Can Big Money Silence a Free Press?

In a country with a free press but also unrestrained finance, can big money scare media outlets into silence? The question is explored in the new Netflix documentary, “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press.”

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Story Transcript

Aaron Maté: It’s the real news. I’m Aaron Mate. In a country with a free press, but also unrestrained finance, can big money scare media outlets into silence? That’s the question explored in the new Netflix documentary, Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press.

Film Narrator: Journalism, real journalism, the kind of journalism that exposes things that powerful people don’t want known, is a very fragile thing.

Speaker: Sir, I want to talk-

Film Narrator: It’s a very rare thing. It doesn’t happen most of the time. It can disappear very easily.

Speaker: I have never heard or seen such outrageous, vicious, distorted reporting.

Speaker: The world’s most dishonest people are back there. Look at all the cameras go. I would never kill them. I would never do that. Let’s see.

Film Narrator: There was political traction to be won by essentially conducting culture war against big media. That’s become a standard way of doing politics.

Speaker: Can you turn the microphone off, please?

Aaron Maté: That’s a clip from Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, which is airing now on Netflix. Brian Knappenberger is the film’s writer and director, and he joins me now. Brian, welcome.

Brian Knappenberger: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Aaron Maté: Tell us about this film.

Brian Knappenberger: Well, this film started because I just found the Hulk Hogan Gawker case really, really compelling. I just thought this case was really, really interesting for all sorts of reasons, the first time a sex tape case like this had ever gone to trial, but beyond the tabloid veneer, you can tell that there was some big picture, First Amendment versus privacy issues at stake, and my work has involved both in the past, so I just thought it was really interesting. But it became very different to me when it was revealed that, well first of all, the verdict, which was $140 million. When that came down, that verdict was so staggering, and when it was paired with a requirement for Gawker to put up $50 million right away, that was the death sentence to Gawker, so whatever you thought was going on in the trial, the ending was dramatic and ended with Gawker essentially going bankrupt. Then the revelation that Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire, first outside investor of Facebook, co-founder of PayPal, was actually funding, bankrolling, Hulk Hogan’s case in secret. Then it became a very different story for me. This became a story about a grudge that Peter Thiel had against Gawker, and so I started really thinking, and that’s essentially when the documentary started.

When we started really looking at how big money can be leveraged behind the scenes to silence news organizations, so the question you started with, can big money silence a free press? I think the answer is yes, we’re starting to see that in new ways right now, and that’s essentially what we look at.

Aaron Maté: Yeah, Brian, and just to explain for anyone who’s not familiar with the Gawker case, that’s when the wrestler known as Hulk Hogan sued Gawker after they published a sex tape of his, and it emerged later on that the billionaire, as you mentioned, Peter Thiel, was funding Hogan’s suit in a bid to put Gawker out of business, which it successfully did.

Brian Knappenberger: Mm-hmm. Yeah, that’s right. It was already a strange trial in the courtroom with twists and turns, but that staggering verdict followed by this bizarre revelation that Peter Thiel was actually the one who was sort of pulling strings behind the scenes. That made this a very, very, it was not only a strange story turn, it brought up some really, I think, critical and troubling sorts of dynamics.

Aaron Maté: Well, let’s talk about those dynamics. What troubled you most about it?

Brian Knappenberger: The secrecy. I mean, the short answer to that is the secrecy. Also, by the way, I’m sure we’ll get to this Sheldon Adelson aspect. We cover the Sheldon Adelson secretive purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, but in both cases, and in the case of Peter Thiel, it’s the secrecy that bothered me. People have pointed out that other organizations have engaged in this project, this tactic of litigation financing, the ACLU does this, Greenpeace does this, Sierra Club does this. They pick a case, and they come down on one side of the case, and they do that to make a political point. Presumably that’s what Mr. Thiel is doing, but what he did was he did this in secret. This is something that actually used to be illegal in this country, up until the ’50s, all the way back to common law. That is, the secretive funding of a lawsuit for your own ends. And so that secretive part was disturbing. Apparently these laws were called champerty laws and they were overturned in the late ’50s because the NAACP was filing lawsuits in order to end segregation, so the opponents to the NAACP wanted to get the NAACP to reveal their donors list, but that’s very different than want Peter Thiel did. You understood it was the NAACP, just as you understand the ACLU and the Sierra Club now, you get it. There’s transparency there. Not so, here.

Aaron Maté: Okay. You mentioned Sheldon Adelson and the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and I want to get to that in a second, but just staying on the Hulk Hogan, Peter Thiel Gawker case. My problem with this case is that i do think Gawker had something to be held accountable for. They published a sex tape of Hogan, which is his private life, and also, they had outed Peter Thiel as being gay against his wishes, as they did later on with other people, who had even way less of a public profile. So in looking at this case, did you see any grounds for either Hogan or Thiel or anybody else having a valid complaint against Gawker?

Brian Knappenberger: Yes. 100%, and that’s actually one of the things that got me interested in the case in the beginning. This isn’t an easy case. I didn’t pick this, or wasn’t initially compelled by this case, because it was easy, I did it because it was complex. And by the way, I had done previous work that was very much advocating for privacy, especially around laws in terms of mass surveillance and mass suspicionless surveillance, that sort of thing. So this wasn’t an easy case, but I think the most important cases aren’t necessarily easy when it comes to free speech or civil liberties. They don’t always exist in that kind of center area where there’s crystal clear difference between heroes and villains. They’re on the fringes, and I do think this was on the fringes. But the idea that they may have done something wrong, or even that Hogan deserved the payout, does not compute for me with the idea that they should be silenced completely, totally taken offline, given the death penalty, especially in a country that privileges free expression.

One of the things that Peter Thiel said about Gawker is that they were a singularly sociopathic bully. That’s his phrase, and I think that’s absurd, if you look at our media environment. If you look at the kinds of things just that we’ve seen in the past year. We have Alex Jones or somebody like that actually calling the Sandy Hook murders a false flag operation. You have things happening on Facebook where there’s a live murder and stuff. The notion that Gawker should be taken offline completely for this, Alex Jones, by the way, is getting, I guess, press credentials to the White House. The initial thing we’ve taken offline completely for this is what’s troubling. And the idea and the way that it was done. There’s nothing about this case that makes it unique to Gawker. It could be used by anybody with a lot of money to silence any news organization.

Aaron Maté: Yeah, and just to explain to people, Gawker was taken offline because the jury in this case awarded Hogan more than $140 million, which is a staggering sum, and Gawker essentially was forced to shut down and disband, and then sell itself off to a bigger company which runs it now, but without the website Gawker. And as someone who follows media, especially Gawker, Gawker’s absence is very glaring, even though I thought some of its material was pretty vile. So yeah, in terms of what kind of precedent this case and the damages awarded sets, I’m wondering if you can talk a bit more about the implications of that.

Brian Knappenberger: Well, to me, I think this has emboldened people to sue news organizations. I think if you look at, it’s kind of wild what we’re seeing now, even in the last couple of months, you have a coal magnate suing John Oliver for satire, trying to take them offline, trying to get John Oliver to stop, apparently, to stop airing his show while it’s being worked out. Very, very aggressive. You have someone like Sarah Palin who’s also using some of the same Hogan lawyers that he used to sue the New York Times. You have this environment where it’s becoming obvious that you can kind of use the criminal justice system and wield it in this way, and even if your case has no merit, like the coal magnate’s case does not have merit against John Oliver. Satire’s protected in this country, as it should be. It doesn’t really matter. It can wear down a news organization to the point where it can be taken offline. One of the cases that was settled against Gawker at the same time as the Hogan case was a case brought by this guy, Shiva Ayyadurai, who claims to have invented email, and Gawker and others have cast suspicion on that, have said that there’s evidence to suggest that he hadn’t, and so he sued Gawker. Apparently couldn’t find a lawyer, had trouble finding a lawyer, until he found the same lawyer that was used in Hulk Hogan’s case.

That guy, Shiva, is still suing Tech Dirt, which is a great Silicon Valley site that questions Silicon Valley power, and Tech Dirt, as great as they are, they’re small, and they’re being sued for $15 million, and they’re in a fight for their existence. I think that we’re looking at a period of time in which people are emboldened by that kind of decision.

Aaron Maté: Okay, so speaking of emboldened, let’s get to Sheldon Adelson, who you mentioned earlier, the billionaire casino magnate Republican donor, and how he came to purchase the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Brian Knappenberger: Yeah, so we tell that story in the film. We recognize that there were some similarities there. Essentially what happened is the reporters of the Las Vegas Review-Journal were all called into a big meeting, and they were told that their paper had been purchased by somebody, that they had a new boss, which of course is intriguing to anybody in any company. And the first thing they asked was, “What’s our new boss? And what are their expectations?” And they were told, “You know what, don’t worry about it. They want you to keep doing your job, they don’t necessarily need you to know who bought the paper.” And of course the reporters, they didn’t consider abiding by that. I think on the walk back to their offices they decided they were gonna figure it out. It’s important to know who owns, especially a newspaper. So we tell the story of how they went about finding that out, which had some real stakes for them, because this was their boss that they were trying to uncover.

Aaron Maté: One of the consequences of that is you have people resigning, including a columnist, John Smith, who was told after Adelson bought the paper, that he could no longer write about Adelson.

Brian Knappenberger: That’s right. And he, I think rightly and courageously, said, “I think it’s time to part ways.” We’ve heard all sorts of stories of their influence on that paper. That’s sad, because the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s a critical and really, really important paper in the West, not just in Nevada. I think that’s what’s at stake. There’s stories of their influencing news stories, especially that involve Adelson, again, what really I found the most troubling was the secretive element of it. What was going on in secret in the beginning. It’s not that wealthy individuals haven’t owned newspapers before. Obviously, they have. But usually that’s a point of civic pride. You know who it is. Even someone like Bezos, who bought the Washington Post, and by the way, he’s had what is by all accounts a kind of traditional stewardship of that paper. You have to watch that. You have to see how the Washington Post covers, for instance, the Amazon purchase of Whole Foods.

Aaron Maté: Right, to explain, just to explain that, Bezos owns Amazon.

Brian Knappenberger: Yeah, Bezos owns Amazon, they just acquired Whole Foods, so yeah. I think that’s a deal that requires a critical look, or at least a skeptical look, by savvy reporters, so I think you have to watch how they cover that, but you can’t do that if you don’t know who bought the paper at all, who owns the paper, and who’s pulling the strings. That’s where this starts to get more dangerous for the public opinion.

Aaron Maté: Brian, can we talk a bit more about this Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist, John Smith, because his personal story with Adelson is fascinating. It involves essentially being bribed, including over his daughter’s medical bills for cancer, right?

Brian Knappenberger: Yeah. This isn’t something that he wrote in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, he wrote a book called Sharks in the Desert, that covered the origins of Nevada- it’s actually a really good book. It’s looking at the early days of Las Vegas, all the way up to the corporate era, and he had, as you would have to, included a section on Adelson, and Adelson took exception to one of the things that he said, and then basically sued him, and John L. Smith happened to be in the hospital with his daughter, who had brain cancer, when he got the call that he was being sued over a line in the book, for $10 million. That was a very, very difficult time for him. He recounts it in the movie. It’s very moving, actually, and there are all sorts of, as he says in the film, there are all sorts of behind the scenes deals, one in particular, in which Adelson, through an intermediary, allegedly tries to give him money for his daughter’s medical expenses if she says that he libeled him. Just gives you a sense of how vicious this can be.

Aaron Maté: Speaking of vicious, Brian, let’s end with Donald Trump. You tie the movie, tie the dynamic you explore in the movie, to this age that we’re in of the Trump era. He’s been openly confrontational, to say the least, towards the media. Can you talk about what you think Trump signifies for the dynamic that you explore inside your film about the influence of big money over media?

Brian Knappenberger: Yeah, well, a lot. He was woven into our film even before he won. It was pretty clear, when you were watching this trial in Florida, that in some ways the media was on trial, that there was a real hatred of the media that emerged from that trial, and of course, that was at the beginning of Donald Trump’s rise through the Republican Party and then eventually to the White House. That was fueled by a hatred or attacks on the media, at least in part. So you saw this kind of dynamic showing itself, but look, we always knew that there was an echo happening here on a national scale. Trump, obviously a very thin-skinned billionaire himself, who is not afraid to enact lawsuits. USA Today did some great reporting actually during the campaign where they looked at the 3500 lawsuits that Donald Trump was involved with in one way or another, so he fit the bill.

And of course, the day after the election, even though we cut a bunch of sections with Trump, we realized we had a very different film. Now that this guy, who had talked about opening up libel laws, who had spent so much of the campaign pointing at the press, the row of cameras, calling them scum, calling them terrible people, blacklisting them from various rallies and speeches, for getting press credentials to his rallies and speeches. Now he was in charge of the executive branch, and trying to get our head around what that could mean. And of course, we’ve seen a very, very hostile relationship between him and the press, and that’s been based mostly on lies, a kind of wall of deception coming out of the White House.

Aaron Maté: The film is Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press. Brian Knappenberger is the film’s writer and director. Brian, thanks a lot.

Brian Knappenberger: Thanks for having me.

Aaron Maté: And thank you for joining us on the Real News.