New Film Examines Trump's War Against The Press.
In the new film (https://www.netflix.com/title/80168227) "Nobody Speak," director Brian Knappenberger argues that the Hogan case was just one battle in a vicious war being waged on journalism by billionaires who want to prevent the press from scrutinizing wealth and power. In a podcast interview, Knappenberger told International Business Times that Trump is the most prominent figure in this war - and that he and his allies represent an unprecedented threat to the survival of a free press.
Podcast subscribers can hear the entire discussion with Knappenberger by (https://www.patreon.com/posts/12141554) clicking here . What follows is an excerpt of the interview.
Knappenberger: Gawker's case is essentially that Hogan is a public figure, that he had already talked about his sex life. He had brought it up on the Howard Stern show and lots of other places, including this particular incident. They say that he was not 100 percent honest in his depiction of it; in other words, that he didn't remember who it was involved with and all that, and that rumors had been out there - that essentially what they were saying is, "Here it is." So he's a public figure, he had talked publicly about it, he's the one that brought up the sex tape, and therefore it was newsworthy.
Sirota: Do you think that's true? Is a Hulk Hogan sex tape newsworthy?
Knappenberger: You could argue whether it was in good taste or not for sure, right? I have often said I had maybe a better cause to use that tape in this film that is largely about it, and of course I didn't, as you'll be happy to know if you're going to watch it. But is it newsworthy? I think I agree with that argument that it is. Whether it needed to be out there, I think people can debate that, for sure.
So does it matter? I mean, I think what Floyd Abrams, the noted First Amendment attorney, says in the film is interesting, that there needed to be a recognition here that that person, talking about those things in this way, there was a role of the First Amendment to play in this. It's also, I think, important to remember that two times this got shot down in federal court, saying that it was newsworthy under First Amendment grounds. Before it got to this courtroom in Florida, [the case] was shut down... One of the reasons why I'm so interested in it is that it is on the edge of free speech. I mean, there is a little bit of a kind of People vs Larry Flynt in this. Where is that line?
Sirota: Some might argue that the First Amendment was never designed to protect the right to publish someone's sex tape. What do you say to that?
Knappenberger: Look, there are restrictions to the First Amendment, right? I mean, to win a libel case you have to have said something wrong about somebody, and you have to prove that there was actual malice involved in your publishing that. That's a restriction on what can be said, right? But in terms of whether it's appropriate or not, or whether the First Amendment should be saved for things that are more appropriate, I think no.
The First Amendment also protects all sorts of speech that's pretty ugly. It expressly protects hate speech and all sorts of things. So I think that while there are established lines in terms of libel - and by the way, this Hulk Hogan case was not a libel case or a defamation case; it was an invasion of privacy case - that it's the classical line that if you don't believe in speech that you don't like, then you don't believe in it at all.
Sirota: In your film, you point out an important legal maneuver that Hogan's team made that at first seemed bizarre, but then you say revealed the true intent of the lawsuit. Tell us about that.
Knappenberger: So this is really a kind of interesting little turn in the trial, and keep in mind that nobody at this point - during the entire trial, actually, even until after the verdict - nobody knows that Peter Thiel is funding Hulk Hogan's lawsuit. And even the lawyer, Hulk Hogan's lawyer, claims, says to me, that he didn't know until it was revealed. It was ultimately, I think, the story broke in the New York Times, and then ultimately Forbes is who named Peter Thiel as the actual backer.
But there were indications throughout that maybe something was going on here that was unknown. One of those things was that Hulk Hogan's legal team dropped one of the counts against them: the intentional infliction of bodily harm. And that didn't make any sense to anybody, because presumably, you would pretty much take, if your goal was to make as much money as possible, you would take every count, take everything and throw it against the wall and just see what stuck.
And so for them to drop this count was a bizarre thing, but what it ended up meaning was that Gawker's insurance then wouldn't cover the verdict. So this was clearly not something that you would do if you were motivated to make a lot of money: It would be something you would do if you just wanted to hurt Gawker and make them be on the hook for the full amount without any insurance protection. Now, of course, insurance protection for any news organization is pretty critical; it's part of the system that includes frivolous lawsuits. So to take that out was a strategic move that was an early indication that something else was going on here.
Sirota: Beyond Thiel funding the Hogan case, you look at billionaire Sheldon Adelson buying the Las Vegas Review Journal, and you essentially argue that we are living in a new Citizen Kane age in which the rich and powerful can shape media coverage and limit journalism. How different is this right now than it has been in the past? How new a phenomenon is this?
Knappenberger: Well, I think there is something new here. As I said, there's some aspects that are not new; what's not new is wealthy people owning papers or even presumably affecting their coverage of various things. And also, by the way, what's not new is actual litigation financing, which is to say people financing various lawsuits even for political purposes. I mean, even the ACLU does that.
What seems to be new here and what seems to be different here is the secretive aspect of this. The secretive purchase, the fact that Sheldon Adelson actually tried to buy the paper before, and there was a big sort of backlash against it, and so he engineers this way of buying the paper that is in secret. It's that big money that is sort of behind the scenes working in secrecy in order to change or alter coverage.
The other thing is I just think we're experiencing, over the past decades, obviously, this sharp rise in inequality, and we're reaching this point where this difference is so extreme that the power that very wealthy individuals have is just much more than it ever was. And so we're experiencing a kind of tension there in which the pressure just keeps getting worse.
Sirota: President Trump has been hostile towards the press corps. Do you think that Trump having all the power of the executive branch of the United States government makes the attacks on journalism even worse?
Knappenberger: Yes, absolutely. I mean, he's cut from the same cloth as these two other guys who are obviously supporters. Both Sheldon Adelson and Peter Thiel are supporters of Trump. (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2016/06/01/donald-trump-lawsuits-legal-battles/84995854/) USA Today did a great series of reporting where they looked at the 3,500 lawsuits that Donald Trump was involved in one way or another. He also of course famously on the campaign trail (http://www.politico.com/blogs/on-media/2016/02/donald-trump-libel-laws-219866) said , "It's time to open up libel," would continuously point to the press and intimidate them, turn his followers against them. He would (https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/trump-revokes-post-press-credentials-calling-the-paper-dishonest-and-phony/2016/06/13/f9a61a72-31aa-11e6-95c0-2a6873031302_story.html) refuse press credentials to people like the Washington Post to get into his rallies and speeches in the normal way. Some reporters even felt physically threatened.
So yeah, I think that now that this guy is in the executive branch, the most powerful institution in the world, is the head of that executive branch with all of the tools at his disposal that so many of us have been worried about - surveillance state and everything else - I think we should be deeply concerned about this.
I mean, a lot of people, when you protest against, say, Obama's overuse of the Espionage Act, or the kind of mass suspicionless surveillance, or even the malware delivered to various journalists and stuff that happened during that time, a lot of people sort of just said, "Well, it'll be used judiciously." You know, "Obama's a good guy," basically. And now it's sort of like, what happens when this guy is in charge of those things? I think it's very, very disturbing.
Donald Trump is also just fueling a kind of wave of hostility against the press, and I think it's getting really, really ugly. I mean, look at what we've just seen in the last few weeks alone.
Dan Heyman, the West Virginia reporter, was (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/10/business/media/reporter-arrested-tom-price.html) arrested for asking that question of Tom Price, the Health and Human Services Director. John Donnelly, the reporter that was (http://time.com/4785484/john-donnelly-fcc-security-press-freedom/) pinned against a wall at the FCC when he tried to ask a question. And the Kentucky newspaper The Lexington Herald Leader had its (http://www.kentucky.com/news/local/counties/fayette-county/article153236479.html) windows shot out . And then, of course, there's what happened in Montana with The Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs who had the audacity to ask a health care question from then congressional candidate Greg Gianforte, and was (http://www.ibtimes.com/political-capital/body-slam-politics-montana-political-insider-explains-greg-gianfortes-alleged) body slammed , and this sort of disgusting disregard for the press.
So yeah, I think you take [Trump's] actions as a candidate, president-elect, and this climate that he's created, and what you have is really an assault on a free press.
Sirota: What do you think Donald Trump can do on a day-to-day basis as president with the executive branch apparatus at his disposal? What do you think he can do with that when it comes to intimidating or bullying the press?
Knappenberger: Well, it's frightening to think about that. In some ways, those of who have been kind of advocates - or let's say protest; have protested mass suspicionless surveillance, dragnet surveillance of American citizens - have been in almost a sci-fi sense wondering what those sorts of powers could be used for in the wrong hands. I actually asked the question you just asked me to Floyd Abrams, and he said, "Look, I don't really want to imagine things that he could do, because I don't want to give him ideas."
But you know, look, a lot of these things that we've discovered and have been uncovered in the last eight years can be chilling. And a lot of that falls into cell phone coverage and new technologies and these powers that were being used in ways that weren't clear. So I think it's something that we've got to watch really, really closely.