Ex Wrestler, billionaires put media in chokehold
Sundance doc about Gawker lawsuit sees tough fight ahead for journalists
January 20, 2017
Brian Knappenberger's radar is keened tuned to emerging fractures in today's media landscape. His 2012 Slamdance documentary "We Are Legion" introduced audiences to the little-known hacktivist group, Anonymous. The Guy Fawkes-masked gang of radicals had just begun to appear in headlines for its disruptive internet attacks on various corporations and government agencies.
In 2014, Kappenberger showed up at Sundance with a film highlighting the precarious line between internet hacking and freedom of speech. "The Internet's Own Boy" documented the life of Aaron Swartz, the young internet activist whose efforts to download a collection of academic journals at MIT put him in the U.S. Attorney General's crosshairs.
This year Knappenberger is back at Sundance with an equally compelling story, "Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and the Trials of a Free Press" and it couldn't be more timely. The documentary ricochets between the pulp-nonfiction Hulk vs. Gawker lawsuit, the secret sale of a Nevada newspaper to a casino mogul and President-elect Donald Trump's Trump's vitriolic attacks on journalists during his campaign.
Knappenberger said the storyline took several unexpected twists and turns.
In 2012, the director was drawn to news reports about the Hulk Hogan versus. Gawker lawsuit, which, aside from its tabloid appeal, Knappenberger saw as emblematic of the battle lines being drawn between free speech and privacy advocates. (The infamous website Gawker had posted a sex tape of the pro wrestler who responded with a curiously well-funded lawsuit.)
At the same time Knappenberger was contemplating a film about Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley iconoclast and billionaire who started PayPal.
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The two subjects abruptly intersected when Terry Bollea (The Hulk) was granted a $140 million judgment against Gawker, its publisher Nick Denton and editor A.J. Daulerio, ultimately shutting down the website and bankrupting the two men.
"I just thought it had some interesting First Amendment issues, and could be a decisive trial in that regard. Then, the verdict came in, which was a staggering number and two weeks later it was revealed the secret funder was Peter Thiel. That was so weird and so interesting. That is basically when we dove in," said Kappenberger.
But that's wasn't all. In July, Thiel took the stage at the Republican Convention to deliver a rousing speech in favor of Trump's anti-establishment agenda. So Knappenberger's crew began to weave footage of Trump's increasingly raucous rallies into the story.
Against footage from the Gawker trial, Knappenberger pasted a montage of Trump's summer salvos against the press including his oft-repeated threats to relax libel laws to make it easier to sue journalists and their media outlets.
"It just got deeper and deeper and deeper. We were just hanging on for the ride," said Knappenberger.
Audiences who jump on the "Nobody Speak" rollercoaster at Sundance will likely come to agree with Knappenberger's premise — that the precedent set in the Gawker case, along with Trump's incendiary anti-media antics have vast implications for the country's entire media establishment, not just for one already-controversial website.
Along the way, Knappenberger also takes a side trip to illustrate a parallel between the Gawker trial and a wrenching story about the takeover of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by the billionaire Sheldon Adelson. The detour, perhaps the most impactful part of the film, recounts Adelson's secretive purchase of the newspaper and his attempts to silence reporters' criticism of his global business network.
"It echoed the things that both Thiel and Adelson were doing. They are both working in that same vein where very, very rich, very powerful individuals could silence critics, could silence voices they disagreed with," said Knappenberger.
In the film, Knappenberger singles out LVRJ columnist John L. Smith as a role model for all journalists.
In 2016, Smith turned down a $200,000 offer from an Adelson intermediary to help pay for his daughter's medical bills in exchange for recanting some of his reporting about Adelson. He refused.
"Hearing that story, it really hit home. If you are a parent, you understand the depth of that choice. It was a horrible thing he was asked to do and ultimately he does the right thing both for his daughter, his career and the larger cause: for journalism.
"It is one of the more wrenching and powerful stories you will ever hear about journalism," said Knappenberger.
On Election Day, Knappenberger said the mood at his studio was bleak. With his film in still getting the final touches for its Sundance premiere, Knappenberger's worries were already coming to fruition.
"I do think it is going to be a train wreck. I think we are going to see some awful things come out of the Trump administration," Knappenberger said right after watching Trump's first chaotic press conference as president-elect. "There is no doubt. But I think we have a chance to build something out of that wreckage. I think as documentary filmmakers we have to define a new direction, a direction that matters."
For his fellow filmmakers at Sundance, Knappenberger added, "It is not enough to attack Trump. We have to tell stories that define a vision of the future. We must do both things and I think we have to do them better than we have ever done them."
"Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and the Trials of a Free Press", an entry in the Sundance Documentary Film Competition, will screen at the following times and locations:
- Tuesday, Jan. 24, 3 p.m. at the Library Center Theater
- 11:30 Wednesday, Jan. 25, 11:30 a.m. at THE MARC
- Thursday, Jan. 26, 6 p.m. at the Salt Lake Library Theater
- Friday Jan. 27, 4 p.m. at Redstone Cinema 2
- Saturday, Jan. 28, noon at the Library Center Theater