Nobody Speaks: Trials of the Free Press (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): The free press in peril

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Netflix documentary film “Nobody Speaks: Trials of the Free Press” is often alarming to watch for good reasons. It amusingly begins with many absurdities of one infamous court trial which drew lots of attention during last year, but then it eventually shows the possible beginning of a big, serious threat to the First Amendment of the US Constitution. As a matter of fact, this is all the more frightening considering the recent rise of Donald Trump, who has relentlessly attacked the media and its constitutional rights from the very beginning of his US Presidential election campaign.

The first part of the documentary is about how Gawker, an American tabloid blog founded by Nick Denton and Elizabeth Spiers, got itself into a serious legal trouble. In 2012, A.J. Daulerio, who was the editor-in-chief of Gawker at that time, posted a short video clip which was edited from a sex tape of Hulk Hogan and Heather Clam, who was the wife of Hogan’s friend Todd Alan Clem, a.k.a. Bubba the Love Sponge. Hogan requested Gawker to remove that video clip from its site, but Gawker refused in the name of the First Amendment, and Hogan eventually filed a lawsuit against Gawker in July 2015.

As observing the progress of their trial, the documentary spends considerable time on how Gawker had made many enemies during its prime period. During their interviews, Denton and Daulerio emphasize that their blog site simply went for anything to be exposed for public, but, as far as I can see, their online articles are mostly sensational gossips on celebrities, and some of these articles are indeed mean and unpleasant. In fact, they can be regarded as cases of invasion of privacy, and it is easy to see why Gawker did not get much support when it faced its legal trouble.

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In case of Hulk Hogan, he is no better than Gawker as a guy who has always lived through his gaudy celebrity. Regardless of however he actually felt about the public exposure of his sex tape as Terry Bollea (That is his real name, by the way), Hogan actually boasted about his, uh, manliness shown from that tape, and there is a moment of sheer absurdity when Hogan tries to explain the difference between his private self and public self during his testimony in the middle of the trial.

Anyway, the trial turned out to be disastrous for both sides. Although Hogan won at the end of the trial while also being awarded $140 million in damages, his another sex tape was exposed in public, and his career was totally finished because of his racist words recorded in that tape. Due to its enormous legal cost, Gawker went down into bankruptcy, and its blog site was accordingly shut down in August 2016.

During the trial, Denton and his several colleagues suspected that someone big and powerful was surreptitiously backing Hogan’s lawsuit for crushing Gawker, and, to everyone’s surprise, their suspicion turned out to be right shortly after their legal defeat. Peter Thiel, who is one of the most influential business figures in Silicon Valley, willingly admitted that he was the one backing Hogan’s lawsuit from the behind, and everyone knew well his motive. Several years ago, Thiel was not so pleased when Gawker exposed his homosexuality in public, and it goes without saying that he had waited for a golden opportunity to get his personal revenge.

The final result must have been pretty sweet for Thiel, but, as several interviewees in the film point out with genuine concern, what he did to Gawker may open the door to darker possibilities. He demonstrated to other business moguls in US that the press can be suppressed or controlled through money and power, and this can lead to more erosion of what is guaranteed by the First Amendment.

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As a matter of fact, this disturbing trend is already beginning as shown from one example presented in the film. When Las Vegas Journal-Review, one of the most prominent newspapers in Nevada, happened to be sold to a group of anonymous investors, its editor-in-chief and reporters were naturally interested in who really owned their newspaper, and they eventually discovered that the actual owner is none other than the son of Sheldon Adelson, one of the richest businessmen in US. When they printed this hidden fact on the front page of their newspaper, Adelson and his associates were not so happy about that, and we were not that surprised to learn that many of reporters investigating the connection between their newspaper and Adelson were laid off in the end.

While covering many different things during its 95-minute running time, the film feels unfocused from time to time, and I think Director/writer Brain Knappenberger could have trimmed his documentary a bit for more succinct and focused storytelling. Maybe because I read several articles on its subject, I was not particularly surprised and enlightened during my viewing, and I was a little disappointed to see that the documentary did not go much beyond what I already knew.

Nevertheless, “Nobody Speaks: Trials of the Free Press” is worthwhile to watch because it will show and tell you how much the free press has been endangered in the American society – and how much its democracy is threatened because of that. There is still some hope as shown from the end of the documentary, but, folks, I cannot help but be skeptical as reflecting on how the situation keeps getting worse for the American press these days thanks to Trump and his deplorable cronies. Seriously, I hope I am wrong about that.

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