‘Nobody Speak’: Billionaires Silencing the First Amendment (Audio)
Transcript follows below:
RS: Hi, I’m Robert Scheer and this is Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Brian Knappenberger. He’s a documentary filmmaker; he’s done terrific movies. One is “The Internet’s Own Boy,” about Aaron Swartz, one of the rebels within the internet, who unfortunately committed suicide; “We Are Legion,” which is a film about hacking; and so forth. And his most recent film, no less controversial, is “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press.” And it was released this month in theaters and on Netflix. And welcome, Brian.
BK: Thanks a lot. Thanks for having me.
RS: And the reason I think this is so timely–I mean, you are kind of a creature of the internet; your films have dealt with it, and they talk about the possibilities for good and evil in the internet. It’s the best and worst of all worlds; it’s come upon us rather quickly, and has had a tremendous transforming power. And one thing it’s done, which your current movie deals with quite movingly, is the death of legend media, of traditional media, because of the internet. Particularly print; internet just wiped out classified advertising, it wiped out a lot of the space ads, and it had a big impact on broadcast television and radio. And is a great commercial market; that’s where people can sell things by doing all these–and, well, getting into your privacy, finding out who you are, and what your dress size is and everything else and marketing to you. And if you’re Google and Facebook, you can market to people without even paying homage to The New York Times or CBS or anybody else, you know; you go to them directly. And your movies have really dealt with some of the problems.
This movie now, the documentary, the new one, deals with another phenomenon of the internet, which is the creation of billionaires; kind of a whole class, now, of powerful, very wealthy people, and who can just buy, buy media, buy property. And I guess I don’t want to presume to tell you what your movie’s about, but I’ll tell you what it was about for me. It was a very, you know, there’s a very powerful person called Peter Thiele. And we learned a great mystery from the Gawker-Hulk Hogan trial that–the question kept being raised, why is this trial going on? Why are people pursuing Gawker? Who’s bankrolling it? It turned out the mystery sponsor of this, really, was Peter Thiele, the person who made his billions–I’m using the plural advisedly–through PayPal. And he was, in your movie he says he was–well, he doesn’t say anything, really, about it. But he was outed as being gay, and yet it was a sympathetic column by a gay person who did it in Gawker. Nonetheless, he had a beef with Gawker and he in fact was able to put them out of business. And you present this, because you tie it into Trump’s rise, the attack on the media; you even drag in Sheldon Adelson, who bought the Las Vegas paper; and he’s not a creature of the internet, he’s a creature of gambling. But nonetheless, the movie is really quite chilling, and it suggests that there’s an enormous threat to the freedom of the press. And that is from rich people who can buy it and also maybe finance the president, because Peter Thiel was, you know, a supporter of Trump and has now been appointed by him to a position. That in fact, they have a president who is of their thinking, and that we actually face a great current threat. So why don’t you spell it out?
BK: Well, first of all, thank you for all that, that introduction. I am really, have always been really interested in issues around the internet. And I do feel like we’ve always, we are in a moment that has been changing dramatically because of technology. And you know, the internet has shifted everything about our lives; about how we communicate, and how our private information is being stored, and all of that. And the stories I think that I’m the most compelled with are those stories where those things brush up against I guess what you’d call more traditional civil liberties, human rights kinds of values. And where that tension is the strongest, I think there’s some really interesting stories there, and I think that’s where we’re defining our future, basically. So I’m really interested in that.
One of the things–I found the Hulk Hogan-Gawker case to be really compelling just by itself. Here, it was the first time a sex-tape case like this had ever gone to trial. And though there was this kind of veneer of tabloid sensationalism to it, you could tell that there were some bigger-picture things going on. There were some, I think, really important kind of First Amendment versus privacy issues happening here. And so I thought that was just really, really interesting. Um, my work has–you know, I’ve done work that has been about, centered around the First Amendment, and I’ve done work centered around privacy issues, too. So this, to me, was an interesting courtroom. But I started, actually, making the documentary in the sort of dramatic conclusion to the trial. You know, the $140 million verdict was so staggering; it was so high. And when you paired that with the requirement for Gawker to put up $50 million right away, that was effectively the death sentence to Gawker. So whatever you were discussing or thinking about during the trial, suddenly it came to this just abrupt and very dramatic end. And then, of course, came the revelation that Peter Thiel was funding Hulk Hogan’s case. And that was–
RS: We should mention that the verdict in a Florida court that went against Gawker, a judge who had been appointed by Jeb Bush to the bench–
BK: That’s right.
RS: –and had strong views of her own. But nonetheless, that judgement, because of its immediate impact, forced Gawker, forced the sale of Gawker. And–to Univision. And ah, and Gawker itself went out of business.
RS: Now, and just to point out, not all of us liked Gawker, and we thought there was, there were real issues with privacy and reprehensible journalism and so forth. But you quote [Floyd] Abrams, one of the great experts on the freedom of the press, saying hey, that’s the real test; it’s freedom for thought you don’t like, it’s freedom for that which may be ugly; but who’s going to make that decision?
RS: And the idea of a secretive billionaire being able to finance the trial–you know, which ended up being settled in bankruptcy court and so forth; the actual payment, I think, was $30 million or something. But nonetheless, you go on to spin a web that we’re really in a very dangerous time, with a president who was supported by this Peter Thiel that has no respect for limited government, for–despite Peter Thiel being a libertarian–
BK: Or accountability.
RS: –yeah. But, you know, in fact doing something to really strengthen the hand of an all-powerful government. And so the movie has resonance beyond whether you like Gawker or not; it’s really a question, what’s going to happen now with the free press when you have all of this money sloshing around that can punish people, and you have a president who seems to be quite hostile to the press. I guess that would be the current reason for people to get, go on Netflix and watch your movie, right?
BK: Yes! I think, look, I think that’s essentially, you’re hitting on exactly what was worrying me so much about the revelation that Peter Thiel was behind this. You know, that suddenly this was a very different story; this was about how people, very wealthy individuals, could [influence]–silence their critics, essentially. So, you know–and then this was in the middle of Trump’s rise; you know, he was in the republican debates at that point, but you could kind of understand his kind of continual bashing of the media, and you could see what he was–his attitude towards the media. I mean, this was when he started saying “We’re going to open up libel laws” in his rallies and speeches, and pointing at the press and saying “We’re going to sue you like you’ve never been sued before.” And he called press scum, and they were terrible people, and he would sort of blacklist certain news organizations, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed and others from getting press credentials to his rallies and speeches in the usual way. He just, we’d never seen anybody like this. And this was candidate Trump, and this was the rise of this sort of bullying or–a real, no respect for the idea of an adversarial or critical voice at all. And so that was that. And then also, of course, the Sheldon Adelson story, which was troublesome to me, and the purchase–when he purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal, he purchased it in, was able to buy it in secret. And for at least a short period of time was trying to hide the fact that he owned it, which is obvious conflict of interest for a reporter.
RS: The rise of Donald Trump really is more a creation of legend media. It may be threatened for its economic model, but if television [Laughs] hadn’t given him all this attention–and basically, where was old media when he was rising in power and amassing wealth and being the showboater? But–
BK: He was on reality television. They were helping.
RS: Yeah, and they did so quite uncritically. And it was after all, Les Moonves, the head of CBS, who during this election said, you know: He may be bad for the country but he’s great for CBS, bring it on. So you know, you can’t blame new media for Trump in that sense. But then another thing is in the election, I thought when he asked Peter Thiel to be a speaker at the Republican Convention, which I think is the first time an openly gay person–it kind of confounded your story a little bit. Because on the one hand–and Peter Thiel’s story; he was all upset about being outed, but outed hasn’t hurt his economic career at all–
BK: That’s the first thing he said, I think, in the speech: I’m proud to be gay, and proud to be republican.
RS: Yeah, and I thought, wow: here’s a guy who–and Trump, I must say, it’s one of the best things that Donald Trump has done, was confound the republican religious right and say, no, I’m not going down that road; I’m going to have an openly gay supporter. And in your documentary, he actually embraces him and what have you, as a great American.
BK: Yes. There is some, you know–I think you could even say that the Peter Thiel speech at the RNC was one of the more reasonable [Laughs] speeches that we heard there.
RS: It was inspiring, it’s inspiring because we’ve never heard an openly gay–
BK: Yeah, and I think–and people cheered for that. And there is a great moment there, for sure. You know, I think they’re kindred spirits in their … certainly in their hatred of the media; there’s some other troubling commonality between them, but you’re right about that for sure, I think that was a moving moment. And Thiel’s speech was probably the more interesting of the speeches of the RNC.
RS: Yeah, I mean it was a glass ceiling or whatever, a shattering moment in the cultural wars, because it was acceptance that being–you have to be a billionaire and you have to be running a big company, but the fact is that there was acceptance that that part of–that you could be the presidential candidate of the Republican Party. So I don’t want to dwell on that too much, but Peter Thiel–I confronted him at one talk he gave at USC. And I asked him: You said you were a libertarian–and that’s in your documentary, this whole libertarian ideology, which is very–and you know a lot about Silicon Valley and the rise of the internet. And the whole question is, is the libertarian ideology something that people genuinely believe? Which there’s good reason to believe; it’s a kind of clarion call to limited government and individual freedom that people can go for. Or is it a sign of hypocrisy, that you’re concealing your own greed, your own wealth, and you want to keep government from redistributing it and so forth?
And Peter Thiel’s case, in your documentary “Nobody Speak,” gets into this. Because as you point out, Peter Thiel, who was the founder of PayPal, went on to be one of the founders and financiers of a company called Palantir. And Palantir, as you say in your documentary, was funded by In-Q-Tel, which is the venture arm of the CIA. And they were, in fact, I would go further than your documentary–that they were the only customer for Palantir during their first three years. And it’s an interesting contradiction, because here you have a guy who’s supposed to be a libertarian, but he’s involved with the deep state. And in fact, you know, he’s–Palantir now mines the private data of Americans for the Los Angeles Police Department, for many police departments around the country, and for all 17 agencies of the federal government in terms of, you know, what they do. Part of Palantir’s technology is used there. And it’s not a thing, an issue that your film got into, but somebody watching that movie might want to question, if this guy Peter Thiel is so vindictive as your movie suggests, and he has access to all of our private data–because they’re data mining it for all the intelligence agencies–and he’s close to Donald Trump, ah, what happens next?
BK: Wow. Um, I don’t know what else to add to that. That’s pretty, that’s a pretty chilling scenario, and I certainly–you know, we’re suggesting that in the film for sure. That you know, I think for you to buy into the kind of surveillance state or the access for the accumulation of private data that tech companies have right now–I mean, this is essentially, the tech economy is driven by kind of, is a kind of surveillance economy. So if you’re going to trust that, you have to kind of trust that people are going to, that there are protections in place, that the people behind it aren’t, it’s not going to be abused and all that. So yeah, I think there’s–I think you can look at what Peter Thiel did in the Gawker case, this kind of underhanded, this sort of behind-the-scenes manipulating of things, the secretive way in which he went about what is essentially a nine-year grudge to destroy this person that had offended him.
RS: Why don’t you give us a summary of that? Because your film does an excellent job, and for people who haven’t seen it, what really did take place with Peter Thiel and Gawker and the trial?
BK: We’re left to kind of wonder why he went about this really significant, almost Shakespearean nine-year grudge to destroy this news organization. What he has said is that they outed him on their pages, in a–and it had a title that had a typical kind of Gawker snarky headline: “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.” The article itself was actually about bias in Silicon Valley, particularly among venture capitalists; that they’re largely straight, white males, and that they tend to fund people like themselves. This was in an 800-word article, it was actually pretty substantive, by a writer who is also gay, named Owen Thomas. So presumably–and he said this at various points, that this is one of the things that has, that triggered the kind of anger.
It’s also been pointed out that Gawker and some of the other, more tech-related sister sites of Gawker like Valleywag and Gizmodo, also went after, you know, some of his businesses; Clarium Capital, went after some of his friends like Sean Parker; that they were generally critical. Another thing that Peter Thiel said about Gawker, and particularly Valleywag, was that they were bad for the Valley. In fact, he called them some, like a terrorist organization or something for the Valley. You know, they probably were bad for the Valley; they were one of the few voices, at least at the time, that was speaking truth to power, I mean, was critical of power; I mean, who in our modern society has more power than tech billionaires, than Silicon Valley? They’ve got all of this access to our personal data, they’ve got money sloshing around. There’s this incredible power there And you know, they’re not used to having a critical press. Wall Street has a critical press built up around it; it’s a tradition of this; they don’t do well enough, they didn’t catch the financial crisis, see that coming. But at least there’s a tradition of critical press. You know, D.C. is the same. Even Hollywood has a critical press of some sort, right? Silicon Valley–
RS: “Even” Hollywood? My God! [Laughs]
BK: Even Hollywood has a kind of a pushback on films and movies and the business. But Silicon Valley has been largely without this. So I think that there was, that the existence of Valleywag and Gizmodo presented something that they weren’t used to. That, you know, tech companies are used to thinking of themselves as being “we’re making the world a better place,” not being questioned.
RS: [omission] We’re back with Scheer Intelligence. My guest today is filmmaker Brian Knappenberger, whose latest film, “Nobody Speak,” is about the legal battle between Gawker and Terry Gene Bollea, better known as Hulk Hogan. But actually, it’s more about Peter Thiel, a mysterious billionaire who started PayPal, which is a company that had a lot of access to people’s personal data. And part of that technology informed a company that he started, really, in cooperation with the CIA–it sounds like some wild conspiracy theory, but the fact is, it’s been well documented. The CIA put part of its, they have a venture capital arm called In-Q-Tel and they also, they were the only customer for Palantir for three years. And I want to get back to, it’s a bit alarming, and I want to not play favorites here; I don’t have any reason to think Peter Thiel is a particularly, you know, is a bad guy in any way. I don’t know. And the film really doesn’t convince me. [Laughs] It does convince me that he operates in mysterious ways; he secretly financed the trial of Gawker that didn’t have to do with him, but Gawker attacked him. That suggests a willingness to use power to punish others, and so forth.
But it was interesting, because the Washington Post ends up being among the good people in the press that are threatened, and you have another, you know, internet billionaire–not another, a richer internet billionaire, Jeff Bezos from Amazon. And he has bought the Washington Post. And then you can raise the same questions, which your film doesn’t raise; you raised it about Sheldon Adelson buying this very small paper in Las Vegas. And here you have Jeff Bezos buying arguably the most influential paper in the United States, certainly as far as Washington is concerned. And Jeff Bezos–Amazon is, he bought it personally with his own funds, the Washington Post, but Amazon, which he runs, is actually designing the cloud for these intelligence agencies, right? Amazon is up to its eyeballs, not only in collecting our data, but working with the CIA and the NSA and everything to build a cloud, right, that stores this data.
BK: Yeah. To me the difference is, I mean, there’s certainly throughout history been very wealthy individuals buying newspapers. And there’s even been litigation finance, which I’m beginning to understand the history of litigation finance and how that’s changed over time, but which used to be illegal, actually, called champarty. But in any case, there are people that back court cases to make a political point; ACLU actually does this. So what bothers me here is the secrecy with which this was done. Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post; his stewardship of that, so far, has been by most accounts a kind of traditional stewardship, a kind of hands-off approach. Now, does that mean we don’t question him? Of course not; obviously we have to still question him. We have to look, for instance, that when Amazon buys Whole Foods, how does the Washington Post report on that? You know, things like that.
RS: Well, so, no, let’s go a little, put a little sharper edge to it. General Eisenhower turned President Eisenhower warned us about the military-industrial complex. Jeff Bezos is now personally, and through his company Amazon, very deeply involved with the military-industrial complex. So is Google, and so are the others. But the fact is that the Washington Post, which is supposed to hold government accountable because it’s actually their hometown activity, is now owned by a person who stands to make a great deal of money, much more money from the federal government than he’s even making from Amazon, if you think about it, because–
BK: Is that for the cloud, you mean, the sort of–
RS: Well, all of this sort of contracting and things, and then after all, that we learn from Palantir, when Peter Thiel went from, took some of his money from PayPal and did Palantir, their surveillance apparatus is used all over the world, and it’s very profitable; they’ve minted new billionaires. And yeah, the military budget still remains a very important part of the American budget, the spinoffs are very large. And so yes, it’s a major conflict for a publisher of a major newspaper, particularly in Washington, to be so deeply involved with the military-industrial complex, which after all does operate in secret; a large part of the budget is a black budget, you don’t know where it’s going. And certainly that applies to the cloud that Amazon is building. So no, you couldn’t have a better, clearer case of what General Eisenhower warned against, than what has happened around the Washington Post and Amazon. But that’s not the subject of your documentary; it just sort of comes up.
BK: Maybe that’s the sequel. [Laughs]
RS: Yeah. But it does come up in your documentary.
BK: It does. We mention Bezos and that, and I think that there’s–I mean, look, there’s a broad range–what we try to do in the film are these kind of, sort of secretive moves that these sort of very wealthy individuals have done, that seem kind of new and surprising. Certainly part of our film is not new, it’s you know, the buying of newspapers and stuff has been going on since William Randolph Hearst and the Chandlers in LA and A.G. Sulzberger, you know. So we focus on this, but I think there’s, I mean, there’s a lot of examples, and troubling examples of big money in news and in media. There’s no question about that, and I think this is the time in which that stuff’s being carved up. You know, we see Sinclair Broadcasting for instance just, you know, taking up, soaking up all of these local news and television stations; they’re going to be the biggest controller of local news, I guess, in the United States. And they have these sort of segments, clearly far-right kind of segments that are quote unquote “must see,” or things that local news stations have to actually insert into their broadcasts. They made a deal with Trump, Sinclair Broadcasting, for fair coverage, whatever that means. So we have, we have lots of different dynamics. I think what we’re seeing here in the last year, and what I’m responding to with the film, is this, is the beginning of this stuff really ratcheting up, and the stakes getting higher and higher.
RS: Let me ask you about yourself and how you work, because the basic theme that I’m exploring here, what I call American originals, and I say out of the crazy-quilt of American culture, and you know, our different immigrant backgrounds and our native culture, and different religions and so forth, the fact is we produce a lot of interesting people. And so you are standing kind of as a truth seeker, using a form of the documentary that requires access–because there used to be, I remember I’d go to Academy Awards things ‘cause my wife was in that position at the LA Times, where she’d get a ticket. And I remember a movie, The Panama [Deception], which I thought was very good, and that won an academy award, and no one saw it that I ever–it even won an Academy Award. And so, but now documentaries can get out there because of the internet. You’re on Netflix for this current movie. And I was wondering, will you have the freedom to operate? Is there an avenue for people here? Let’s have some positive news about the future of journalism and the internet world.
BK: Yeah. Well, documentary filmmaking has a really nice niche, and particularly independent–I guess that’s the key word–independent documentary filmmaking really fills this sort of spot, where if you can create independent films, then you can tackle stories, and maybe more controversial issues, and explore topics that might be limited if you were in a more corporatized environment or if you were, you know, in a CNN or an MSNBC or otherwise. And you can do it in a different, a longer form, right, which I think is really interesting. Part of why it works for me is I feel like a lot of our stories and the information that we get is in these little tiny pieces. It’s almost like looking at a pointillist painting or something, where you’re getting a little bit every day, and just so much is coming at you. And making a documentary film is like standing back and saying, well, what is that big picture? What is, what does all of this mean? And so you can do it in the independent way, and you can be a little more daring, too; I mean, you can be a little more, take on more controversial subjects. So I think that’s a great place, and there’s new, great sort of platforms for this, which I think are strong. I have some glimmer of hope just with traditional journalism, too; I mean, Trump has been–this Trump era has really forced people to remember what it was all there for in the first place. You know, why, what their jobs really are. I mean, I think there’s initial shock about what are we going to do with this guy, and then I think some pretty good reporting’s been going on.
RS: Oh, it’s a great wake-up call. And what I love about one aspect of it, is before Trump, you had a hard time convincing liberals who were in government, or at least self-proclaimed liberals, that the surveillance state was a problem. You know, or even nuclear weapons were a problem and the control of them were a problem–those all became dead issues, and you had–for instance, John Podesta, the very person who now, you know, or supposedly he was hacked by the Russians and that influenced the election–he wrote a report for the Obama administration surveying the whole thing, saying no, the problem is not with the government, it’s actually the private sector, and people voluntarily giving up their information. He did a whitewash of the situation, and I’m sure he feels very differently now that Donald Trump [Laughs] has access to his information, that these intelligence agencies now have to respond to Donald Trump, or that nuclear weapons are in the hands of Donald Trump. It is a wake-up call. But I think–
BK: I couldn’t agree more, by the way. A hundred percent with you on that. I mean, as somebody who has made films about his surveillance, and has been a part of campaigns to try to get people aware of the kind of mass suspicion list surveillance, you know, that was a hard sell under Obama. You know, you really felt like it was tough, and a lot of times you did get this sort of sense like, well, we basically, we trust our government. We, you know, it’s going to be fine. Um, and you don’t have that now. So that’s, I totally agree.
RS: Will people like you be able to survive? Because after all, the message of your movie–let me get the full title: “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press.” You have, you end in a very gloomy projection; now suddenly Donald Trump is president, suddenly Peter Thiel spoke to the Republican Convention, who is the bad guy in your movie; he’s now got the ear of the president, he’s holding a position. And you know, and I thought wow, are we going to be able to–could you make this movie if you were so afraid–let’s take the Gawker case that your movie’s about–if you’re going to worry that people are going to sue you, and they have enormous resources, and they can make your life miserable even if they have no case. What is the effect of the Gawker case, this victory in a Florida court where, you know–and you capture it beautifully. I mean, here’s this wrestler, right, a cartoon figure of violence and corruption and everything else, somehow objecting that people were presenting an aspect of it. And what about the life of the documentarian as a journalist to make independent films, if that threat of the lawsuit, particularly anonymously financed, is hanging over you?
BK: I think it’s chilling for most people. You know, and it’s something to be, to really think about. I mean, I made a film about it, and so I’ve obviously jumped in with both feet and walked right into the fire. But I think it’s something that we need to know about, and I also think it’s something that people think about. Look, it’s not just documentary filmmaking; I think that this is true in all sorts of journalistic organizations. You know, if you’re in a newspaper, a small hometown news, you know, local newspaper; if you’re in a television station or something, if you’re creating local news, you know, there’s a lot of different stories you can do. So maybe, you know, maybe there’s a kind of soft chilling effect that might happen. Maybe you’re not going to go after those hard stories just as much, because you might think that it might be yet another lawsuit or something else might happen. Maybe there’s a kind of self-censorship going on. And I worry quite a bit about that. You know, I started really loving the internet; I mean, I started, I fell for it, you know? I guess I was a, you could even say, a techno-utopian in some way, just feeling like the internet was there and could create all of these new things; it could be a tool for democracy; it could be a tool for knowledge, you know, for curing diseases, for changing the way that we communicate. And it did a lot of that stuff. But what, you know, you started to see in maybe 2004, ’05, ’06, you started to see the, you started to see these wonderful revolutions: the Green revolution in Iran, the Twitter revolution, right? And then you saw the kind of backlash, you saw the government then use those same tools to track down those protesters and in some cases kill them.
I mean, this was a turning point in my thinking of the internet. And so I think what we’re in now, you know, now another eight, nine years after that, is a real kind of questioning about, or an awareness of the downside or the dark side of the internet, which is healthy. So in theory, we’ll be able to understand the dark side, which we don’t often see. Right? The dark side is new, too, right? It’s like that thing you can’t tell is happening; it’s like when cars were invented, nobody thought we could change the climate of our planet; we just thought they were great. So the internet, the dark side of the internet is hard for us to see and make out and predict; but we’re starting to kind of see that. And once we understand that better, maybe we can craft these new tools in a way that is more moderate, more useful, that harnesses their power and mitigates the dark side of it. I think that’s an important next phase of, if we can do it, our future.
RS: Thank you, Brian Knappenberger.
BK: Thanks a lot.
RS: You can watch Brian’s latest documentary, “Nobody Speak,” on Netflix. This has been another edition of Scheer Intelligence. Our producers are Josh Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. Our engineers at KCRW are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. I’m Robert Scheer. See you next week.
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