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We’re talking about more than just a trial or an election or even freedom of the press itself. We’re talking about the very notion of truth. What is true? What is false? What is reality?
So begins the story of Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, a documentary directed by Brian Knappenberger that explores the antagonisms between the rich and powerful and the media organizations that report on them. Nobody Speak focuses on two particular examples, the Hulk Hogan lawsuit against the online publication Gawker and the purchase of the Las Vegas Review Journal by business mogul Sheldon Adelson. In his coverage of each situation, Knappenberger’s perspective is clear: journalists and media organizations are frequently subject to the whims of billionaires.
Power dynamics are incredibly difficult to pin down or reduce to a science, and thus the worthy goal of gaining influence in order to fight injustice must be approached with humility and grace.In the Gawker case, the film takes a firm stance. As a relatively small and independent media company, Gawker—so the film claims—was the victim of wealthy interests. Gawker, it turns out, published a sex tape of Terry Bollea (more popularly known as wrestler Hulk Hogan) and Heather Clem, the wife of a radio personality and friend of Bollea’s. In the wake of this publication, Gawker was sued by Bollea for invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress. Bollea ultimately won the case, but it was later discovered that his legal team had been financed by Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire who was both an occasional target of Gawker’s and their frequent critic, epitomized by Gawker’s article, “Peter Thiel Is Totally Gay, People,” and Thiel’s comparing the outlet with Al Qaeda.
As Knappenberger’s film makes clear, the Bollea case sparked an important conversation about free speech, the role of the media, and the perils of celebrity. Nobody Speak features many interviews with Gawker writers and editors, and even spends significant time interviewing Bollea’s lawyers. The narrative hits all the right notes: Gawker is painted as the little guy willing to take jabs at the big bullies, Hogan comes across as vapid and vain, and there’s a well-timed reveal of Thiel as the true “villain.” These details make for entertaining fodder, but they also prompt truly difficult questions about power and vulnerability. In this case, who needed to be protected from whom? Who exactly held the power in this situation, and who was victim to it?
These questions are also at the heart of the second case highlighted by Nobody Speak. Again, the narrative is almost theatrical: the valiant journalists of the The Las Vegas Review Journal are frequently at odds with rich and powerful businessman Sheldon Adelson. Adelson is a prominent figure in both the gambling industry and Republican politics, and the Review Journal often reported on him and his powerful family. When the paper was purchased by a mysterious new owner, the staff was suspicious. An internal investigation ensued, and the paper ultimately published an article exposing their new owner, a move that cost the editor and a few writers their jobs when they were forced out.
Once again, the story is interesting enough on its own—the intrigue of a new owner purposefully concealing himself, and the drama of internal investigations. But Nobody Speak has a deeper concern than simply serving up one salacious story: not only can rich and powerful people buy out—or otherwise financially cripple—the media criticizing them; they can (almost) do it in secret. This case the documentary makes quite well, but curiously, Nobody Speak never quite draws one of the most interesting implications of these two stories.
Sometimes the rich and powerful sue media companies they don’t like; sometimes they become them. Yes, the contrast between Thiel’s and Adelson’s methods is clear: one used money to destroy the company he hated, and the other used money to buy it. But the tension these two narratives create is largely ignored by Knappenberger. How do we balance the truth that wealthy people have the ability to control the flow of information in unsettling ways while also acknowledging that journalists and publishers wield this power just as often and as effectively? Sometimes the “victim” isn’t as easily recognizable as we might like to believe.
The stories Nobody Speak tells function as excellent examples of their argument, no doubt. But the contrast between the methods of these two billionaires prompts the careful viewer to start asking more nuanced questions about the nature of power and vulnerability. Yes, Sheldon Adelson used his power and wealth to purchase a paper that frequently criticized him, and he can use his new ownership of the Review Journal to influence its coverage. But what “side” is he now on? What about the other owners or publishers or editors-in-chief of major publications or media corporations? Are they the underdog journalists or the power-hungry moguls?
In the case of Gawker, the tension plays out similarly. Gawker began as a small, independent media outlet that published uncomfortable criticisms of powerful people. However, by the time of the Bollea case, they’d become a large company with lots of cultural and social power. They had, and used, the opportunity to sway public opinion and release damaging information (or videos) about people, with negligible concern for the public good.
The narrative that Nobody Speak wants to communicate is an attractive one: valiant journalists take on the rich and powerful, and they often get squashed. It’s almost painfully predictable; rich and powerful businessmen are pulling the strings and manipulating media companies, and they’re always exposed at the last minute. But as media critic Jay Rosen notes, “Big stories where big issues are at stake don’t often resolve into perfectly neat morality tales.” And Nobody Speak is weakest when it tries to shoehorn its stories into one. Instead, the tensions and nuanced shades of what it means to have power and what it means to need protection from the powerful are what make Knappenberger’s documentary so interesting. The most compelling places in the film are those that reveal the deep vulnerabilities of powerful people.
Peter Thiel and Terry Bollea had a certain amount of financial or cultural power, but they both were harmed by Gawker’s coverage. Gawker’s antagonistic style built the outlet a substantial amount of cultural power, but they were taken down by overpowering financial interests. The Review Journal is powerful as an institution, but its journalists lost much of their cultural sway upon leaving. Adelson used his financial power to buy out the paper that was harming his cultural or political power. Different concepts of what it means to be “powerful” will largely determine who the “victim” was in each of these situations. Social, political, and economic power all have different dimensions and applications, and perspective matters greatly when determining how much each type matters.
Each group also possessed a different kind of social power, because cultivating the public perception of victimhood is often actually a path to strength. This could be said of everyone involved: Hogan, Gawker, conservative and liberal media alike. Knappenberger also draws broader connections to conservative media in the Trump age, as the concepts apply strongly in that realm as well. Hogan and Trump both have bombastic public personas, but they also enjoy playing the part of the beleaguered innocent. Many have noted that conservative media seems fixated on a particular narrative about discrimination and victimhood, as if they don’t realize their position of political power.
In all kinds of spheres, the idea of who or what is “powerful” and who needs to be protected from the powerful can shift unexpectedly. Even the organizations that are formed with bright-eyed optimism about “speaking truth to power” can very easily become the powerful themselves. While Gawker intended to tell the truth about powerful people, it became a powerful cultural institution in its own right, with all the resulting temptations and pitfalls. In our own history, when evangelicals have sought to influence the powerful, we often end up seeking cultural and political power of our own. Or the already powerful can skillfully paint themselves as the victims of something supposedly much more powerful.
Not only does perspective matter, but definitions play a large role—what is “power” and who gets to define it? The same questions the documentary asks about the nature of truth can be eerily applicable here: “power” is as amorphous and contentiously defined of a concept as truth. Everyone thinks they are on the side of the “truth” fighting “power,” but determining what falls into each of those categories is what’s really at stake. And that becomes an important reminder for anyone seeking to fight injustice: it’s easy to turn into the monster you’re trying to fight.
Perhaps Nobody Speak’s most salient point lies somewhere in that tension. Power dynamics are incredibly difficult to pin down or reduce to a science, and thus the worthy goal of gaining influence in order to fight injustice must be approached with humility and grace. Lest we find ourselves maneuvering our way into more social power by accentuating real or perceived discrimination, we must treat the power or influence we’ve been given the same way we treat every good gift from the Lord: with open hands and for the sake of others.
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