security guards trying to ask a question of the FCC director, and this awful, ridiculous Greg Gianforte incident where he bodyslams this guy, Ben Jacobs, breaks his glasses, for doing exactly what he should be doing, which is asking a question about healthcare to a candidate. So that’s what reporters should be doing, and they shouldn’t be at risk of getting body-slammed. So we found ourselves in this position where that’s where it has gotten to, and I think that’s really disturbing, and you can pin some of that on the daily heated rhetoric of our Commander in Chief.
“Journalism is in a very vulnerable state. And we need it now more than we’ve ever needed it. The rich are richer than they’ve ever been. Inequality keeps getting worse and worse. This watchdog journalism, the old model, is dead, and the new one hasn’t been born yet. Here we are in this position where we’ve got the head of the executive branch attacking it every day.”
I wonder how much of it is — not to excuse it at all, but to contextualize it — that Trump has literally zero experience in public service. He doesn’t actually know what politicians deal with on a daily basis, and has no frame of reference for an adversarial press because he’s a reality star who only got fluffy interviews from Billy Bush and the like until now.
He seems to have no clue about that. He seems to have no clue about what the job entails, about what it means to be a public servant. He really seems to be — the crazy things that he said, like, who knew health care would be so hard? Well, everybody but you, basically. And I think you’re right: He came from a rich family, he’s been wealthy all his life, he’s been surrounded by yes men. This is a little jarring for him to have people who have the audacity to ask him questions about his policy. “Don’t worry about it” seems to be his perspective, and that doesn’t square with being in public service.
Media critic Jay Rosen, near the end, says he thinks we’re sliding into authoritarianism. On a scale from sunshine and rainbows to we’re headed toward the Hunger Games, where do you think we are?
I kind of feel like we’re in the Hunger Games, maybe. Not necessarily in terms of journalism, but in general. I don’t know how deep you want to get, but I’m concerned. I’m definitely concerned. I think, as we were getting at before, journalism is in a very vulnerable state. And we need it now more than we’ve ever needed it. The rich are richer than they’ve ever been. Inequality keeps getting worse and worse. This watchdog journalism, the old model, is dead, and the new one hasn’t been born yet. Here we are in this position where we’ve got the head of the executive branch attacking it every day. And we’ve got all sorts of ways that big money can manipulate and alter the truth. So I’m concerned. And I think it’s under threat from all the things that we know and a lot of things that we haven’t seen yet or figured out yet.
One way of looking at Peter Thiel’s effort is that it’s an innovation. A brave new way of silencing these pesky reporters! But we’re going to see it in all sorts of ways. I wonder a lot about, for instance, the connection between something like Citizens United and fake news, the way that money has been — how the floodgates have been opened to super PACs, and what they do is create content that is clearly partisan, in which you don’t know what the motivations are, and a lot of that stuff is hidden. It’s dark money. So I think it’s under threat from things we know and things we need to look out for.
So when you see Obama say that he’s all confident in our young people and progress is a zig-zag, etc., do you think he really believes that or that he’s panicking inside?
I think it’s both! That’s my opinion. I do think we’re facing all sorts of threats that are worse now than they’ve ever been, that have been growing specifically in the last three or four decades, particularly in the ways big money and inequality has gotten so crazy, and those forces have gotten so organized. But I also don’t want to be too — I want to realize that every generation thinks it’s the end of the world, and they figure it out. So I kind of think it’s both, if that’s possible.