New doc ‘Nobody Speak’ should have painted Gawker as a more virtuous outlet

There has never been a better time to be a journalist than right now. The tools have never been more accessible. The barriers to entry have never been lower, and the sheer volume of muck to rake has, arguably, never been greater. Forget the erosion of advertising revenue and the shriveling up of salaried posts; ignore the toxic attitudes of the powerful and the masses who hang on their every word; disregard the stunning riposte of “FAKE NEWS!” from numbskulls who may or may not have the nuclear codes. We live in a time where a full-throated endorsement of the free press and the core precepts of journalism writ large can be distilled out by way of a wrestler who compares his own dick size to that of the cartoon character in his mind. What a time to be alive!

Brian Knappenberger’s “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press,” the documentary that premiered at Sundance but has been updated in time for SXSW, walks the viewer through Hulk Hogan’s shadow-billionaire-funded lawsuit against Gawker Media to make the convincing argument that journalism is under attack by the rich and powerful. It then swerves over to the Nevada desert, going into great detail on Sheldon Adelson’s secret acquisition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, before finally ending on a bleak crescendo covering Donald Trump’s election and the flames he stokes daily against the media.

It’s a solid primer for those who haven’t been inhaling these stories over the last few years. Nothing new is revealed, but it will bring you up to speed pretty quickly.

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Knappenberger’s film features a wide array of interviews with everyone involved, including Gawker co-founders Nick Denton and Elizabeth Spiers and former editors A. J. Daulerio and John Cook. The wildest twist in the story is the revelation that Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel had been funding Hogan’s attorneys, allowing them to drop a charge that made it so Gawker’s insurance would not cover any money they would be forced to pay if found guilty. In other words, the point stopped being to compensate the Hulkster, but to put Gawker out of business — all because they had pissed off Thiel over the years. Thanks to a right-wing activist judge in Florida, the floodgates are now open for billionaires to dismantle critical press.

The story of the Las Vegas Review-Journal is less sprawling and salacious, but of equal importance. Whereas Thiel and Bollea used the courts to drive Gawker out of business, casino magnate and Republican dump truck full of cash Adelson simply bought a newspaper he didn’t like. Their star journalists all resigned, leaving a vacuum of coverage in the hometown of some of the most powerful businesspeople in the world. It’s moving to hear all of the editors and writers who went through it discuss what it was like the week they found themselves reporting out who would be signing their paychecks.

The final moments of the film features footage that is only a few weeks old, which is kind of depressing to see in case you were hoping there would be a happy ending. Nope, just clips of Trump mouthing off against the press and constituents angrily taking their congresspeople to task. And then an orchestral, inspirational track comes on as talking heads explain the virtues of a free and open press, set against stills and clips of famous moments in journalism. This conclusion tries to build the viewer up, but instead points to the very problem with which we began: People think shoe-leather bombshell exposing capital J journalism is the only kind that needs protecting. They took Gawker, so maybe they’ll take the good guys next.

The uphill battle one has in using Bollea v. Gawker (ahem, #hulkvsgawk) to make the case for journalism is convincing people that Gawker deserved saving. “Nobody Speaks” misses the mark on that account, but it’s an almost impossible burden to meet. Many are still convinced Gawker was some monstrous site that attacked the innocent. Any time I mention this case to someone, they express interest and fear and anger and, to a person, feel the need to add at the end, “But I’m glad Gawker is gone.” Their eyes glaze over when they hear a defense of Gawker relating to its many newsworthy scoops. “But what about the time they made fun of someone!” Uh huh. For my money, I think it’s better to just point out the strange standard people held Gawker to in its day. I mean, it’s not like they ever killed anyone.

Journalism has no limits. It is an act that anyone can commit, more so today than at any point in history. And it’s not just about stories that make history. It’s about the millions of little stories that don’t. It’s about showing up every day and speaking not only truth to power, but truth to anyone who will listen. The corpus of these facts are what we call the news, and one never knows when the news will finally break. Gawker, all of Gawker, was a vital part of that ecosystem. Where’s the film that tells us that?

“Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” has been acquired by Netflix and will likely be released in early summer.

[photos: Getty, Tampa Bay Times]