Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, a documentary about the death of Gawker premiering Friday on Netflix, opens with A.J. Daulerio, the former editor of the site, reading an email from his bank: “We placed a hold on your account.” Daulerio can’t help but laugh as he reads out the unfathomable sum: “$230 million is the amount of the hold.”
The big legal fight in 2016 between Gawker and Peter Thiel (featuring Hulk Hogan!) was seemingly preordained for movie treatment. It featured an irresistible cast of characters: a vampiric Silicon Valley billionaire, an aging pro wrestler, and a group of dirtbag New York reporters. But Nobody Speak, directed by Brian Knappenberger, isn’t really about Gawker or Thiel or Hulk Hogan’s penis. It’s about inequality.
It was under Daulerio’s byline that Gawker published the Hulk Hogan sex tape that ultimately led to Hogan, a.k.a. Terry Bollea, being awarded $140 million in damages by a Florida jury. Gawker Media, founder Nick Denton, and Daulerio all ended up filing for bankruptcy. It wasn’t until after the trial ended that it was reported by Forbes that Thiel was secretly funding Bollea’s case. Thiel claims that he did so because Gawker “has been a singularly terrible bully,” most notably by outing him in a blog post in 2007. Denton, for his part, is convinced that Thiel was mad that Gawker Media, through its Valleywag blog, was a thorn in the side of Thiel and his powerful friends in Silicon Valley.
But as Nobody Speak points out, these are mere details. The story of Gawker’s murder boils down to the fact that a very, very rich man was able to destroy a publication he disliked with impunity. As Floyd Abrams, a lawyer specializing in the First Amendment, says in the documentary, what Thiel has done is to “potentially imperil entities who upset large, rich, powerful people and institutions. And it’s not limited to individuals. This can be corporations.” By opening with the comically enormous hold on Daulerio’s bank account, the film viscerally illustrates the division between billionaires like Thiel and the rest of us.
Knappenberger underscores this idea by dedicating the final third of his documentary not to Gawker, but to another media company: the Las Vegas Review-Journal. In January 2016, the paper was mysteriously bought by an anonymous entity—even Review-Journal staffers were kept in the dark. Audio shows Michael Schroeder, the man who helped facilitate the deal, being pressed by the staff to reveal the new owner, to which he fumblingly responds, “We really don’t think … they want you to focus on your job.”
So they did. It was Review-Journal reporters themselves who uncovered their new owner: the billionaire casino magnate and Republican heavyweight donor Sheldon Adelson. After the purchase, it was reported that Adelson barred reporters from writing stories about him and that stories about Adelson’s business deals were either killed or heavily edited.
By linking these two seemingly disparate cases, Knappenberger argues that the media story of our time isn’t about the destruction of a single news organization (Gawker) or the takeover of another (Review-Journal). He suggests that our new Gilded Age has seen the return not only of monopolization and astronomic inequality, but also outsized oligarchical influence over the media, whether it’s an envelope-pushing website, a storied newspaper, or something in between.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post—and while he has promised not to interfere with the paper’s coverage, that promise is, of course, dependent on the whims of Jeff Bezos. The Wall Street Journal is in the grips of Rupert Murdoch. Jared Kushner, son of a wealthy New Jersey developer and son-in-law to a wealthy New York developer-turned-president of the United States, owns the New York Observer. Fancy sportswear mogul Peter Barbey bought the Village Voice in 2015, whose union he is now reportedly in the process of destroying. A billionaire Republican donor, Frank VanderSloot, nearly bankrupted Mother Jones. The very idea of media as a public service has long been in decline, with television news networks bowing before the demands of advertisers and Donald Trump threatening to eliminate funding for public broadcasting.
It’s hard to escape the sense that empowered members of the one percent are spending their buckets of money to remake the media in their preferred image. As NPR’s David Folkenflik states in the documentary, “Peter Thiel’s decision to get involved was of a different order. What he did in financing the suits against Gawker was a kind of adversarial stance and attack that was sheathed from public view.” And all of this comes amidst a historic rise in distrust of and hostility toward the press on the part of the American public itself. Trump rode his way to the presidency in part by taking the “dishonest media” to task.
It should be no surprise, then, that income inequality is strongly correlated with freedom of the press. The World Press Freedom index lists Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark as countries with the freest press, while the United States is ranked at an embarrassing 43. These countries also have a much lower Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality) than the United States.
In the end, Nobody Speak devolves into a kitschy paean to journalistic heroism. The swelling music indicates that these are the Davids who will bring down the Goliaths that stride across the American media landscape. “This is a moment of real definition for the press,” Folkenflik states. “Journalism has to be independent.” The camera pans slowly across the inside of different newsrooms, presumably the site where this battle will take place.
Of course, journalists have an important, essential job when it comes to safeguarding democracy. But journalism is not isolated from the same power dynamics that govern the rest of the country. It’s fun to think of the little guys taking on the Goliaths of the world. But the real problem is that the Goliaths exist at all. Who is Peter Thiel, after all, but a man with billions of dollars to spend?