The Hulk Hogan trial against Gawker Media in 2015 was a tabloid cesspool of American narcissism that raised questions over the First Amendment and the nature of media. Netflix’s new documentary “Nobody Speaks” examines the Gawker trial in relation to business magnate Sheldon Adelson’s acquisition of The Las Vegas Review and Donald Trump’s rhetoric toward the press.
The thesis is that the Gawker trial normalized a world where billionaires shutter media outlets at will and that the press is under constant attack by Republicans. Yes, White House press briefings have descended into anarchy. But in 2017, censorship exists when media outlets over-stimulate the public through hemorrhaging content. Claiming victimhood when subjects fight back against unconstitutional breeches of privacy only erodes the public’s fledgling faith in media.
Scandals reveal our truest selves. The O.J. Simpson case began with a gruesome murder in Brentwood, but became a bigger conversation about race where we were the ones on trial reconciling our national identity. Similarly, the Gawker trial, which concluded with investor Peter Thiel and Hulk Hogan (real name: Terry Balboa) blowing the site to smithereens over a sex tape, was cast as a debate over personal privacy and free speech.
Through extended interviews with Denton, former Gawker editor-in-chief A.J. Daulerio, and other journalists (spliced with occasional counterarguments from Hogan’s litigations councilor David Houston), “Nobody Speaks” makes the case for the latter. Director Brian Knappenberger mythologizes Gawker, to the point of martyrdom, while using the trial outcome to push a political agenda.
The foundation and moral crux of “Nobody Speaks” lies on a sex tape released without either party’s permission. By those same standards, it’s legal to publish any celebrity’s hacked nudes, like what happened to Jennifer Lawrence and other Hollywood stars in 2016 (an instance where the authorities were involved and the man who hacked Lawrence’s email was sentenced to 18 months in prison).
When a Florida jury was confronted with whether the video was offensive, devoid of news value, and posted by Gawker, the evidence overwhelmingly pointed to a guilty verdict. At some point, a boundary needs to be established where the publisher assumes legal responsibility for invading privacy and perpetuating extortion.
Choosing to wage a journalistic crusade over an illegally published sex tape is ridiculous and problematic, and it detracts from real threats journalists face. In February 2012, Mother Jones published an article about billionaire Frank VanderSloot’s company Melaleuca and its subsidiaries donating $1 million to Mitt Romney’s super PAC.
After sending a letter complaining about the article, VanderSloot’s lawyers filed a defamation lawsuit against both Mother Jones, reporter Stephanie Mencimer, and the company’s CEO Monika Bauerlein. The court rightfully ruled that the article was protected under the First Amendment and Mother Jones went about its business.
When faced with a genuine threat funded by the same billionaire class that would obliterate Denton, our institutions prevailed in protecting the First Amendment. The Gawker trial was not like the Mother Jones case; using such a scandal as basis for a free speech documentary only undermines instances where the First Amendment has been seriously jeopardized.
The second censorship example Knappenberger points to is when billionaire Sheldon Adelson purchased the Las Vegas Review Journal in 2015. There is nothing new here. William Randolph Hearst built a media powerhouse in the late 1800s, amassing a net-worth of approximately $30 billion in the process. In 2013, business magnate John Henry bought The Boston Globe and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post.
The same year Adelson acquired The Las Vegas Review Journal, Peter Barbey, whose family is worth an estimated $6.1 billion according to Forbes, bought the Village Voice, recently attacking the newspaper’s employees’ ability to unionize (which was covered extensively by former Gawker reporter Hamilton Nolan). Rather than using Adelson’s acquisition of the Las Vegas Review Journal to shine a light on an institutional problem that’s plagued the media since its conception, Knappenberger attacks the owner’s politics by pointing toward numerous donations to Republican leaders. This one-sided angle ignores an opportunity to speak out and recognize a broader conflict of interest affecting all media companies.
Knappenberger concludes “Nobody Speaks” by tying both the Gawker case and the Sheldon buyout to Trump’s antagonism toward the media. Showing clips of crowds booing journalists at Trump’s campaign rallies, and the president labeling CNN as “fake news,” the film argues that Republicans and billionaires have fostered a culture that erodes the First Amendment and crushes free speech. However, never before in human history has more information been readily available. The problem is that the media bombards the American public with too much information on nonstories.
Right now Illinois is set to become the first state to declare bankruptcy. Companies are fleeing Connecticut en masse. The same irresponsible trading and monetary policies that led to the 2008 financial crisis are being practiced. However, last Tuesday three reporters at CNN resigned over faulty reporting on the ongoing Trump/Russia scandal. The very next day the VICE vertical Motherboard published and retracted two stories on “secret backstage Trump drama at Walt Disney World’s Hall of Presidents.”
Important stories, while covered, are overshadowed when media outlets turn Trump tweets into blockbuster spectacles and pour all of their resources into covering White House farces. How quickly stories break, and how fast we consume media, has eroded our ability to connect the dots between broader patterns and has become its own form of censorship. We’re overwhelmed with the number of breaking stories we receive on a daily basis and cannot determine what’s actually news.
Through constant information pumping through Twitter, Facebook, and the news-tainment-industrial complex, we remain ignorant of what’s actually happening. In his new book, “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,” Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harai (who Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and former President Barack Obama have all recommended) argues that as both the volume and the speed of data increases, we’re more vulnerable to changes in how we perceive information and interpret our surroundings.
“And as I process more data more efficiently — answering more emails, making more phone calls, and writing more articles — so the people around me are flooded by even more data. This relentless flow of data sparks new inventions and disruptions that nobody plans, controls, or comprehends. No one understands how the global economy functions or where global politics is heading. But no one needs to understand. All you need to do is answer your emails faster — and allow the system to read them.”
Modern censorship isn’t a tech oligarch obliterating a media outlet over a sex tape. It’s the fact the tape was posted as something newsworthy to distract from actual issues.
Davis Richardson is a fellow at America’s Future Foundation. His writing has appeared in VICE, Nylon Magazine, BULLETT Media, The Daily Caller and WIRED. Follow him on Twitter