This week, Netflix released their original documentary Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press which details the way in which the media in the United States are being targeted by billionaires and corporations, including but not limited to, the President of the United States, Donald Trump. The main focus of the documentary is the Hulk Hogan v. Gawker Media trial in which Hogan sued the online news publisher after they released a clip of his sex tape on their website. In this article, we review the documentary, summarising the key points and events, as well as provide a commentary on how, as a result of his lawsuit, Hulk Hogan may have caused the destruction of the free press in the United States of America.
Introducing the Participants
Following the documentary’s opening prologue, which touts the Hogan/Gawker case as the most important first amendment trial of the century, we are shown a montage of recent conflict between Donald Trump and the press. We see footage recorded of his supporters coming to blows with journalists and police in riot gear taking people away. This conflict sets the scene for Hogan’s complaints in the courts. Hulk Hogan (Terry Bollea) is suing:
- Heather Clem and Todd Clem (Bubba the Love Sponge), for secretly videotaping the consentual sexual relations between him and Heather Clem. (This suit was settled quickly in exchange for $5000 damages and the promise that the Clem’s would not participate in the second suit);
- Gawker Media, for distributing the private videotape of the aforementioned sexual event.
Alongside footage from the start of the Hogan v. Gawker trial, the two main players are profiled. Hulk Hogan is profiled using poor quality video clearly lifted from YouTube. The suggestion of the profile is that it is difficult to discern the distinction between the character, Hulk Hogan, and the person, Terry Bollea but that Hogan is a household name that stands up for truth, justice and the American way.
Next up is information about the founders of Gawker, Nick Denton and Elizabeth Spiers, as well as some context about the Gawker website. It’s suggested that Gawker became popular as a media outlet because it didn’t care who it was offending, that the story was always the focus of their work, telling the tales that the rest of the media were either too scared or too polite to print. In interview, Denton defends his format stating that Gawker has an illustrious history of writing good stories that were not being reported and to do that it sometimes had to offend or insult.
Cease and Desist
After a brief introduction of the trial’s judge, Pamela Campbell, we join the trial in progress as A.J. Daulerio, then Editor in Chief of Gawker, begins to detail how he came to receive the Hulk Hogan Sex Tape. He suggests he received it routinely in email communication with an unknown source but that he knew the tape existed because of the reporting of other news outlets, such as TMZ. Daulerio is asked whether he can identify the participants of the video; he identifies Hulk Hogan and Heather Clem as well as a voice off-camera whom he believes to be Bubba the Love Sponge, cuckolding his wife to Hogan.
When Gawker posted a clip of the sex tape, Hogan’s legal counsel asked for it to be removed from the website. Hogan’s legal team stated that no damages or further litigation would be sought had Gawker complied at this point. Despite this cease and desist order, as well as a more personalised letter to Denton, Denton states that he “didn’t find [the cease and desist] persuasive” and so chose to leave the video where it was. Denton suggested that the video was in the public interest because Hogan was an all-American celebrity who is a role model for children.
The validity of Hogan’s objections to the distribution of the sex tape are raised when he is interviewed on radio bragging about his performance in the tape. At trial, Hogan suggested that he was deeply and personally hurt by the release of this tape. He justifies the bravado he displayed during interviews as being in character as Hulk Hogan, but that, deep down, Terry Bollea had been betrayed by the only person in his life he had left (Bubba the Love Sponge). In order to make the distinction between himself and Hulk Hogan, Bollea states in open court that references made to his “10 inch penis” actually referred to Hulk Hogan’s penis, not his own. He furthermore states that Hulk Hogan gave up his right to privacy when the character was created, suggesting that his own (Bollea’s) privacy should be considered separately to Hulk Hogan’s.
The next portion of the documentary focuses on where the money for Hogan’s trial came from as well as the Hogan’s motives for the trial. It was well documented at the point of the trial that Hogan had been experiencing severe financial difficulties as a result of the split with his wife and so many were led to question whether an outside entity was bankrolling it. This suspicion was heightened when Hogan’s legal team dropped a portion of their complaint against Gawker, the portion that pertained to the emotional distress caused by the release of the tape. It transpires that Gawker’s legal insurance covered the cost of the trial whilst this complaint was in place but without it they were not obligated to cover Gawker’s expenses. This led many within Gawker’s legal team to question whether Hogan’s goal was to receive financial damages from them or whether the intention was to, in fact, shut Gawker down.
Hogan’s intentions were further questioned when the rest of the tape was recovered, suggesting that Hogan wanted his sex tape forgotten because he uses racial and homophobic language within it. As the case went on, it became clear that Gawker were prevented from defending themselves effectively because of their inability to call Bubba/Heather Clem as witnesses, or allude to anything they had said against Hogan in previous cases or in the media. As a result, the jury ruled in favour of Hulk Hogan on all counts and damages were due from Gawker and its associates. $115 Million dollars in compensatory damages are due from Gawker as well as $25.1 Million in punitive damages: $15 Million from Gawker, $10 Million from Nick Denton and $100,000 from A.J. Daulerio.
A Secret Funder Taking On The Press
Following the trial, speculation continued about another person or entity secretly bankrolling the Hogan legal team. It is revealed that Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, was secretly paying the expenses of Hogan’s legal fight. But why was this Silicon Valley billionaire backing a court battle of a person he doesn’t even know, 2000 miles away from his home? With a little digging, it became clear that Thiel was financing Hulk Hogan to satiate the most primal of needs: vengeance. Back in 2007, Gawker published an article titled ‘Peter Thiel is totally gay, people’, questioning the sexual orientation of the billionaire. Having taken exception to this article, as well as Gawker’s continued coverage of Thiel’s eccentric views, beliefs and investments, Thiel decided to fund Hogan’s quest to end the “singularly sociopathic” Gawker.
The documentary goes on to discuss the knock-on effects of the trial, focusing on the way in which the rich can use their money and influence to silence the media and prevent them from reporting the truth by threatening them with litigation or, as was the case with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, simply buying out the outlet in order to gag them. The documentary concludes by focusing on how perhaps the most influential billionaire in the world, Donald Trump, is systematically using his money, power and authority to undermine and diminish the ability of the free press to report the truth.
The Legacy of Hogan v. Gawker
The Hogan v. Gawker trial will be remembered for its role in changing history. The trial is marred with the idea that, in the same way Peter Thiel did, anybody rich enough to spare the money can seek to destroy a news outlet or publication by simply litigating them into oblivion. A billionaire so inclined, who perhaps feels wronged by the way they’ve been reported, can provide the funds for as many trials as necessary to bankrupt that organization. The harrowing aspect of this is the fact that media outlets may be forced into liquidation defending themselves in court when, in fact, what they have published is completely justified, legal and legitimately within the public interest.
While Hulk Hogan isn’t directly to blame for this, he has unwittingly opened the floodgates for this kind of corporately funded litigation to take place. The amount that Hogan received in damages was disproportionate to the nature of Gawker’s crimes with Hogan receiving more in damages that most wrongful death cases net. Of the $115 Million in compensatory damages, $60 Million of them were stated to be for emotional distress, which Hogan had withdrawn his claim for and Gawker had lost their insurance coverage for. In the end, Hogan and Gawker agreed on a $31 Million settlement; the documentary does not mention this fact. By allowing Peter Thiel to fund his lawsuit, he set a precedent that allows other financial powerhouses to use their money to persecute the little man and force them into silent submission. Hulk Hogan won this lawsuit but perhaps we, a public who turn to the media for truth, were the losers.
Was Hogan right to sue Gawker? Should Gawker have been taken down in the way that it was? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below or on Twitter @thejezshow.