Editor’s Note: The arts and entertainment department is adjusting its grading scale from a letter-grade system to a numeric score out of 5. This change is intended to increase accuracy and consistency between reviews.
“Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” hit Netflix last week. Also last week, the president of the United States tweeted about fake news and forbade cameras from White House press briefings, so it was as good a week as any for a rousing defense of the free press. The documentary, written and directed by Brian Knappenberger, is not just worth the watch — it’s essential viewing in these times.
But while it tells important stories that require more scrutiny, it also misses the mark on some pieces to the modern media story that shouldn’t be overlooked.
When venture capitalist and political activist Peter Thiel turned Hulk Hogan into a pawn to take down Gawker because of Thiel’s personal vendetta against the site, he created the precedent for a new type of media threat. Billionaires funding lawsuits unrelated to them in an attempt to silence a media organization is dangerous, and that’s why Knappenberger’s telling of this event was so important.
Similarly, when casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s family secretly bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal — a secret uncovered by Review-Journal reporters themselves, many of whom then quit — Knappenberger demonstrated another method through which the rich and powerful can bend the media towards their needs: buying their way through anything.
“Nobody Speak” presents both of these cases in a thrilling and dramatic light, following a trail of court documents, reporters’ notes and interviews in that drip-drip drama that investigative documentaries strive for. And these stories are both extremely compelling and devastatingly tragic. Firsthand accounts of seasoned and idealistic journalists reflecting on their defeats at the hands of deep-pocketed robber barons show the perilous state of the free press.
Knappenberger takes time unpacking both Thiel and Adelson, exploring the sources of their wealth, their influence on the national and global stage and their right-wing beliefs — accurately and fairly painting them as ruthless billionaires paying for better coverage. This is especially true of Adelson and his purchase of the Review-Journal, where writers were then forbidden from covering him and his business dealings.
But then Knappenberger quickly glosses over Jeff Bezos, another billionaire who purchased a major newspaper — the Washington Post — and even refers to him as a “steward” of journalism.
If Knappenberger were really trying to produce a nuanced discussion on journalism, he would discuss what makes one billionaire a “steward” and another a villain. As newspaper ad revenues plummet and then increasingly seek nontraditional funding streams, that distinction is more important than ever.
Too often, Knappenberger unnecessarily and unfairly politicizes the issues of the press. The documentary takes time to paint a detailed picture of both Thiel’s and Adelson’s ties to Donald Trump and the Republican Party, and it discusses in depth Trump’s explosive and dangerous rhetoric regarding a free and independent press.
But while Trump’s attacks against the media are public and well documented, not to mention scary, it’s reductive to only focus on right-wing personalities in this conversation.
Barack Obama, who frequently paid lip service to the news media, imprisoned more whistleblowers than all presidents before him combined, and his administration even won a ruling that stated that journalists could not refuse to testify about unnamed sources in criminal cases, according to the New York Times.
Where was that information in a documentary about threats to independent and free press? It’s a glaring and important omission.
But Knappenberger’s focus on the current president isn’t unfounded or unreasonable, and Knappenberger really hits his stride during the final section, which chronicles Donald Trump’s paranoid and tantrum-like reactions to honest coverage.
“Nobody Speak” presents the story of a media under attack by billionaires and a changing culture. But its presentation feeds directly into many of the problems it identifies. So look to this film to find an engaging view of new threats to the fourth estate and be confronted with the harrowing idea of a Hulk Hogan sex tape along the way — just don’t expect it to be completely comprehensive.