Shortly before Donald Trump was elected president, Hulk Hogan and Gawker Media ended their months-long legal battle over the wrestler’s sex tape. The case may seem like a media law footnote, but as director Brian Knappenberger argues in his documentary, the fight over Gawker’s decision to publish the footage irrevocably shifted the media landscape.
In Nobody Speak, which premieres today on Netflix, Knappenberger draws parallels between Silicon Valley mogul Peter Thiel‘s financing of Hogan’s lawsuit (which drove Gawker to bankruptcy) and ongoing efforts by plutocrats from Trump to casino mogul Sheldon Adelson to silence the free press. Does his film succeed? We asked Davey Alba, who covered the Gawker case for WIRED, and Angela Watercutter, who has written about Knappenberger’s previous work, to hash it out.
Angela Watercutter: As a documentarian, Knappenberger has a knack for showing how individual people and movements can have much wider ramifications. He did it with Anonymous in We Are Legion and with Aaron Swartz in The Internet’s Own Boy. Now, he does it with Gawker’s role in the media in America. Moreover, he’s able to show how the Gawker/Hogan case could have a chilling effect on media in a way I would imagine not everyone really considers. Then again, I work in the very industry Knappenberger’s movie seems dead-set on defending and protecting. I am the target audience—I have a vested interest in people understanding attacks on the First Amendment. I hope that people who don’t work in journalism can take something away from this. That said, I don’t know that they will. Davey, you watched this whole thing unfold much more closely than I did; was there anything in this doc that really struck you? Moreover, do you think it’ll be as riveting for the average Netflix-surfer as it is for people in our field?
Davey Alba: As a quick aside, these published conversations have always looked like so much fun from the business desk—I’m glad I have an excuse to do one! But I digress. I would actually argue that reporting on the saga may have brought me too close to the action. Not only did I see themes familiar to me as a journalist, I was also in the uncanny position of seeing onetime colleagues appear in a documentary (full disclosure: I was an intern at Gawker’s tech site, Gizmodo, for six months in 2011) .
In fact, because this trial was something media reporters had been obsessing about for months on end, all of the points this documentary seemed to want to make were almost overfamiliar to me. Yes, we know: Gawker pushed past the niceties of traditional mainstream journalism, which led to good and bad things—some articles of seemingly little news value, but also powerful pieces that held public figures and institutions accountable. Gawker is a complicated beast, but there’s little doubt when you’re watching this documentary about where Knappenberger stands (read: pretty much a total Gawker cheerleader). Even tying in Trump, Adelson, and the election—which might have felt unwieldy to an outsider—made sense to me as an idea most of us in the media had latched onto by the end of 2016, and which persists today. It’s pretty scary that the truth feels malleable these days, rather than the fixed, objective reality that reporters are supposed to expose.
Either way, I think you’re right in that the essential question is: Will this have broader appeal to people outside of the West and East Coast media bubbles? To which I say… I have no idea. I’m sorry! Did I totally screw up my first culture banter piece?
AW: Not at all! The question I asked is a hairy one. And I would argue most people watch documentaries to learn something new, so even if Nobody Speak seems obvious and/or convoluted to those of us who work in this industry, maybe that’s what makes it compelling to outsiders. And maybe the things that seem like logical leaps are things lay viewers can just roll with.
To that end, I think the biggest mental jump I had to make was from the Gawker case to the Adelson bit, which breaks down how the family of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a paper that ostensibly covered the industries he works in. Folks who work in the media can see the connection between this and the Gawker case—thanks to Thiel, both involve wealthy and powerful men trying to exert influence over journalism—but I wonder if others would think that section of the film feels out of place, especially if they came to see a documentary about the Hulk Hogan sex tape case. I did like how Knappenberger used that as a segue to talk about the Trump administration and the president’s testy relationship with reporters. (Fun fact I remembered while Googling Adelson: The Las Vegas Review-Journal was one of the few newspapers that endorsed Trump.) So even if the relationship between Gawker, Adelson, and the White House is tenuous, it’s still important that folks understand these things, and Nobody Speak is good at laying out why they matter.
Did you feel the same? Was there anything you felt didn’t work? Also, have you ever thought of a canopy bed in the same way again after the Hogan sex tape? Do you ever consider what Peter Thiel thinks of your stories?
DA: Oh, Angela. I’ve never found much joy in canopy beds anyway, but now they make me highly uncomfortable. I recently stayed in a hotel room in the Philippines that had one and I had to convince myself that the yellow netting was totally just to keep the mosquitoes away and that canopy beds aren’t good for anything other than sleeping, nope.
ANYHOW. That part about Las Vegas Review-Journal did feel jarring, especially since we’d been building the Gawker story up until that point—then, bam, we’re in a completely different narrative. They only felt thematically linked to me because the people who were tweeting about Gawker were also the ones who tweeted compulsively about the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s problems at the time … and now I wonder if Knappenberger and I follow the same people. In any case, you had to reorient yourself for that segment, and I wish the doc had been more well-organized from the beginning. If anything, it should’ve presented all these stories earlier on and then woven them together more consistently.
There’s another thing that bugs me about those two narratives being in the same documentary, but it’s one that I’m struggling to articulate. It has to do with the differences between the staffers interviewed in the movie—both from the Review-Journal and Gawker. I found it much easier to root for the reporters of the Review-Journal since they had a less complicated track record, and were simply pushing back against the whims of their new owner. Gawker, on the other hand, is a trickier character; the documentary acknowledges this, but it still stays firmly on Gawker’s side.
I’m not saying that Gawker was definitely in the wrong throughout this story, just that if the goal is in fact to bring the issue out to a wider audience, perhaps doing more to flesh out its complexity would be good. I felt a little like the Review-Journal’s story—and even that bit about Trump and the elections—landing right smack after the Gawker story tempts the viewer into thinking of these issues being black-and-white, rather than the gray that they are.
(P.S. I may have had to write other articles about Peter Thiel depending on his latest shenanigans, but the ones I’ve only ever wanted to write were ones that contemplated what a great guy he is, like Brian Raftery so expertly did last year. Let’s do more of these pieces! Three cheers for Peter Thiel!!!!)
AW: I totally hear what you’re saying about conflating Gawker and the Review-Journal. I think ultimately what the documentary wants to do is come down in favor of journalism and the First Amendment, but it misses a bit of the nuance, just like so many other documentaries do. (You can only say so much in a couple of hours, and not every doc can be O.J.: Made in America. That said, I think this film does one very important thing: It creates a time capsule of this era of public discourse. If, 20 or 50 years from now, the media landscape looks very different than it does today, we can go back and watch Nobody Speak and understand why. Hell, by then we’ll probably all be watching Netflix on our Facebook-issued WonderWalls. Thanks again, Peter Thiel!
DA: That’s fair; trying to explain the importance of the First Amendment and fighting for journalism is a noble goal. If I knew for sure that would be the clear takeaway for most people who aren’t part of our crazy media bubble, I’d be a happy camper. But I suppose we’ll just have to be patient for the wider reaction to see if that’s true. I’ll be waiting!