NEW YORK — Many Americans felt anxious after the election of President Donald Trump. But few harbored the dread that Brian Knappenberger did.
The documentary filmmaker, who specializes in government suppression and surveillance stories, was in the final stages of editing “Nobody Speak,” about Hulk Hogan’s crippling 1st Amendment-related lawsuit against Gawker. What had been a sobering but manageable tale about the free press suddenly became something very different.
“I felt a chill,” Knappenberger said recently. “The Trump scenes (in the film) went from cautionary to ‘Oh … The guy who talks about opening up libel laws and who berates the press every five minutes is now in charge of the executive branch.’ “
An obscenity or two may escape the lips of many who covet a free press these days.
New threats seem to materialize by the moment. For every important piece of journalism comes a doublespeak term, like “fake news,” meant to muddy the line between propaganda and uncomfortable facts. Each news-nourishing leak seems to arrive with a rattle of prosecution. Attempts by reporters to do their jobs yield changes in the unspoken rules that aid them.
And for every legitimate scoop or commentary, there is talk of lowering the threshold on libel and defamation laws, which since the landmark 1964 Supreme Court ruling of New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan — it set an extremely high bar for public figures seeking damages from media outlets — has been ironclad.
In recent days, the coal-mining magnate Bob Murray sued HBO, Time Warner and the writers of John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” for defamation over an on-air commentary in which Oliver took aim at Murray’s safety record and made a Dr. Evil-related quip. Shortly after, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin filed a defamation lawsuit against the New York Times over a June 14 editorial that inaccurately said there was a link between an image distributed by her PAC and the shooting of then-Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords.
All these issues run underneath “Speak,” which Netflix began streaming in late June after its acclaimed premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie serves as a kind of dark companion piece to 2015 Oscar best picture winner “Spotlight.” If that fact-based film, about a Catholic Church scandal and cover-up in the early 2000s, shows what a free press can do, “Nobody Speak” documents how easily that press could now go away — how future “Spotlights” could never come to pass.
Framed (and viewed) against a backdrop of Trump-era media hostility, “Speak” begins with Hogan suing Gawker in Florida over the publication of a sex tape. The litigation, it turns out, is being secretly financed by the Silicon Valley venture-capitalist Peter Thiel, who has a personal grievance with the site. The high-powered lawyers he hires succeed in winning a $140-million judgment that in turn forces Gawker to shut down.
The movie continues down a winding but scary path to a similarly cloaked-in-mystery acquisition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. That unknown buyer ends up being Sheldon Adelson, whose attempted string-pulling eventually leads many reputable journalists to leave the paper. The film ends with Trump’s inauguration and an unflattering look at his attitude toward the news media in his first months in office.
Though Thiel and Adelson are activist conservatives, in both cases, Knappenberger believes, the issue is not politics as much as methodology. What troubles him is how these instances pave the way for the hyper-wealthy to seize media pulpits before the public can even realize what they’ve done.
“I think what both Thiel and Adelson did was give a kind of roadmap,” said Knappenberger. The director was having lunch in the country’s media capital, the biggest news companies within a two-mile radius. Fears that these journalists will be deterred from their jobs — legally, politically, culturally, financially — hung heavy in the air.
“There have always been private figures who try to get a hold of media outlets and try to shape coverage. But you know who they are,” he said. “What’s egregious here is the secrecy.”
Nor does the idea of Gawker as an outlier offer much solace. Yes, the Nick Denton-run site flirted with the bounds of good taste and, some believe, with journalism ethics. But experts note that assaults on the free press rarely begin at the center. They start at the margins, with outlets that make some uncomfortable, then metastasize inward.
“The reason to save Gawker is not because Gawker was worth saving,” the lawyer and 1st Amendment champion Floyd Abrams says in the film. “The reason to save it is we don’t pick and choose what sorts of (speech) are permissible. Because once we do it empowers the government to limit speech.”
Alarmism about the state of a free press is often accompanied by a reflexive self-reassurance. It can’t be this bad, we think. The republic has weathered worse crises and emerged intact.
History in one sense bears this out. U.S. leaders have often sought to impose restrictions on the news media.
But the threat — both to America and to the press — always passed. And while media complicity with the U.S. government is often alleged and sometimes accurate, anyone looking at coverage that followed these cases would be hard-pressed to claim a long-term stifling of press freedoms. In many instances, in fact, they led to some of the country’s best journalism.
However, a big factor distinguishes the present day: None of these past suppressions came from a leader who seemed to fundamentally believe reporters had no right to do their jobs. Trump has called the news media “the enemy of the American people,” regularly belittles it, makes noise about prosecuting it and has suggested he’d like to neuter it.
“The real threat here is that we’ve never had a president who’s been antagonistic not only to the media but to the underlying principles of the free press,” George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley, a 1st Amendment scholar and frequent commentator on these issues, said. “Donald Trump is talking candidly about chilling the media; he’s quite open about what he’s trying to achieve.”
With a shift in recent years among swaths of America to see large news outlets as a mouthpiece of the left, a restriction of the press is viewed not as an abhorrence but a political win.
“There’s a danger this (free press) issue has become hyper-partisan,” David Folkenflik, the media correspondent for National Public Radio and a voice in “Nobody Speak,” said. “The effort has to been to delegitimize the press as simply another actor in a great political drama, one that has no interest in anyone but itself.” (In “Nobody Speak,” disturbing scenes pop up of Trump supporters intimidating reporters to this effect.)
And that, in turn, could help set up Trump-era muzzling. A scapegoated media combined with a president that wants to erode press freedoms makes lawsuits more palatable. And lawsuits, of course, don’t need to succeed to be effective. It merely takes the threat of action against traditional outlets — already reeling from digital competition and advertising slowdowns — to have a chilling effect.
Veteran journalist David Gregory noted the president is also blurring lines at a time when the very notion of truth has been undermined.
“Many administrations campaign against the press and argue the news media is some combination of elitist liberals and a leftist conspiracy,” the CNN commentator said. “But what’s different here is Trump creating an alternative reality and a set of facts that is demonstrably not true. And it’s happening in an environment where people can already create their own zones of information, which I think is what really makes it dangerous.”
Some of the media’s wounds are self-inflicted. Viewers of cable news do see a lot of stories about, well, cable news. That can make for compelling television — witness Anderson Cooper’s eye-rolling standoffs with Kellyanne Conway — but doesn’t do much to shed the perception that the news media is more interested in itself than the truth.
But many outlets are also in a no-win situation. The only way to get the word out about a media being suppressed or lied to is to report on the ways that’s happening, which can in turn seem like self-interest.
And the Trump era can magnify mistakes. Just recently three CNN staffers resigned over a story alleging that a Trump transition team member had ties to a Russian investment fund. CNN, like print outlets, has broken a lot of news in this realm. Yet the company determined the journalists did not have the requisite sourcing to publish in this instance. The story was retracted with an editor’s note, as stories have been since the beginning of journalism.
But the response by the White House to the misstep was louder — and found more willing ears — than in other periods. Within a 24-hour period Trump had sent a series of tweets containing messages such as “Wow, CNN had to retract big story on Russia … What about all the other phony stories they do? FAKE NEWS!” Collectively, the tweets garnered more than 200,000 likes.
And yet, through all this, optimism slips in.
The prospect of the press losing its freedom seems to have energized it, both with the kind of stories it’s done and the zeal with which it’s done them.
“The small ray of hope is maybe the media is starting to figure out why they’re here,” Knappenberger said. “In a long slow (economic) decline you never really think about it. And then Trump comes along and makes people realize what it’s all for.”
Certainly that push is true from the public side, which has responded to a Trump presidency by reading and watching more. (Total viewers of cable news in the second quarter was up 86 percent year to year for MSNBC, 39 percent for CNN and 27 percent for Fox News.) At the least it’s harder to erode the rights of the news media if people are paying attention.
Maybe the greatest comfort is that knee-jerk anti-media responses don’t necessarily translate into deeply held conviction. Few people really want a free press taken away, even and especially those opposed to the so-called mainstream media; the voices they embrace will then have less room to flourish too.
Besides, even mainstream outlets may be more trusted than the public rhetoric suggests.
“It’s a little like politics — nobody thinks Congress is doing a good job but everyone votes for their congressman,” said Folkenflik. “I think of it as a kind of friendly antagonism.” In a climate of so many fears, that may be far better than the other type.