Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, released on June 24th as a Netflix exclusive documentary, is, unfortunately, very relevant right now. This is pretty close to essential viewing for anyone interested in freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the fragile state of both of these constitutional guarantees under President Trump.
That Hulk Hogan and his lawyers were able to sue the online gossip site Gawker out of business is bad enough. But here in the United States, we have a president who is pushing the narrative that the media (as if it’s some sort of monolith anyway) is not to be trusted. Worse yet, he wants to loosen libel laws, making it easier for celebrities and politicians to sue. After the Gawker case, the possibility exists in the United States that a media outlet might go out of business for breaking news that somebody doesn’t like. And that’s a scary thought indeed.
So, a little background: Bubba the Love Sponge, a radio DJ with a stupid nickname who got famous doing stupid on-air stunts, recorded his wife and Hulk Hogan having sex and the video was leaked online in April, 2012. Gawker released an excerpt of the video that nobody in their right mind wanted to see, and Hogan sued. This turned out to be a mistake. If the whole thing had just been allowed to run its course like so many other celebrity sex tapes, it would have barely made any impact. Certainly his career wasn’t affected until more video was released, this time showing Hogan using racial slurs. Hogan was immediately fired from WWE, where he had a pretty sweet gig that involved being a hype man who talked a lot and occasionally forgot where he was.
Certainly, the major mistake director Brian Knappenberger makes here is to try to make Gawker and its writers come off as sympathetic, even decent, people. Despite his best efforts, and the undeniable charm of people like founder Nick Denton, Gawker can’t help but come off as a very sleazy, sensationalist tabloid with very little redeeming value. Luckily, this isn’t the main argument that the film makes, and it does often refer to the company’s invasive, bullying mode of reporting. The main argument goes about like you’d expect: even scummy tabloid journalism has a right to exist, and libel law should not be used as an excuse to put a company that slighted a millionaire or billionaire out of existence. I mean, yeah, the fourth estate is a pretty important part of a functioning democracy. Things are that bad out there. After all, if a huge gossip magazine like Gawker can be sued out of existence, what hope do us little folks with our blogs and our posts on pop-culture websites have? Not much, of course.
The dramatic thrust of the first half of the film is a mysterious financier behind Hogan’s lawsuit. It’s revealed that Hogan was going through money problems at the time and probably couldn’t, or wouldn’t, have financed the suit on his own. The case of the mysterious financier is made even more intriguing when it’s revealed that Hogan dropped the “emotional distress” portion of his lawsuit, which opened up a loophole where Gawker wouldn’t be able to use insurance to pay for their losses, meaning that, with 100 million-plus in damages, if Gawker lost the suit, it would be forced to shut its operation down. This is damning evidence that the suit wasn’t about money at all. It was always about shutting the site down. The free press is in danger, folks, and a movie with, of all people, Hulk Hogan, at its center, makes this case in a startling way.
As for Hogan, with any luck this movie will damage his reputation even more than the sex tape and the racial slurs. He comes off as stupid, egotistical, a dupe, and a pawn. He never got a dime from the lawsuit, but he did get his mug in front of the cameras, and one suspects that this was the only reason Hogan went along with the suit. And so he got to wear his stupid bandanna while he talked about his penis size in a court of law while freedom of the press itself was at stake. I hope it was worth it.
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