(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Nick Denton, Hulk Hogan, A.J. Daulerio, Charles Harder, David Folkenflik, Peter Thiel, David Birenspan, John Cook, David Carr, Floyd Abrams, Peter Sterne, David Houston, Leslie Savan, Will Alden, Ryan Mac, Matt Drange, Elizabeth Spiers, James Wright, Hike Hengel, John L. Smith, Jennifer Robison. Directed by Brian Knappenberger
Long considered one of the pillars of democracy, a free and independent press acted as a check on the powerful; their job to shine the light of truth on those who would keep things hidden in the darkness. In recent years, the press has come under attack particularly by our current President who has gone so far as to call them “the enemy of the people.”
It is easy for someone like myself to take umbrage; after all, I spent almost 15 years in the newspaper business and continue as a writer and a commentator albeit as a movie reviewer. Still, the Free Press tends to be something of a sacred trust to me and people like me. It is sometimes easy to forget that the state of the media has changed radically. Gone are the days of local newspapers being crusaders; most newspapers are owned by corporate interests and are expected to turn a profit which has become increasingly difficult in this age of the Internet. Some of the charges brought against the Media aren’t without merit.
This documentary, which played Sundance last year and has been playing on Netflix since not long after that, examines the assault on the Press from three vantages. The first and most lengthy is coverage of the Gawker Hulk Hogan sex tape suit. Gawker was something of a tabloid website that specialized in lurid news stories that mainstream outlets wouldn’t touch. When a sex tape of wrestler Hulk Hogan getting busy with his friend shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge’s wife, Hogan (whose real name is Terry Bollea) requested that the tape be taken down. When Gawker refused, Hogan sued. Getting a judge who once represented Terry Schiavo’s parents in that heart-wrenching case, the judgment went against the website, to the tune of $140 million (which was later negotiated down to $31 million). The result was that Gawker declared bankruptcy and their media empire (which included other websites like Jezebel and Gizmodo) were sold to Latin media giant Univision and Gawker was quietly shut down.
The film portrays the website and its British founder Nick Denton as crusaders for the free press, but that’s a bit misleading. Media critic the late David Carr of the New York Times once referred to the site as “The Mean Girls of journalism.” The question that is brought up but not really addressed is that where privacy get superseded by the right of the press to report the news. David Houston, Bollea’s lawyer, successfully argued that Hulk Hogan having sex is not news and on that I would agree.
After the judgment is handed down, it is revealed that the lawsuit was funded by billionaire Silicon Valley venture capitalist (and former founder of Pay Pal) Peter Thiel, a Trump supporter, who was once outed by Gawker and wanted to not only see them taken down a peg but to be driven out of existence which he was successful in doing. This is troubling particularly when the next segment, the surprise 2015 purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by mysterious buyers.
The reporters at the newspaper of record for Sin City are told to do their jobs and not worry about who owns the paper but that is like waving bloody red meat in the face of a starving wolf. Soon the investigative journalists at the newspaper discover that the purchaser is GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, the owner of the Venetian and one of the biggest financial supporters of Republican political candidates next to the Koch Brothers. He essentially wanted to buy the paper to control the news coming out about his casino and business dealings.
These are troubling trends that billionaires dissatisfied with the coverage about them can simply buy the news and then have their own agenda become part of the media landscape. Knappenberger most certainly brings up some very important and troubling questions; unfortunately he gets a bit preachy towards the end which dilutes his point quite a bit. Still, in these times where the press is being demonized, it behooves us to understand the forces behind the campaign to discredit the media. While no newspaper reporter is ever truly unbiased, there is at least an expectation that the facts will be verifiable and correct. The fact that now we seem to prefer to get our news from echo chambers rather than from sources that at least place value on the truth is something that could end up destroying our country from within.
REASONS TO GO: The story is a worthwhile one. There’s plenty of detail in the information presented. There are some unexpected twists and turns. It’s a chilling look at how the First Amendment has been systematically eroded.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers get a little preachy towards the end. There’s a little too much quick-cutting for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie debuted at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, it did get a brief theatrical run followed by it’s Netflix debut in June of last year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tabloid
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: A Wrinkle in Time