Brian Knapperberger's thought-provoking documentary "Nobody Speaks: Trials of a Free Press" is the stuff of journalists' nightmares: A dire warning of the growing threat to the First Amendment, in the form of vengeful billionaires.
The case at the heart of Knapperberger's alarming movie is a seemingly silly one: The defamation lawsuit filled by Terry Bollea better known to the world as wrestler Hulk Hogan against Gawker Media, the in-your-face news and gossip website. Bollea sued Gawker after the site ran excerpts of a sex tape involving Hogan and Kathleen Klem, wife of Hogan's friend, radio personality Todd Clem, a k a Bubba the Love Sponge.
As the case plays out, as Gawker co-founder Nick Denton (also a defendant in the case) and others tell Knappenberger, the motives for the lawsuit become confused. Bollea isn't interested in the money, or his lawyers wouldn't have dropped one of claims. It seemed more likely, they said, that Bollea was afraid a fuller tape would surface one where he used racial and homophobic language. (When that tape did come out, the WWE fired Bollea.)
After a jury found against Gawker and Denton, and levied a $140 million damage award that bankrupted the company, another bombshell dropped: Bollea's legal team was bankrolled by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, who wanted revenge on Gawker Media for an article years later that revealed Thiel to be gay.
For anyone who dismisses the Hulk Hogan case as a trivial matter involving celebrity and a sleazy website, Knappenberger ("The Internet's Own Boy") lines up media critics and First Amendment experts who see a chilling escalation of warfare against a free press. If a billionaire like Thiel can go after Gawker, what's to keep other billionaires like, as the movie points out, the one who just moved into the White House from trying the same on The New York Times or The Washington Post or CNN.
Or a newspaper just one state over from Utah. Knappenberger cites the example of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a once-proud paper that was bought up in secret by casino magnate and Republican kingmaker Sheldon Adelson.
With incisive interviews and a wealth of archival footage some as recent as Friday's inauguration Knappenberger makes a hard-hitting case that the current threat to the First Amendment is unique, and more dangerous than most can imagine.
– Sean P. Means
"Nobody Speak: Trials of a Free Press" screens again at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival at the following times and venues:
• Thursday, January 26, 6 p.m., Salt Lake City Library Theatre
• Friday, January 27, 4 p.m., Redstone Cinema 2, Park City
• Saturday, January 28, noon, Library Center Theatre, Park City