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Sex, lies and videotape: Hulk Hogan, Donald Trump and freedom of the press

A new documentary delves into the murky world of how the powerful silence the media, with the former wrestler’s sex-tape at the centre of it.

THERE’S A MOMENT in Brian Knappenberger’s excellent Nobody Speak documentary that shows Hulk Hogan on the stand during his lawsuit against Gawker Media.

The legendary former wrestler had brought proceedings against the controversial website after it had published footage from a sex-tape Hogan made with Heather Clem – the wife of his best-friend Todd Clem, better known as the shock jock Bubba The Love Sponge.

While testifying, Hogan – whose real name is Terry Bollea – is asked about invasion of privacy – the bedrock of the entire case – and how he had openly discussed his sex life and his sexual relationship with Heather Clem in great detail prior to Gawker publishing the footage, particularly in an interview with radio host Howard Stern.

So, how could there be an invasion of Hogan’s privacy when he had disassembled the barriers to such privacy already?

To further the point, Gawker’s lawyer – Michael Sullivan – then plays an audio clip in which Hogan is discussing the size of his penis while appearing as a guest on his friend’s show.

Sullivan asks if there’s any doubt as to whether Hogan is referring to the length of his manhood.

Hulk Hogan Source: Barry Sweet

And it’s then that Hogan delivers a staggering statement.

“Well, it’s not mine, because mine isn’t that size, but we were discussing the length of Hulk Hogan’s.”

An exasperated and dumbfounded Sullivan can only respond with one word.

“Seriously?”

“No, seriously, I do not have a 10-inch penis. No, I do not. Seriously. Believe that. Seriously,” Hogan responds.

One aspect of Hogan’s defence strategy was to separate the wrestling character from the real-life person, however remarkable and inexplicable the declarations.

“Terry Bollea’s penis is not 10 inches, like you’re trying to say,” Hogan tells Sullivan.

The entire thing would be incredibly funny if it wasn’t so deeply worrying and its impact so devastating.

The defence worked and Hogan won the case – the courts awarding him a staggering $140 million dollars in damages. The victory also ensured the death of Gawker, the company filing for bankruptcy three months later. Last year, Gawker settled with Bollea for $31 million.

“It was bizarre, it was salacious but it was clear that there was big picture stuff: privacy and First Amendment rights,” Knappenberger tells The42.

“Also, this was at the very beginning of a very strange election cycle in the United States where Donald Trump owed a lot of his rise to a hatred of and attacks on the media. And who knew you’d get from Bubba The Love Sponge to the end of democracy as we know it?”

Charade and secrecy play important roles in Nobody Speak. Hogan is just one of an extensive list of high-profile figures referenced in the film who are shown to hide behind a persona but only when it suits them.

Knappenberger could see how the story reflected a ‘larger political landscape’ and felt the entire case seemed a neat metaphor for the simmering subplot involving a then-presidential nominee and his continued abuse of the media.

“There was the way Hogan differentiated between ‘Hulk Hogan’ – the iconic figure from the 1980s – and the private person, Terry Bollea,” Knappenberger says.

Donald Trump has often done something very similar. When he’s made misogynistic comments or said awful things, some of his supporters have said, ‘Oh, that’s not him – that’s just the TV character’. So, you’re in this position of trying to find out who is accountable, who is the real person, what is a ‘public persona’? That’s interesting when you’re talking about Hulk Hogan but it gets disturbing when we’re talking about the President of the United States.”

Gawker’s modus operandi was to reveal – however damningly – the real behind the fabrications. On occasion, it stepped over the line in its quest to gleefully skewer the glitterati. On occasion, they got it wrong. And one such mis-step effectively led to the Hogan case and their own undoing.

In 2007, the website outed technology billionaire and PayPal founder Peter Thiel as being gay. Bitter and angry, he waited patiently for his revenge and exacted it by secretly financing Hogan’s lawsuit and watching Gawker burn to the ground.

Web Summit 2014 - Dublin Peter Thiel pictured at the 2014 Web Summit in Dublin.

And that’s really what drives Nobody Speak – the perceived silencing of the press by those with the ways and means to do so and how the treatment of Gawker seemed to play loose and free with the First Amendment.

“I was compelled by it because it was hard,” Knappenberger says.

“Gawker was loved and hated. Some of those that hated them the most read it the most. They went after celebrities, business-people, tech luminaries – anybody they thought were too full of themselves. They wrote stories that were clearly over the line and they were redacted or taken down. But they also broke some great stories. They spawned a whole generation of writers.

“It was around the fringes of acceptability. There was a little bit of The People Vs Larry Flynt in this. So, we were eyeing it as a potential documentary but then with the verdict – the $140m and the requirement for Gawker to put up $50m straight away – it was the death sentence and decisive end for Gawker. But, then when it came out that Peter Thiel – the first outside investor in Facebook – was behind the funding for Hulk Hogan’s case, it was so bizarre and we knew we had to dig in.”

Thiel has been a long-time supporter of Trump. He has also been a long-time supporter of seasteading – an ideal revolving around ultra-libertarian communities gathering together on artificial islands, away from prying eyes and being answerable to nobody but themselves.

NY:Preseident-elect Trump meets with technology CEOs for roundtable discussion at Trump Tower Donald Trump and Peter Thiel pictured in December 2016. Source: Sipa USA

Of course, Thiel, Trump and many others have had this for decades already. Super rich, they exist in a bubble of their own creation and are innately suspicious of those on the outside. Of course, all that time spent in your own space leads to relentless tides of paranoia.

“What bothers me about what Peter Thiel did is the secretive aspect,” Knappenberger says.

“He waged the war against Gawker in secret. Inequality in this country is staggering. The bullies have a lot more power than they ever had and journalism is much more vulnerable than its ever been.

During filming of Nobody Speak, Trump was a candidate for the presidency and already a part of the film due to his countless tirades against the media while on the campaign trail. For Knappenberger, Trump would act as a warning for audiences. With Hillary Clinton tipped to win the election, the US, it seemed, would have a lucky escape. Then, on 9 November 2016, everything changed.

“Donald Trump was in the film anyway,” Knappenberger says,

We had looked at his rise and how it was fuelled by his hatred of the media. But we were treating it almost like a cautionary tale. ‘What would happen if this guy – who claimed on the campaign trail that he’d open up the libel laws and says stuff like – ‘We’re gonna sue you like you’ve never been sued before’ and who was clearly attacking the press – was in charge? In charge of the military? Surveillance? But a cautionary tale is different from walking in the day after the election, watching the film and going, ‘Oh, shit – now he is the president’. The film we were making felt very different from the film we thought we were making 24 hours beforehand.”

During Nobody Speak, there’s a pantomime quality to much of the Hogan trial. Yes, there are the lurid details. The continued, ludicrous references to ‘Bubba The Love Sponge’. But there are also the cosmetic things: the way in which Hogan drags a gear-bag with him to court everyday – like he’s heading to the gym for a workout. Throughout his entire spell in the courtroom, he wears a black bandana and that inexplicable blonde handle-bar moustache too.

Trump Source: Carolyn Kaster

At various intervals, it appears we’ve slipped into parody. Again, a reflection of the United States’ current political mess.

Another interesting aspect to the film is how society’s most privileged bleat on about privacy, truth and free speech while being so blindly ignorant of their own behaviour.

Thiel has little issue with likening Gawker and its reporters to terrorists but bankrupts them for reporting on his sexuality. If it’s a conversation about the First Amendment, that seems like a double-standard.

Donald Trump repeatedly talks about fake news when his presidency has been riddled with his own relentless lies.

“Trump achieved something remarkable: He said something untrue, in public, every day for the first 40 days of his presidency. The streak didn’t end until March 1,” according to the New York Times.

“When someone like Peter Thiel says Gawker is ‘a singular sociopathic bully’, I don’t know how we can take that seriously when we live in a world where somebody like Alex Jones exists – someone who claims a tragedy like Sandy Hook was fake,” says Knappenberger.

“That’s repulsive in a way that nothing Gawker ever did was even close to being. I don’t know why there’s no room for something like Gawker in a modern media sphere and in a country that has decided free speech is important and says that all speech – even the kind that some people don’t like – is protected.”

DC: President Trump and Prime Minister Modi Joint Press Conference Source: Cheriss May

“A strong press has always been uncomfortable to people in power – that’s kind of the point,” Knappenberger continues.

News is what powerful people don’t want you to hear. Everything else is propaganda. But there’s a new boldness to that perspective that comes from the fact that the press is weakened. That inequality and money is so powerful and so out of control that a figure like Peter Thiel is much more influential than a member of congress. Money has so much power and leverage now – it’s been growing for decades. Journalism has lost most of its revenue to the internet. So the old model for watchdog journalism is dead and the new one hasn’t even been born yet. It’s just facing an existential battle. Is there going to be journalism? Is it going to exist in the modern world in any meaningful way?”

After immersing himself in such an exhaustive topic for so long, what conclusions has Knappenberger drawn about the United States, the super rich and what it all means for the media?

“I’m more worried than ever about big money leveraging against media and against the press and because of that how it’s able to affect public opinion and change public opinion and guide public opinion. And I’m more worried than ever about that stuff being done in secret,” he says.

“Our political system is newly flooded with dark money. It’s very, very difficult for the average person to figure out where the information is coming from and what the bias is. I don’t think we’ve seen anything in the US like the last year. I’m more disturbed by it than ever. I think Trump’s attacks on the media are irresponsible. They’re dangerous. He’s waging war not just on the press but on the idea of accountability of government. He’s waging war on transparency. On the notion that the public should know what their government is doing. He’s putting pressure on anyone that has the audacity to question his power. As a result, he’s upending something that’s very fundamental. Whether you like Trump or not, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you should question power. That’s the point.”

‘Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press’ is now available on Netflix.   

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