Tensions between the press and figures in power, especially the wealthy, have always been present. However, after watching the documentary, “Nobody Speaks: Trials of the Free Press”, which was written and directed by Brian Knappenberger, I was left shocked. It left me with one clear message, that the tension filled relationship between powerful figures, including the President, and the press in the status quo has created a very defining and critical moment for the press in the United States.
The documentary initially explored the 2016 court case of Bollea vs. Gawker. Terry Bollea, more famously known as retired pro wrestler, Hulk Hogan, sued Gawker, an online blog, for the publication of a video that showed him having a private intimate relationship with the former wife of Todd Clem, more famously known as radio personality Bubba The Love Sponge. Gawker was known for being a provocative blog. Nick Denton, one of the co Founders of Gawker, described the idea behind Gawker as publishing, “the stories that don’t get published, the stories that journalist exchange amongst themselves”. Bollea argued that Gawker had invaded his personal privacy and ultimately won the case. This court case and its decision shed light on the drawing of lines and boundaries within the age of immediate and constant broadcasting, as well as the impact of absence of funding from a wealthy millionaire on an independent publisher. However, the key reveal in this case was that Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire, had been secretly financing Terry Bollea’s legal expense in this battle. Thiel had a contentious past with Gawker and therefore a motive for revenge, as Gawker had published posts that discussed whether Silicon Valley was open minded or not.
This was a very eye opening and shocking turn for me. The existence of this huge entangled web between not only the press and political figures, but also the wealthy, and the power and control that wealth holds over this web suddenly became much more clear to me. This connection between Peter Thiel and Bollea vs. Gawker was significant because Thiel had been covertly using his own personal fortune to directly attack an independent publisher. This creates a new threat to democracy and free speech, as the press becomes something that can be controlled, destroyed, or manipulated by someone because of their wealth. It is reasonable to believe that what Gawker did by publishing the video was very offensive and wrong. However, that does not make what Gawker did illegal nor does it give reason or power to allow any single individual, regardless of their social status or wealth, to designate what one can or cannot say or publish. Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment Attorney detailed how, “the reason to save Gawker is not because Gawker was worth saving. The reason to save it is that we don’t pick and choose what sort of publications are permissible… even the most disagreeable speech is, as a general matter at least, fully protected by the First Amendment”.
This conflict between the press and individuals with power and wealth has always existed in politics, as political support can be won by partaking in a side on the war against big media. However, I believe that right now this conflict is currently more important and relevant that it has ever been in politics, especially within the nation’s rising distrust in media. The documentary mentioned that during his campaign, Trump had a blacklist of media organizations, such as The Washington Post, Politico, and Buzzfeed, that he prohibited from getting press credentials through the regular method, as a tactic to make it more difficult for them to attend and report on his speeches and rallies. It is very evident and clear that certain organizations are being singled out and suppressed, and the very fact that this suppression is coming from the executive branch of the United States government is frankly quite alarming and scary. No individual, not even the President, has the authority and right to be able to pick and choose what is reported and what is not, what is published and what is not. Jay Rosen, a media critic and professor of journalism at NYU described the situation best when he said that, “billionaires are proclaiming, ‘we are not vulnerable to the truth. We are invulnerable to the facts and it simply doesn’t matter what you say, what the press does. We are more powerful than the truth’.” It is very important for me to keep remembering that in this case, the group of these “billionaires” are not only referring now to the wealthy, but to some of the most powerful political figures today.
David Folkenflik, a media correspondent at NPR, stated in the documentary that, “Journalism has to be independent. Journalism has to be humble about its own shortcomings, it has to be transparent about how it reaches conclusions and have those be earned conclusions”. Transparency and honesty is so vital in maintaining the trust between two groups, especially within politics. I believe that journalists play a vital role in keeping the government accountable and transparent, and that this transparency and the truth is what the public deserves. Jennifer Robison, a former reporter of the Las Vegas Review Journal, described reporting as, “the only job specifically listed in the Bill of Rights as protected”. She continued to add that, “It is a sacred public trust, a vital public function. The watchdog over the powerful. Without good strong journalism, you don’t have a healthy democracy.” The documentary made it so clear to me that journalism is essential to democracy, and it is completely unfair and dangerous to allow journalism and the press to be controlled and suppressed by anyone, especially those who are in positions of power because of a title or wealth. With growing tensions and continued threats, these circumstances present a defining and critical moment for American journalism and the protection of free speech.