In Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, New York University associate professor Jay Rosen describes good investigative journalism as that which “exposes things that powerful people don’t want known.” Through much of its history, America has celebrated efforts to speak the truth about power; however, the current social and political moment is one in which journalists who attempt to do so are sometimes demonized and even threatened. A slate of recent documentaries attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of the free press while reminding viewers of its role in protecting democracy by exposing the words and deeds of powerful people to public scrutiny.
Nobody Speak, which premiered at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival and is now playing on Netflix, uses the case of Bollea v. Gawker to highlight the ways rich and powerful people can attempt to undermine and discredit the free press. Terry Bollea (a.k.a. Hulk Hogan) sued Gawker for posting excerpts from a sex video in which he appeared, eventually prevailing in a Florida court even after attempts to sue in federal court were dismissed.
No one comes off well in Nobody Speak. Gawker appears to have legal precedent on its side, but it makes itself an easy target by wallowing in the journalism of personal destruction. Nick Denton sums up Gawker’s mission by saying they wrote the news “without access, favor, or discretion.” Gawker writer John Cook is blunter, saying he wanted to write “true things about bad people.”
But even as Gawker’s mission and attitude help explain why they were a lightning rod for anti-press forces, they still come off as more honest and sincere than the people who vilify and punish them. Bollea, who the film intimates cared more about suppressing the reporting of a second video in which he used racial epithets, laughably dismisses questions about his emotional distress by claiming that “Hulk Hogan” gave up the expectation of privacy by going on Howard Stern and joking about the sex tape, but that he and his “character” should be treated as different legal entities. Bollea’s lawyers leave serious doubts about whether they are serving their client or the secret financer of the lawsuit when they dismiss a charge in the lawsuit for no other apparent reason than to make Gawker unable to use insurance to cover possible damages.
Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel admits to paying millions of dollars of Bollea’s legal fees even though he has no connection to the case. The scapegoating of the media plays out against a backdrop where then–presidential candidate Donald Trump tells a riled up rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that “I would never kill [journalists],” and then grins and waves his hand in a 50-50 gesture as the crowd turns to hurl obscenities and jeers at the reporters covering the event. One attendee wears the now infamous shirt with the caption: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.”
As Nobody Speak spirals outward from the Gawker case to examine the broader cultural conflicts between journalists and the powerful, it loses some of its focus but none of its righteous indignation. The chapter on Sheldon Adelson buying the Las Vegas Review-Journal probably belongs in a separate movie, even if it does underline the film’s thesis that money can squash dissent even if it can never fully silence it. (In one of the film’s ugliest moments, columnist John L. Smith recounts how Adelson offered to pay over $100,000 of his daughter’s medical fees—but only if the columnist would publicly say he libeled him.)