Netflix has dropped a new documentary called Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press. The bulk of the argument is built up by looking at first the story of Hulk Hogan vs Gawker and then that of the The Las Vegas Review-Journal take over.
I’m not going to break it down step by step. Far better that you watch it and form your own opinion.
However, a couple of things.
Firstly the central argument is correct.
Free speech, and freedom of the press, is a virtue which should be preserved and defended rigorously — that’s the first amendment.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Freedom of speech has been a huge factor in the cultural discussions surrounding the last election cycle and shows no signs of going away any time soon.
The main thrust of the argument developed by looking at the Hogan-Gawker story was not, as one might expect, a defence of the newsworthiness of publishing the sex tape but rather against the anonymous financing of the case by billionaire Peter Theil — who was ‘outed’ by Gawker some 8 or 9 years previous. This went beyond a presentation of the facts, that he had anonymously financed Hogan’s legal fees, but turned into painting him as a peculiar individual with unusual ideas( ‘he seems to have some very eccentric views…’); including things such as sea-steading. If this were a documentary about that specific case alone then fair enough. Theil is an interesting guy.
Once we get to the second case, though, a theme begins to emerge.
The second case surrounds the buying of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by the son-in-law of Sheldon Adelson. Adelson is one of the wealthiest individuals in America and owns casinos in Vegas. When the paper was bought, the journalists weren’t told who had bought them — exposing them to risking their journalistic standards with possible, if unintended, conflicts of interest. Of course journalists should know who they’re writing for but as they story goes on it becomes clear that Adelson is particularly influential in the republican sphere of politics.
This leads us to the final billionaire which the documentary takes exception to —The President of the United States, Donald Trump.
These three billionaires are prime examples of wealthy individuals who are trying to influence politics using their wealth, and this is a danger to the free press and to free speech. A danger which should be confronted. John cook puts it this way:
Because that’s a pretty good job description [of journalism]. Like, if you’re not pissing off a billionaire, then there’s not much point.
But what caught my attention, and prompted this post, was noticing that when Nobody Speaks lists Adelson as the 22nd wealthiest in America, the person sitting in number 23 was… George Soros.
George Soros is estimated to have donated over $52 Million to approximately 30 different media organisations, according to the Media Research Centre . He heads up the Open Society Foundations which have in turn had strong links with the Centre for American Progress (CAP). As a result of the DC Leaks Soros has been accused of being involved in funding up to 90 different projects within Europe aimed at influencing elections. Within the American right Soros is widely suspected of trying to influence the media in favour of Hillary Clinton.
Why wasn’t he examined, or even mentioned (other than in a list showing Adelson’s wealth)?
How about Jeff Bezos? He was mentioned in Nobody Speaks as one of the new generation of digital billionaires. CEO of Amazon, he’s estimated to be worth 85.2 biillion dollars. That’s more than Trump and Zuckerberg combined. He also bought the Washington Post for $250 million in 2013 — at the time, anonymously.
It seems that billionaires on the left and on the right are trying to further their own ideals through the means available at their disposal.
Who would have thought?
So why focus only on Theil, Adelson, and Trump?
Well, Nobody Speaks was written and directed by Brian Knappenberger (who also did the documentary The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz) and funded by The Filmmaker Fund. David Eckles, founder and director, set up The Filmmaker Fund to fund ‘documentary films that make vital social statements’. They appeal to investors for funding films which focus ‘on the environment, gun safety legislation, poverty, immigration, education and discrimination’. It’s not a large leap to suppose that The Filmmaker Fund is a consciously left leaning body.
As such Nobody Speak isn’t railing against billionaires being involved in culture, politics, and the media. It even acknowledges that people such as the Hearsts, ‘the Chandler family out in Los Angelos, the Sulzberger family in New York City and all of them have had an interest in how the media operates and through that, at times, how the political system works’. No, Nobody Speak is asserting the freedom of the press for the left over and against ‘the Peter Theil story, the Adelson story, and the Trump story’.
In their view, these billionaires on the right proclaim, in Rosen’s words, ‘“We are not vulnerable to 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.”
The problem is that for many that statement would be true of the press itself.
The film draws to a close with an emotive, almost patriotic swell of music to underscore the concluding argument of Margaret Sullivan, of the Washington Post, which seems to intended as a rallying call for the mainstream media but which, perhaps ironically, might well encourage alternative media, citizen journalists and ordinary bloggers too.
Journalism is worth protecting. The press represents the public. If we lose it, we’ve lost what America actually is and stands for. Journalists need to remember why they got into this business: to tell the truth, to go up against powerful institutions, to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, and keep their roles in mind and to do them better than they’ve ever done before. The stakes are very high. We have to fight harder than ever, and we have to fight smarter than ever. — Margaret Sullivan
The press should indeed represent the public.
I can’t help but end with one last observation.