Features & Columns

Netflix Doc Explores Valley's Role in Assault on the Free Press

Brian Knappenberger, director of 'Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press,' explains the three-pronged attack on the media
Peter Thiel funded Hulk Hogan's lawsuit gainst Gawker after being outed as gay in 2007. Photo by Kevin Moloney, Fortune Brainstorm Tech via Flickr

It's not easy to watch Hulk Hogan's mighty heart break. Last summer, there he sat in a Florida courtroom, wearing a black bandanna of mourning, chewing on his biker mustache as he tried to rehabilitate his reputation in court.

The trouble began in 2012, when the celebrity gossip website Gawker published a cuck-video of Hogan having sex with his BFF's wife, Ms. Heather Clem. The BFF—Todd Clem, a.k.a. shock-radio personality Bubba The Love Sponge—covertly ran the camera, and Hogan claimed in court that he knew nothing about the filming; Todd Clem took the Fifth. The story gained extra piquancy because Hogan was the best man at Mr. The Love Sponge's wedding. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his wife for his friends.

When Gawker—accused of invasion of privacy and personality infringement, among other claims—refused to take down a post of the sex video, even after receiving a cease-and-desist letter, Bollea v. Gawker opened up in the Pinellas County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. When the smoke cleared, Gawker and its subsidiaries were left to face the bad end of a remarkably generous judgment of $140.1 million aggregate. The website and its subsidiaries went bankrupt almost immediately, and Univision scooped up the remaining assets for $135 million.

It seems strangely coincidental that the downfall of everyone's favorite (and, at times, most hated) online tabloid coincided with the rise of a different tangerine-colored figment of 1980s wrestling, Donald Trump. Beyond journalists, few seemed to realize Gawker's death was a harbinger of a greater war against the media, financed by wealthy individuals. As "fake news" became a rallying cry at his speeches, Trump gained ground on Hillary Clinton.

While this blustering strongman rose to political power, who really had the attention span to keep tabs on an old-time grappler's sex tape lawsuit in a Florida courtroom?

Unfortunately, Bollea v. Gawker was not just the usual random titillation. It was later discovered that Hulk Hogan had a secret partner funding his lawsuit. The money paid for the sordid case was, in fact, payback against Gawker. The secret donor to Hulk Hogan was Peter Thiel, the prominent Silicon Valley tech financier.

The trial is the focus of a new Netflix documentary, Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press. The New York Times dismissed the documentary—"Almost nothing in Nobody Speak breaks new ground," critic Ben Kenigsberg wrote—but it's bizarre how little talk went on in the valley about a titan of tech's actions in putting a media outlet to death.

Brian Knappenberger, director of Nobody Speak, said he encountered trouble conveying the importance of what happened in the Florida courtroom. He's met people who thought it couldn't have happened to a nicer website, and that Gawker had it coming.

"Yeah, all the time," Knappenberger said by phone. "I get it a lot, and it's kind of bizarre. Or I hear that idea that Gawker actually courted the lawsuit. I don't think they understand that this kind of lawsuit can be used against any outlet, even in a country that prides itself on freedom of expression.

"We're living in a time when the rich are so much richer than they've ever been, and because of the vanishing of classified ad revenue, journalism is more vulnerable than ever."

To some, Hogan's victory and the sinking of Gawker was a warning. As Nicholas Lemann, professor emeritus of the Columbia Journalism school, put it in The New Yorker, "Journalists and their lawyers ought to be arming themselves for a protracted war."

Hogan's point during the Florida trial was that the leaked tape hurt him as a man. Hulk Hogan was simply a character, created by one Terry Gene Bollea. His lawyers argued that when Hulk later went on Howard Stern to joke about the tape—to boast of both his marital and his martial prowess—that he was doing so in character. The real Bollea was not actually rocking a 10-inch schwanzstucker, as he had told Stern on the air. Instead, he was a quiet and humble guy. Bollea, not "the larger than life, All-American professional wrestler" as Hogan testified, who ached for very expensive closure.

When Hogan's lawyers, in a calculated move, dropped the "infliction of emotional distress" claim, Gawker Media's insurer, Nautilus, was no longer on the hook for damages. The protracted legal battle between Hogan and Gawker lasted several years, but it was only in May 2016 that first Forbes, and then the New York Times revealed Thiel had been paying for the wrestler's expensive litigators.

Thiel, an early investor in Facebook and a founder of PayPal, is by no means the richest entrepreneur in the valley, but he's done pretty well. Forbes estimates his net worth at $2.7 billion, making him No. 825 on the magazine's real-time list of "The World's Billionaires" as of July.

In a Valleywag editorial, Owen Thomas, the then-editor of Gawker's tech blog, outed Thiel as gay. Thomas, gay himself, concluded the exposure with, "More power to him." It's this century's way of saying, "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

One could argue that this outing was a way of embarrassing Thiel. One could also point out that in a culture where the bro-ethos rules supreme, identifying Theil as gay was a way of reminding the lords of the valley that gay people are everywhere. One could compare and contrast the way the first openly gay Fortune 500 CEO, Tim Cook of Apple, handled a similar situation: After being accidentally outed by CNBC, Cook publicly discussed his sexual orientation in an editorial in 2014.

Gawker had a self-declared mandate to publish stories other outlets were scared to touch—for reasons of what's left of good taste in our society, of lack of the usual vetting, or of just plain ridiculousness. "The stories journalists exchange among themselves," is how co-founder Nick Denton explained Gawker's mission in Nobody Speak.

Frivolity was essential. The site's genuine scoops, such as video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford sucking on a crack pipe, dueled with the epochal "No-Talent Hack Cat Fired for Sucking," a story about a pussycat understudy dropped from the Broadway production of Breakfast at Tiffany's.

The site did, however, do useful and funny work: Caity Weaver documenting the Paula Deen damage-control cruise, Tom Scocca's essay bringing light to rape allegations against Bill Cosby, a series of stories on leaked Sony documents that revealed in-house racism at the studio, and Sam Biddle pinging the valley's upper crust on Valleywag. And on and on.

'Nobody Speak' director Brian Knappenberger says he's lost faith in 'techno-utopia.' Photo by John Tyler Curtis

The payback to Gawker followed years of stories about Thiel and his cohorts. Gawker reported on Thiel's Facebook partner, Sean Parker, throwing a redwood-trampling wedding that ended with a $2.5 million penalty Parker paid to the state of California. They also ran articles on the big fiscal losses earlier this decade at Thiel's Clarium Capital.

A developer of PayPal and one of the initial financiers of Facebook, Thiel has always been ahead of his time. He's contradicted himself over the years, as a great mind will. He's donated to the nonprofit Freedom of the Press Foundation, which has since denounced Thiel's big-payback donation to Hogan's lawyers. The foundation's spokesman, Trevor Timm wrote, "Do you think that because Gawker's demise is something you agree with that the same thing won't happen to newspapers you like in the future?"

Theil has a motto: "There is no middle ground. Either don't throw punches or strike quickly and end it quickly." Knappenberger had tried to get an on-camera interview with the financier "to see what his perspective was." Alas, like many attempts by the press to get Thiel on the record (including this outlet), it went nowhere.

"We tried a couple of times and got a call back from one of this people," Knappenberger said. "He hasn't been opaque about his participation in the Hogan suit."

Indeed, Thiel wrote a New York Times op-ed and said that what he did was "less about revenge and more about a specific type of deterrence." Last year, at a Halloween appearance at the National Press Club, he described Gawker as a "singularly sociopathic bully." He added, "These were not journalists."

Many a journalist has tried and failed to get Thiel to expound on these thoughts. "I would have liked to hear from him, and the fact that he doesn't want to join in in a public discussion doesn't reflect well on him," Knappenberger said.

Personally, the director said he wouldn't have run the column outing Thiel if he'd been Gawker's editor. "That doesn't mean anything, though," he said. "The legal boundaries aren't crossed when that happens."

Gawker's Denton, who is also gay, maintained that Thiel's sexual orientation was an open secret in the valley but hidden from the public to preserve financial opportunities. Nearly a decade later, Thiel stood at the Republican convention in Cleveland and announced he was "proud to be gay" to reassure the world that Trump had nothing against homosexuals. Obviously, the Republican's semi-big tent is packed with people who pray their knees off for gay people's conversion to heterosexuality. And those are the gentle ones.

Thiel serves as an adviser to the president, who continues to call the media an enemy of the state. Trump sicced his crowds on the press as "the world's most dishonest people" and slyly urged his followers to attack, in such winking language that he could deny it later. "We're gonna have people sue you like you've never been sued before," Trump bellowed from the podium. And his daily tweets against "fake news" continue. Threats calling for attacks and harassment against reporters continue. In the past few months a Guardian reporter was body-slammed by a congressional candidate, while a reporter was arrested for simply trying to interview Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price. It may not be long before shooting the messenger is more than just an expression.

Knappenberger was editing Nobody Speak for Sundance when Trump won the election. He doesn't have much to say about that victory, a conversation killer if ever there was one.

The director of We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists and The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz has carved out his own particular end of the documentary field. He said these documentaries are rooted in his once-upon-a-time optimism about what the internet could do. "Fifteen years ago, I was the kind of person who believed in techno-utopia. Five to six years later, I saw the downside of that. I'm fascinated at how our lives are shifting, and how much information is stored in insecure areas. It's shaking tried and true notions of civil liberty, and I find that tension really interesting."

It sometimes seems that it is a double standard—that the people in charge of this valley want to know everything possible, and yet they want to stay hidden behind one-way glass. They see everything, but their privacy is paramount.

"I'm worried about the average person," Knappenberger said. "It's a bizarre position. There's so much we put online, with the mass NSA surveillance. They have access to so much of what we do. It's a massive, massive lack of transparency, a huge imbalance because they know what people are doing, and yet we don't know what's going on."

According to the director, numerous examples of what's chronicled in Nobody Speak have occurred since his film debuted at Sundance. Knappenberger also gives a multi-sided account of the Sheldon Adelson defamation case in his movie, which ended with the casino billionaire taking over the Las Vegas Review Journal.

"John Oliver and Time Warner get sued by John Murray, a coal billionaire," Knappenberger said. "Then there's Sarah Palin's New York Times suit, alleging that she'd been defamed by connection to the Gabby Giffords shooting. And Idaho billionaire Frank VanderSloot tried to put Mother Jones magazine out of business."

VanderSloot once bankrolled an ad saying that gay marriage might lead to animal-human marriages, and—in a reversal of Thiel's big payback—VanderSloot was even alleged to have outed a gay reporter of Mother Jones.

The left-wing, nonprofit investigative magazine summed up the legal battle, which it won after millions were spent on lawyers: "Legally, what we fought over was what, precisely, the terms 'bashing' and 'outing' meant. ... But make no mistake: This was not a dispute over a few words. It was a push, by a super-rich businessman and donor, to wipe out news coverage that he disapproved of. Had he been successful, it would have been a chilling indicator that the 0.01 percent can control not only the financing of political campaigns, but also the media coverage of those campaigns."

There have always been men of wealth going after the press, as in the case of pressure by the robber barons of yesterday. Ambrose Bierce had a regular target, Leland Stanford, sometimes described as "$tealin £andford" by Bierce in his San Francisco Examiner articles. A Stanford associate, railroad tycoon Collis Huntington, who had gotten unpaid-for land from the government, asked Bierce to name his price to lay off. Bierce replied "My price is $130 million. If, when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you may hand it over to my friend, the treasurer of the United States."

It's hard to find that kind of brio today in the media, and we're entering uncharted territory about how the wealthy can snuff dissent. To say nothing about influencing an election. In this Valley of the Libertarian—where press freedom should be particularly sacred—we're not hearing much protest against Thiel's participation in the Gawker shutdown. Perhaps the closest thing to criticism came from U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, who counted Thiel among his early campaign supporters. Khanna told Metro he disagreed with Thiel's action. "We need try to find some line of nuance and privacy and dignity of an individual when it has nothing to do with their public role."

It's been a good strategy for political billionaires to tie up periodicals in court and bleed them with the cost of lawyers, in hopes that their secrets will stay that way. "The uber-wealthy don't have to do much to have an oversize impact," Knappenberger said.

So what should journalists be doing?

"They should be rethinking libel insurance and they should be looking into ways of protecting themselves," Knappenberger said. "Lowell Bergman, the CBS journalist who was the subject of the film The Insider, teaches journalism grad school at Berkeley. One of his exercises is getting all the students in his class to sue each other for libel, making a mock play out of how it happens. In the meantime, they might want to end the practice of writing softball stories with the powerful in exchange for access. A rethinking of that kind of approach could help, and it proves it's a good idea for journalists to ignore useless press conferences."