This year’s Sundance Film Festival kicked off on the Friday before what turned out to be an ominous Inauguration Day. One of the directors at the festival spent his weekend in a frenzy, furiously editing in footage of Sean Spicer going nuclear on reporters over the size of the crowds at the event. (He incorrectly insisted it was the largest inauguration crowd ever.) It was about as much of Trump’s presidency as Brian Knappenbeger had time to fit into his film before its premiere later that week, and it was an unsettling bellwether for the war on media to come–culminating, for now, in the recent video Trump shared of himself body slamming a (photoshopped) representative of CNN.
The film, Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, initially had little to do with the then-candidate. Instead, it was centered around another person who has been featured in a wrestling video or two: Hulk Hogan. Knappenberger intended Nobody Speak to explore how the wrestler, whose given name is Terry Bollea, ended up killing the Gawker media empire, with the vengeance-fueled help of venture capitalist Peter Thiel. At the same time, the director also wanted to cover casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper, which he saw as of a piece with the trend of big money influencing journalism. By the time he started filming, however, Knappenberger realized the significance of the threat Donald Trump posed to free press, and the scope of his film broadened.
“I could tell right away there were parallels between what was happening in that courtroom in Florida for the Hulk trial, and this larger bizarre election,” the director says. “It was pretty obvious right from the beginning, and yet like everyone else, we were kind of hanging on for the ride–what’s gonna happen here, what’s this all about? I don’t think anybody quite knew.”
Knappenberger had long been fascinated by the Gawker case. On the one hand, it was salacious and tabloid-grabbing; on the other, some serious, big-picture First Amendment and privacy issues were at stake. It was the end of the trial that really made it click for him, though. The $140 million verdict, combined with the requirement for Gawker to put up $50 million right away, sounded the death knell of an important adversarial media brand. Then there was the grand finale: the revelation that Peter Thiel was funding Bolleo’s case. At that point, it became a very different story; one the filmmaker wanted to track more closely.
As the implications of Sheldon Adelson’s concurrent purchase of the Las Vegas newspaper dawned on him, Knappenberger began thinking about how money could be leveraged to silence critics. Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign was gaining steam, complete with promises of opening up libel laws, and instructing of crowds to boo journalists covering his events. Something was happening. A groundswell of animosity toward the Fourth Estate was bubbling up, and powerful men were learning to attack the media in new ways. All the stories collided together organically when Peter Thiel ended up donating to Trump’s campaign and later becoming a part of the president-elect’s transition team.
There is a historical precedent for billionaires leveraging media for the sake of power. Extremely wealthy individuals have owned newspapers before. (One of them, William Randolph Hearst, is famously the inspiration for Citizen Kane.) Litigation financing isn’t new either, both for financial reasons and political reasons. (The ACLU, for instance, will occasionally take a case and come down on one side of it to make a point.) What is different with Sheldon Adelsen and Peter Thiel, however, and what rattled Knappenberger enough for him to want to make a documentary, was the secrecy of it all.
“That’s the part that probably bothers me the most,” Knappenberger says. “Usually, when wealthy individuals have bought newspapers in the past, it’s been a point of civic pride. You knew who they were so you could make your own judgments about their motivations and where they’re coming from. So the secrecy of the Adelson purchase or Peter Thiel’s involvement in the Hulk case is egregious.”
A lot og media maneuvering also happens right out in the open, however, and is equally effective. Donald Trump’s campaign struck a deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group during the election to get “straighter” news coverage, while the group has since expanded its reach and demanded local stations air stories that “tilt to the right.” And the very pro-Trump National Enquirer recently bought US Weekly and will likely remake it in its own image.
One of the reasons the free press is so vulnerable, however, and something that Nobody Speak also touches on, is simply the changing of the times. Newspapers and magazines have lost a lot of their financial underpinnings and advertisement to the internet, leaving them leaner than ever. At the same time, the press is also seen as being too cozy with power, trading softball stories for access to politicians and celebrities, leaving many readers turned off. The credibility and financial standing of journalism was in just the right place for a figure like Trump to come along and exploit it.
“We’re experiencing a daily barrage of insults from the executive branch, encouraging a hatred of the press from the President of the United States,” Knappenberger says. “We’ve never had a figure like this before. I think we’re in uncharted territory.”
The director wrapped his film just at the dawn of the Trump presidency, and now Nobody Speak feels more timely by the day. Hostility toward the press is at an all time high at every level. In the past several months, a reporter got arrested for asking questions of secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Tom Price, another one got pinned against the wall at the FCC for asking his question, and a GOP congressional candidate Greg Gianforte famously body slammed a Guardian reporter, and still won the special election in Montana. At a time when the free press is being encroached upon by many forces, one gets the sense that if The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN were all shuttered tomorrow, millions would cheer.
What Nobody Speak should prove to viewers, though, is that this outcome would be a disaster–whether they approve of those publications or not.
“The idea of freedom of speech and an adversarial press has been with us from the very beginning. It’s one of the few jobs mentioned in the constitution,” Knappenberger says. “Right from the beginning, the idea of the Fourth Estate as being another check on power was always a part of the American system. So it’s important to have a press that stands up for the truth and questions power. I think that’s what makes for a healthy participatory democracy. Without that, how does the public know how to govern themselves?”
If the U.S. did lose its free press, it wouldn’t happen all at once. There is no single moment that would signal we’d slipped into the realm of VGTRK, the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company. Instead, we will more likely simmer like frogs in the slowly boiling water, as the dialogue is degraded, one utterance of “Fake News” at a time. Nobody Speak is an important documentary that charts out how we got to this point of reckoning, and leaves it up to viewers to find our way beyond it.
“We’re reaching a point where we have to ask the question: will journalism survive in any meaningful way past this?” Knappenberger says. “I hope it does.”