The first part of Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press focuses on the recent, infamous lawsuit between Hulk Hogan and Gawker, a publication that prided itself on its abrasive tone, sly wit and uncompromising drive to rack more muck than any mainstream media outlet. Gawker’s ethos is to publish the story that journalists actually talk about, the real events of the day that journos and bloggers discusses behind closed doors and in Slack chatrooms but never make it out onto the printed page of the Washington Post or The New York Times.
It’s an admirable mission statement and one that Gawker has actually followed through to great successes, like with their Deadspin brand’s Manti Teo girlfriend hoax story, or the most recent hilarious and meticulously-well-reported analysis of Donald Trump’s supposed hair weave. Their stories were hilarious, refreshing and important, a necessity and a guilty pleasure for audiences who would only get half the story from mainstream outlets.
But often times Gawker, in an attempt to be the smartest, coolest kid in the room, would cross the line of good taste. The site once published texts between a male escort who was extorting a C-level, Conde Nast executive who had very small ties to the Obama administration. The piece revealed that he executive was attempting to cheat on his wife with a man, essentially outing him as gay. The internet reacted with furor, lambasting Gawker for publishing a story that had no hint of being newsworthy, except that it featured an executive that really only 100-200 people who work at Conde Nast in Chicago might have heard of. Even worse was Gawker’s reaction to the criticism, doubling down that what they did was just, inciting more criticism in the process. It was a bad move, a story that Gawker ultimately deleted, but one that revealed the thought and decision-making process of its staff members, and just what exactly quantifies as news to them. In their earnest attempt to bring down powerful figures with corrupt agendas, they lost sight of who exactly is powerful and what is the price worth paying to bring them down.
And that brings us back to the Hulk Hogan trial that is focused on for the majority of the film. Pretty much, Gawker published a portion of Hogan’s sex tape, Hogan sued, asking for it to be taken down, Gawker refused, Hogan took them to court, and, surprisingly, won the case, and a lot of money. Gawker couldn’t afford to keep its flagship site open anymore because and sold its most notable brands to Univision. But it wasn’t revealed until after the verdict that Peter Thiel, a prominent Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist, who had been outed as gay by Gawker nearly 10 years ago, had been funding the whole lawsuit as a revenge scheme to destroy Gawker. It’s pretty fascinating and the movie makes the whole events of the trial easy to follow.
But with all documentaries, there is an inherent bias here, that Gawker wasn’t in the wrong and that they shouldn’t have been shut down because a billionaire didn’t like them. It focuses too much on the Gawker staff being uncompromising champions of free speech, which they certainly were, while not giving enough time to actually point out that they could also be complete, self-important assholes, which they were as well. When the film transitions from its Gawker-Hogan scenes transition to the buying of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and its reporters who bravely covered the story, you get a sense that the Vegas writers are actually much better proponents of free speech, who aren’t necessarily trying to look for any powerful figure in a five-mile-radius to throw stones at, but rather are spending more time actually investigating stories that are worthwhile. The Vegas journos feel like adults, while the Gawker people come across like children. But that’s just my personal bias, being a longtime Gawker reader who mostly enjoyed their stories, but when they fucked up and didn’t own up to it, was immensely annoyed.
And that’s really the ultimate flaw of this movie, trying to weave two important but different First Amendment battles and pull out a common thread to fit its narrative: that billionaires ultimately have the capacity to control and disrupt the credibility of the media. This is true and it is happening, but the film loses its impact because the makeup of the people participating in both the Gawker and Vegas events are so different. Maybe that doesn’t matter, that we, the audience of the film and the readers of their journalism, aren’t in a position to say who is more right as a journo than the other, or which publication’s voice is more valid, one that wants to be king of the New York blogosphere, and another that just wants to tell whether the new casino that’s opening up on the strip will have free parking.
The juxtaposition is jarring and ultimately ineffective, and squanders the important message at the heart of this film. It’s a great dive into the Hulk Hogan case, but as an argument for the necessity of First Amendment rights for the press? I’ll leave that to a news organization I can trust.