You wouldn’t assume there’s a connection to be made between Donald Trump and Hulk Hogan’s penis. But such is the world we live in now—a garishly stupid, casually surreal cacophony of professional wrestling posturing, corporate authoritarianism, and open hostility toward the journalists whose job it is to decry those things, guided by the whims of billionaires pretending to be populists, and carried out by people so sick of bad news, they’ve decided news itself is the problem. It’s that ugly morass that writer-director Brian Knappenberger aims to capture with his compelling if slightly lopsided documentary Nobody Speak: Trials Of The Free Press. And it’s a subject that should appeal to anyone who doesn’t wield the words “the media” as an insult.
But first, you’ll have to get past Hulk Hogan’s dick. Just before its premiere at Sundance, Nobody Speak dropped the wrestler’s name from its subtitle, along with that of Gawker, the website he sued and subsequently bankrupted over a clip of Hogan having sex with the wife of his best friend, radio personality Bubba The Love Sponge. Presumably, this was done to distance Nobody Speak from the salaciousness of that battle, and recast it as a more universal portrait of the many threats facing American journalism—complete with freshly ripped footage of Trump’s inauguration, and his administration’s “alternative facts”-brandishing war on the media he quickly declared “the enemy of the people.” Yet the Hogan vs. Gawker war still forms the film’s central conflict, and where your sympathies lie will naturally color your perception of whether this was a case of injustice or just deserts.
Here’s where things get knotty for us, personally. The bankrupting of Gawker Media led directly to its being acquired by Univision, where it was quickly rebranded as the Gizmodo Media Group and folded into a collection of publications that also includes The A.V. Club. As such, any perceived defense we might offer here of Gawker’s approach—of the gleefully caustic zeal for afflicting the comfortable (or anyone it could make fun of) that led the late David Carr to brand it as “the mean girls” who “rule the playground”—will undoubtedly be read as us toeing some company line. This despite all of these events, and the actual existence of Gawker, taking place long before we all shared the same needlessly byzantine expense reporting system.
So, let’s just say this: Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter what you think of Gawker, or whether you agree with its founder Nick Denton when he shrugs here, “The world is mean sometimes. What do you want?” It shouldn’t matter whether you believe former editor John Cook when he proudly declares that Gawker wrote “true things about bad people,” or if you feel any compassion for A.J. Daulerio, the writer who posted that Hogan clip, as he recounts the personal and professional ruin he’s experienced since. As the many constitutional lawyers and media scholars assembled here attest, this was never about whether Gawker itself was worth saving. It’s about whether we should allow any publication to be silenced by someone with an agenda and a whole lot of wealth. As one expert puts it, “This is one of the most important First Amendment cases in American history,” even if it does revolve around a website snarking about a wrestler’s sex life.
Knappenberger does a good job of addressing the absurdity of this situation, beginning with the notion that the entire trial hinged on the prosecutor’s argument that Hulk Hogan, a public figure who bragged to Howard Stern about his sexual prowess, isn’t the same person as Terry Bollea, even down to the size of their respective penises. Nobody Speak establishes this as a dangerous precedent, drawing a parallel to claims that Donald Trump’s history of sexist behavior was just his television character—a blurring of reality and “puffery” that’s only become more troubling now that a television character is president. But as the film also disconcertingly lays out, in the end those philosophical questions didn’t matter so much as money, with Hogan’s attorneys cleverly dropping a charge that would allow Gawker to cover its legal costs with insurance, deliberately racking up billable hours, and engaging in a protracted, systematic bleeding bankrolled by—as it turns out—another rich guy with a vendetta.
Said rich guy, Peter Thiel, enters Nobody Speak midway through with a Bond villain flair appropriate for a man who dreams of building his own floating libertarian utopia in the ocean, where he can feed off the blood of the young in peace. And in laying out Thiel’s personal enmity for Gawker Media, and his realization that he could kill it simply by outspending it, Knappenberger paints a persuasive picture of the other, very real dangers being posed to the media by Thiel’s fellow merchant princes—particularly those in Silicon Valley, to whom the media has already ceded most of its power—and whose vindictiveness has only been endorsed and strengthened by the tycoon Thiel helped put into office. The film does a fine, terrifying job of suggesting that Gawker was just the first casualty in a brewing war against a free press, waged by a man who regards any criticism as biased hate, and carried out by a public he’s whipped into a mistrustful, jeering, reporter body-slamming frenzy.
Nobody Speak stumbles slightly by devoting its final third to the sad story of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, whose team of acclaimed investigative journalists found itself swiftly dismantled after the paper was bought by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson in 2015, ostensibly as a way of killing any articles he didn’t like. On the one hand, their cautionary tale provides the audience with someone to root for—“real” reporters standing up for their profession against moneyed goons—and it gives the film’s overall point the weight of their nobility. But as important as the story may be, and as much as it fits into the film’s overarching thesis, the Review-Journal saga ends up feeling slightly at odds with the Gawker/Hogan narrative, in a way that unfortunately feeds into the argument that Gawker’s own supposed lack of nobility means it got what it deserved. Because what Nobody Speak should remind us is that all journalism deserves protection from tyrants—even when it’s about somebody’s dick.