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“Nobody Speak”: New Documentary Probes Billionaire Peter Thiel’s Destruction of News Outlet Gawker

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Last year, the digital media outlet Gawker declared bankruptcy and put itself up for sale after it was ordered to pay $140 million in a lawsuit for publishing the sex tape of wrestler Hulk Hogan. Hogan’s lawsuit was financially backed by Silicon Valley billionaire and Trump supporter Peter Thiel, who was outed as gay by a now-defunct Gawker blog. The case is now the focus of a new movie premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. We speak to Brian Knappenberger, the director of “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press.” He previously directed “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” and “We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists,” about the hacker collective Anonymous.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press. I mean, this is a remarkable film, where you really look at the lead-up to this administration and all that took place and President Trump’s supporters, specifically Peter Thiel. Tell us what you found and why you have spent this time looking at Peter Thiel, suits against the press—

BRIAN KNAPPENBERGER: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —and what it means for today.

BRIAN KNAPPENBERGER: Right. Well, this film actually started as a kind of deep dive into the Hulk Hogan-Gawker Media case, in which Hulk Hogan was suing Gawker Media for posting a sex tape of him. And so, I was interested in that. I thought it was a really interesting First Amendment versus privacy kind of case. And so, we started making the documentary, but then we realized afterwards, there was a $140 million verdict against Gawker, which was the death sentence for Gawker. They were forced into bankruptcy.

And then it was revealed that Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley investor—venture capitalist, early Facebook investor, was actually funding Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit. So the film became something very different. We started looking at this notion of Peter Thiel funding this lawsuit that led to the death of this online website. And that, of course, was before he spoke at the RNC, became a Trump supporter and eventually became part of the Trump transition team. So, that’s—that was an opening that we needed to look at, how money really has a leverage against news organizations, and how news organizations might be vulnerable to people with an ax to grind.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip from your documentary, Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press. This is Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, the former public editor for The New York Times.

MARGARET SULLIVAN: Trump has done a number of things over the course of his campaign that should give us a great deal of cause for concern. Among them are his lack of transparency, his inaccessibility, his extremely harsh criticism and even abuse of journalists.

DONALD TRUMP: When I raise money—

JIM ACOSTA: You’re raising money for veterans—

DONALD TRUMP: Excuse me, excuse me. I’ve watched you on television. You’re a real beauty.

KATY TUR: Immigrants, on the whole, create—are—

DONALD TRUMP: Come on, try getting it out. Try getting it out.

KATY TUR: I’ll get it out.

DONALD TRUMP: I mean, I don’t know if you’re going to put this on television, but you don’t even know what you’re talking about.

MARGARET SULLIVAN: He’s really been vociferous in his criticism of the press.

DAVID MARTOSKO: Is this what it’s going to be like covering you if you’re president?

DONALD TRUMP: Yeah, it is. Let me tell you something. I’m a person—

DAVID MARTOSKO: We’re going to have this kind of confrontation in the press room?

DONALD TRUMP: OK, yeah, it is going to be like this, David.

MARGARET SULLIVAN: In general, he’s called the media and reporters “scum.” He has said over and over and over again that they’re dishonest, that they’re corrupt.

DONALD TRUMP: They don’t want to give it straight, because the press are liars. They’re terrible people. … These are the most dishonest human beings right back there.

AMY GOODMAN: Brian Knappenberger, director of Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press. That’s a clip from it. And the significance of this? And tell us more about Peter Thiel and also what the attack on Gawker meant for journalism, whether or not people like Gawker, and Sheldon Adelson and what happened with him in the takeover of Las Vegas paper.

BRIAN KNAPPENBERGER: Right. Well, first of all, yeah, Gawker is a controversial site. A lot of people hated it. But I think that even if you think that they might have done something wrong, the fact that they were—that this—first of all, enormous verdict, the fact that they would have lost this case, and then the fact that it could have been sort of—the sort of secretive working behind the scenes, chess moves behind the scenes, in order to get rid of them, was disturbing to a lot of people.

We also look at the secretive purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by Sheldon Adelson. This is an extraordinary story of a free press, where the Las Vegas Review—the reporters at the Las Vegas Review-Journal were informed in a meeting, big meeting, that their paper had been bought, which is, you know, an extraordinary thing for anybody in any company. “Wow! We have new owners.” And, of course, being reporters, they said, “Well, who did it? Who’s our new owner? And what are their expectations? What are they—what’s their perspective?” I think it’s a natural question. And the answer that they got was “Don’t worry about it. You don’t need to know. Just do your jobs.”

AMY GOODMAN: You don’t need to know who owns you.

BRIAN KNAPPENBERGER: You don’t need to know who owns you. So, the reporters said, “Well, wait a minute, what is our jobs? That kind of—that is our jobs.” So, we—they immediately went to work trying to figure this out, who bought the paper, and so we follow that story, which I think is a pretty extraordinary tale of journalism, trying to figure out who bought the paper. Who—that’s their boss, so their jobs were on the line.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Thiel and Donald Trump’s relationship, the image of them hugging at the tech meeting in New York at Trump Tower, when all the other tech leaders were there?

BRIAN KNAPPENBERGER: It’s extraordinary. Yeah, I don’t think that they—as far as I can tell, they didn’t really know each other before the Gawker verdict. I think Trump, when he heard about it, was quoted as saying, “Oh, I love him.” So, clearly, they’ve been—they are like-minded, in many ways. So, yeah, I think that’s—that if this is the—

AMY GOODMAN: And what all of this bodes for now?

BRIAN KNAPPENBERGER: Yeah, so, I think we’ve got two things going on. We’ve got this vulnerability of the press to potentially, you know, people with a lot of money, billionaires who might have an ax to grudge, who are thin-skinned, that don’t want to hear a word of criticism. And, unfortunately, now we have one of those people in the executive branch of the United States government. It’s one of the most powerful institutions in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, I wanted to go back to Mark Hertsgaard in New York, to the media’s coverage of the Women’s March all over the country.

MARK HERTSGAARD: [inaudible] Washington covering the march for The Nation, and it was striking to me just how large this demonstration was. I’ve covered a lot of demonstrations in my career. And I think that it was—you showed some of the pictures, Amy. You know, this was very possibly the single largest political demonstration in United States history, just the Washington event. If you add in New York, Los Angeles, where even the police said 500,000 people—

AMY GOODMAN: And I believe Los Angeles was larger than Washington.

MARK HERTSGAARD: Well, even the police said 500,000 in Los Angeles. So this was the biggest day of political protest in U.S. history. And somehow, most of the mass media, the corporate media, missed that point. It was happening right in front of them, and yet they are not inclined to go out and cover social movements. They had pictures of it, but they had nobody on the ground. And so, after I came back in from witnessing the protest, I, of course, turned on the television and watched CNN and then CBS, and they discussed this without the benefit of an actual journalist being on the panel. There was Republican political hacks and Democratic political hacks talking about the supposed meaning and aims of this march, but nobody who had actually been there on the ground who did journalism 101: talk to the people who are there, ask them why they are doing it. I want to give a quick shout out to Democracy Now! You guys were broadcasting live from there, 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., and that’s what journalism should be.

So I think, getting back to this film that you’re talking about—I very much want to watch that film. I think it points up, though, that this is a moment of truth for the American media, the corporate media included. They will either stand up to the Trump administration, which is very clearly engaged in a war on the media—the choice is either to stand up to that and fight back or to get rolled. And I think that if they stand up, that they will find that the American public is ready and waiting for real journalism.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, people can binge watch Democracy Now!'s coverage of the Women's March on Washington at democracynow.orgmarchlive. And also, just to say, the media very much focused—and maybe President Trump was very aware of this—he took on continually comparing the crowds of his inauguration to President Obama. But the fact is, as The New York Times headline said, the Women’s March was three times larger in Washington, D.C., than his inauguration crowd.

This is Democracy Now! Brian Knappenberger, thanks for being with us.

BRIAN KNAPPENBERGER: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Good luck on your premiere today, Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press. Mark Hertsgaard, stay with us, as we talk about Donald Trump and the environment, my interview with Vice President Al Gore here in Park City. Stay with us.

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