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The director of Netflix’s Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker movie wants you to stand up for the press

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In Brian Knappenberger’s new documentary, Nobody Speak, the medium is everything

Photo: Steve Nesius / Netflix

The day Gawker officially shut down, crippled by a legal battle with Hulk Hogan and billionaire financier Peter Thiel, founder Nick Denton published the site’s final post. In an essay called “How Things Work,” he argued that Gawker’s death wasn’t a freak accident or an avoidable tragedy, so much as its inevitable fate: “Gawker’s demise turns out to be the ultimate Gawker story. It shows how things work.”

The piece carries the tone and tenor of a rising tide of liberal conspiracy theories. In a vacuum, the basic facts of the Gawker story sound like something dredged up from the more unhinged corners of Reddit. The way money, power, and the First Amendment faced off in the 2016 case is almost too cinematic to even function with a documentary film as its framework. So The Internet’s Own Boy director Bryan Knappenberger had his work cut out for him when he tackled the Gawker story in Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, which will be available on Netflix on Friday, June 23rd.

In Nobody Speak, Knappenberger tries to get the Gawker lawsuit saga down, alongside the story of billionaire Republican donor Sheldon Adelson secretly buying the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2015. And he adds in a decent overview of how President Trump has largely succeeded in playing off a simmering public distrust of the media. With less than two hours to get into it all, the film has to move at a breakneck pace. Knowing that Nobody Speak debuted at Sundance less than 10 months after the initial Gawker verdict, it’s easy to wish Knappenberger had the resources or time to make something longer, and more logically segmented.

People who followed the Gawker case as it developed won’t find any major revelations in Nobody Speak, any new insights to set them back on their heels, or revise their opinions. And while Knappenberger says he had no trouble finding Gawker employees who wanted to talk about the case, it’s glaringly obvious that Denton and executive editor John Cook are the only on-camera interviewees who were still at the company in 2016.

It’s odd that Nobody Speak opens on former Gawker editor-in-chief A.J. Daulerio, then completely abandons him by its end. Instead, the film heavily prioritizes Denton’s perspective. True, that structure does parallel the way Daulerio claims Gawker Media and Denton left him to grapple with the lawsuit’s $115 million penalty on his own. When Daulerio published the infamous Hulk Hogan sex tape, and Hogan successfully sued over invasion of privacy, Denton and the company protected themselves with bankruptcy filings. Gawker.com itself was shuttered, but Gawker Media, and Gawker’s sister sites, were able to survive. Daulerio’s account is just one side of the story, of course, but it doesn’t get much space in Nobody Speak, which generally presents Denton as a pillar of the free press and a protector of journalists. And yet Knappenberger doesn’t particularly address the question of what happens to individual journalists in a media outlet lawsuit; he only focuses on the outcome for the publication itself.

So as a documentary, Nobody Speak is a little uneven. But as a cultural object that needed to exist, it’s welcome for the way it sums up the case and presents it to viewers. Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message, and this is a great example: releasing the documentary on Netflix puts a full-throated argument for the value of an oppositional press into the streaming catalog of 100 million Netflix subscribers (rather than dropping into a few hundred major city cinemas, where only the already-inclined would see it). Netflix’s high-profile documentary distribution is the best thing it’s done for film so far, making viral hits out of Ava DuVernay’s 13th, Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone?, and many other films.

Recently, I sat down with Knappenberger to hear more about why he’s dedicated his career to documenting money and power on the internet, what he thinks the press should do next, and why his movie was perfect for Netflix.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What got you interested in the Gawker story, and in making a documentary about it?

It was the first time a sex tape case like this had ever gone to trial. It was this big, tabloid-y, salacious kind of thing, but at the same time, it was pretty obvious that there were some big-picture “privacy vs. First Amendment” things at stake. It wasn’t an easy case, it wasn’t a simple case, and it was right at the fringes of acceptability. I had some sympathy for Hulk Hogan’s case.

What really clicked it in was when that $140 million verdict came down. It was so enormous, combined with the requirement to put up $50 million right away. That was the death sentence for Gawker, and whatever you thought about them, it became scary that they weren’t allowed to exist anymore. And then, of course, the fact that Peter Thiel was funding Hulk Hogan’s case. That was bizarre from a storytelling perspective, and disturbing that it was done in secret.

I think it’s John Cook who argues in the documentary that this could be the moment in the history of the free press where say,You know, that’s where it all went really wrong.” Would you say that’s true?

I would. I always try to make the case that, with both the Peter Thiel story and the Sheldon Adelson story, there are elements that aren’t new. In the Thiel case, litigation financing is not new, that’s not unheard of. Even the ACLU will pick a case and come down and support one side to make a political point. But the secrecy is new, and the way Peter Thiel moved the chess pieces behind the scenes is new. I don’t see any reason that couldn’t be applied to any other journalistic outlet.

With Adelson, very rich people have often bought newspapers, but the secretive way he went about buying that newspaper seems odd, and like something we need to pay attention to. There’s a “canary in the coal mine” element to this. Inequality has gotten so staggering. This gap between the uber-rich and everybody else is so enormous, and journalism is so vulnerable. [We’ll] look back at this moment as incredibly significant.

So why bring this documentary to Netflix specifically?

We finished it right before Sundance, and we started the film right after the verdict. By documentary standards, that’s pretty fast. We were in a big rush to premiere it by Sundance, and we didn’t show it to anybody before that. A lot of people were interested there, but for lots of reasons, Netflix seemed like a great partner. I loved the fact that they’re in 190 countries, they have 100 million subscribers, and they’re in 25 languages. There’s no other platform like that for a documentary. It seemed like the right path, rather than an extended theatrical run.

The Gawker story sounds like a conspiracy theory. All these intersecting threads of money and power and vindictiveness and betrayal, it sounds fake. How do you make that accessible to an audience that might not be sympathetic toward the media?

I hope there’s enough for almost anybody to come to this story. The way I go about that is just to tell the story. Tell the series of events, and the way they happened, in the order they unfolded. They are bizarre, and almost every time it had an opportunity to take a turn, it took the more bizarre direction.

Not many people have made films about online media. A lot of movies about the internet don’t really connect with the full scope of the issues.

It’s a classic problem. But as a filmmaker, you can’t be afraid of that now. Our whole lives exist online, and so much drama that’s important [is online]. As a documentarian, you want to document the human condition — and most of it is online. You have to figure out how to do that, whether it’s with graphics or showing post or animating type. You have to find ways to solve problems as they come up. That paints you into a corner, but it’s a good corner, creatively, to try to get out of.

Are there are other filmmakers out there who are doing that well?

Nobody is operating on my level, I don’t think. [Laughs] I think filmmakers are struggling with this. But it’s not just filmmakers, it’s also when you try to pitch stories. Often, you get this kind of pushback. People say, “Yeah, it’s interesting, but how is it visual?” It’s a good question for a visual medium, but it’s a question you have to answer. These stories need to get told. They’re the most interesting and relevant stories happening. I also really believe we’re not in a world anymore where somehow the internet is the realm of geeks, hackers, coders, and programmers. That’s the world. You spend your entire life offline.

I love staying in this territory. I genuinely think our lives are shifting in the ways we communicate, in all sorts of ways. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out yet. As new technology hits and changes who we are, how does that affect traditional values of human rights and civil liberties, and the kinds of things we feel work in a democracy? How does technology change that? Those are the most interesting stories, and the hardest stories.

Writers have compared Trump to Nixon, in terms of his attacks on the press and the way he’s encouraged distrust of the press. But Nixon gave the press one of its finest hours. Do you think people are handling that moment well this time around?

I do, actually. I think there’s great reporting coming from The Washington Post, The New York Times, and others. That’s kind of my silver lining in all this. I do feel like this daily hostility that Trump shows toward the press, and this fear, real fear, has sparked good journalism and reminded people what they’re there for. There are legitimate criticisms of the press, and there’s a reason people’s opinion of the media is so low: I think it’s become too corporatized over time, [and] there’s a legitimate criticism that it’s gotten too cozy with power, that it’s traded softball stories for access to power and celebrity. But people are reevaluating that now that they have this common enemy, and I have some optimism in that.

In the film, when you’re discussing Peter Thiel secretly funding this lawsuit due to a personal vendetta, John Cook says something about Silicon Valley being an “invisible monster.” Is that something you want to keep looking at with future documentaries?

Definitely. If you take DC, there’s the whole Washington press corps that’s set up around reporting on power. They might not be good enough. They could be much stronger. The same is true in New York around financial coverage. There are a lot of news outlets, and a whole industry set up to talk about Wall Street. They aren’t good enough either, they didn’t see the 2008 crisis coming, which was kind of their job. There’s a whole press corps in LA around celebrity. But if you think about Silicon Valley, there’s so much money and so much power there, and almost no adversarial journalism.

It’s hard to find good, solid journalism about Silicon Valley. Most of the time, what passes as journalism is just showing up to product launches and clapping for the new thing. And I think that’s what the powerful in Silicon Valley think the role of the press is. “You are here to help us sell products, get stuff out of our PR wing.” But you know, I think this thing with Uber is a pretty good example of the press doggedly going after this toxic culture created by this guy. That’s a hopeful story.

Photo by Mark Humphrey / Netflix

Some people would say it’s unfortunate, though, because a lot of Gawker reporters originally poked at those Silicon Valley cultures, with blog posts that were called mean or stupid at the time.

That’s true! Peter Thiel said of Gawker that they’re bad for the Valley, or the Al Qaeda of the Valley, or something, because they dared to do stories that were critical of power, when so few people do that.

So what do you want people who watch this documentary to take away from it? Is there anything they should do?

I want them to take away the fact that a free, independent, adversarial press is important. They should support it financially and stand up for the concept. It’s weird to find ourselves in a position where we have to stand up for the concept itself, but I think we do. There are so many daily attacks on the media. There’s so much distortion about what it is and how it’s biased. You have to question that stuff, but that doesn’t mean you throw it out or damage it or, god forbid, pass some kind of law that diminishes it. Stand up for our press, stand up against frivolous lawsuits, and demand transparency.

Nobody Speak will be available to stream on Netflix on June 23rd.