A Prelude to President Trump’s War on the Free Press

The Sundance documentary ‘Nobody Speak’ chronicles how an angry billionaire was able to take down the news site Gawker out of spite, providing a disturbing window into our future.

© Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Lügenpresse. This derisive term, which translates to “lying press,” was famously employed by the Third Reich in Nazi propaganda targeting Jews, communists, and the foreign press who dared report on Hitler’s mania and monstrous atrocities. In recent years, white nationalists across the world have adopted it in their fight against pluralism, and supporters of then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump used it at his rallies to heckle members of the press, quarantined in a tiny, distant pen like zoo animals. The underlying aim of lügenpresse is to sow distrust and disbelief in the Fourth Estate in the service of a competing agenda, and no American figure in modern history has sought to delegitimize the press quite like Trump.

Candidate Trump consistently characterized the press as “liars” and “among the most dishonest groups of people I’ve ever met.” He did so while regularly citing—and even appearing on—Infowars, a conspiracy theory factory run by Alex Jones that believes the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11 were inside jobs, the Sandy Hook massacre was staged with child actors, and that the federal government is poisoning our water to turn us gay.

Trump’s war on the free press, an institution protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, has carried over into the White House. On Saturday, President Trump delivered an address at CIA headquarters where he attacked the media once more, claiming that numerous reports of inauguration crowds in the 200,000 range—backed by photos of a not-so-packed National Mall—were false, with the President ginning up an attendance number of 1.5 million, while falsely claiming that crowds “went all the way back to the Washington monument.” This is also, for what it’s worth, a man who once boasted about his ability to outdraw Jay Z and Beyoncé (also untrue). Even more disturbing, however, was White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s warning to journalists during a press conference on Saturday: “There’s been a lot of talk in the media about the responsibility to hold Donald Trump accountable, and I’m here to tell you it goes two ways. We’re going to hold the press accountable as well.”

We should have seen this coming. One of the most troubling—and timely—documentaries premiering at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press. The film, directed by Brian Knappenberger (The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz), attempts to chronicle Bollea v Gawker, a $100 million lawsuit filed by the wrestler Hulk Hogan against Gawker Media, its founder Nick Denton, and a handful of individual Gawker journalists for publishing a small clip of a tape featuring Hogan (real name: Terry Bollea) having sex with Heather Clem, the wife of radio personality/his best pal Bubba the Love Sponge, whose apparent claim to fame is threatening to burn a Quran live on-air. The Florida jury ultimately settled in Hogan’s favor, awarding him an incredible $140.1 million judgment. He eventually settled for $31 million after Gawker and Denton filed for Chapter 11, while Gawker Media’s family of sites were purchased by Univision in a bankruptcy auction for $135 million. Gawker, however, is no more.

The first third of Knappenberger’s film is a love letter to Gawker, and much of the praise is earned. Its team of fearless writers were, as the late media critic David Carr said, “the mean girls who just laid waste to everyone they saw”—access, favorable relationships, and discretion be damned. That last part occasionally got the site in hot water, for while they did break a number of important stories—Tom Cruise’s Scientology indoctrination video, Hillary Clinton’s email server being compromised after the Guccifer hack, and reviving the Bill Cosby sexual assault allegations among them—they also engaged in some highly questionable practices, like employing a “Gawker Stalker” map for celebrities, that Conde Nast exec blackmail episode, and attempting to out various celebrities and people of influence.

One such person was Peter Thiel, the PayPal cofounder and early angel investor of Facebook whose net worth is estimated to be $2.7 billion. Thiel, who is gay, was the subject of a December 2007 post on Gawker’s former sister site, Valleywag, which described itself as a “Silicon Valley gossip and news site.” The post, a rather nuanced piece about homophobia in Silicon Valley and how it was important that “the smartest VC in the world is gay,” ran with an unfortunate headline: “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.”

“I’m a gay guy, and to my mind it is simply insulting for different standards to be applied to gay people than are applied to straight people,” Denton argues in the film, defending the Thiel story. “I don’t see any reason why we should treat it as something shameful to be kept secret.”

It’s the Thiel portion of Nobody Speak that hits home the hardest. Thiel has argued that his outing by Gawker served as the catalyst for him to secretly pour millions of his own dollars into financing a series of lawsuits against the company—including Bollea v Gawker. “I had begun coming out to people I knew, and I planned to continue on my own terms. Instead, Gawker violated my privacy and cashed in on it,” wrote Thiel, adding that he was “proud to have contributed financial support to [Hulk Hogan’s] case.” The film, however, seems to support Gawker’s position that Thiel was after Valleywag more for their aggressive reporting on Clarium Capital, Thiel’s struggling hedge fund, and his rich and powerful friends, including fellow Facebook billionaire Sean Parker. Valleywag was perhaps the only major site that took Silicon Valley’s rich and powerful to task, and now that it’s gone, we’re left with bootlicking outlets like The Verge, which recently had an Apple employee pulling double-duty as its deputy editor.

Wherever you fall on Gawker’s decision to publish a clip of the Hulk Hogan sex tape—and there’s certainly a case to be made that it was either not too devastating to Hogan or in the public interest, given that Hogan knowingly participated in the videotaped encounter, appeared on Howard Stern afterwards joking about his performance, and the full portion of the tape (that Gawker didn’t publish) included an incredibly vile, racist rant by Hogan against “niggers”, the shielding of which Gawker alleges may have been Hogan’s actual priority—the precedent set in the Bollea v Gawker case is profoundly troubling: that a powerful, vengeful billionaire could destroy a news site—and target individual journalists—because they objected to its coverage.

“What he’s done is to open a door for other people. What he’s done is to legitimatize the notion that somebody not involved in a case can, for the purpose of destruction of a publication, fund a litigation which may—and in this case has—have the effect of destroying it,” said Floyd Abrams, a renowned constitutional law expert, in the film. “What he’s done is to potentially imperil entities who upset large, rich, powerful people and institutions—and it’s not limited to individuals.”

If that weren’t enough, Thiel is also a valuable and vocal member of the Trump transition team. And President Trump, an even more thin-skinned billionaire who harbors Thiel’s disdain for a free and open press, is not only one of the more litigious human beings on the planet, but once unleashed the following threat against the press: “We’re gonna open up those libel laws, folks, and we’re gonna have people sue you like never before.”

So what will happen when the press does something that gets under President Trump’s skin?

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According to Abrams: “We just can’t predict how much President Trump is going to be prepared to do to implement what we do know will be his anger at some of the coverage of him.”