Director Brian Knappenberger talks to Moneyish about the power of cold, hard cash over the media
A WWE champ fuming over his leaked and published sex tape, a courtroom beatdown of the internet’s favorite snark machine and a shadow benefactor with a bone to pick spawned a First Amendment debate for the ages.
The closest observer of Hulk Hogan and his Peter Thiel-financed obliteration of Gawker Media might be documentarian Brian Knappenberger, whose film “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” spells out the alarming implications of a Silicon Valley billionaire laying waste to a media outlet.
“Beyond all the tabloid-y kind of aspects of the sex tape and a wrestler and all this stuff, I think this case will be referenced by people on all sides for the next 20 years,” the filmmaker, 47, told Moneyish.
“This is one of those cases that’s on the fringes of acceptability … where we’re drawing the boundary of what kind of speech is acceptable or not,” he added. “And it has this element of how money can be leveraged against news organizations, or can be wielded against this value, freedom of the press.”
The film chronicles Hogan’s (real name Terry Bollea) privacy lawsuit against Gawker over its publishing a video in 2012 of him having sex with the wife of shock-jock Bubba (the Love Sponge) Clem. A Florida jury awarded Hogan $140 million in March 2016; reports later revealed the wrestler had received about $10 million from Thiel, the Silicon Valley financier and eventual President Trump confidante quietly stewing over a nine-year-old Gawker story outing him as gay. Gawker settled in bankruptcy for $31 million.
Advisers handling the Gawker bankruptcy estate are now weighing a sale of the flagship Gawker.com, left dormant after Univision scooped up the network’s other sites last year, the Wall Street Journal reported recently. (The Journal and Moneyish share a common publisher, Dow Jones.) Knappenberger, for his part, predicts “somebody will want that site”: “It’s still worth something, and it’s still got name recognition,” he said. “And a lot of people miss Gawker.”
Of course, “Nobody Speak” is framed in the image of Trump, who rode a wave of rage against “fake news” into the Oval Office and issues regular Twitter indictments against journalists. “Hatred and criticism of the press was a part of the trial,” Knappenberger said. “You had these New York bloggers coming in, and they were sort of demonized in a way that seemed to echo the way Trump was criticizing the press.”
POTUS has only stoked a “wave of hostility” in the seven months since he moved into 1600 Penn, Knappenberger said, pointing to Rep. Greg Gianforte’s (R-Mont.) recent assault of a reporter. But despite the media being under constant siege, he pointed to a “weird silver lining”: “The press has kind of stepped up a little bit, and we’ve seen a lot of good reporting,” he said.
He says the biggest challenge for the news business now is paying for “the good stories; the stories that take a while to cultivate.” “And as it’s struggling to find this new business model, it’s just getting hammered by extremely wealthy individuals,” the director said.
Bollea vs. Gawker should give even the most media-loathing of Trump supporters pause, he added. “Why can’t Peter Thiel’s tactics be used against any news organization?” he said. “Why can’t an angry billionaire on the left just sue Breitbart out of existence?”
So which will triumph: money or truth? For now, Knappenberger says, the tide could turn either way.
“We’re at this point where there’s a real battle right now: Who gets to define what’s real? Who gets to define what’s true? And I hope that we come to our senses and money doesn’t win out over that,” he said. “But I think it’s a bit too soon to tell.”
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