Sunday, July 2, 2017

Bollea v. Gawker

While I wouldn't call it Frontline, Netflix is putting out quite a number of documentaries worth watching, like Nobody Speak.  On the surface it sounds about as sensationalist as the case it explores, Bollea vs. Gawker.  Terry Bollea is better known as Hulk Hogan.  What made the story interesting is that Silicon billionaire Peter Thiel mysteriously covered Hogan's legal fees with the prime purpose of breaking Gawker.

The documentary splits time between two cases.  The other being Sheldon Adelson's mysterious buyout of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which the staff ended up investigating themselves as the new owners refused to identify themselves.  Both stories were driven by personal vendettas.  In the first case, Thiel had an ax to grind with Gawker for having outed him years before.  It didn't seem he wanted the world to know he is gay.  The second stems from a book one of the Review-Journal reporters wrote that cast Sheldon Adelson in an unfavorable light.  Both used their immense wealth to muffle the press.

Conservative media syndicates have been buying up local newspapers and television stations for decades, so it should come as no surprise that Sheldon Adelson would try to do the same.  While he is no Rupert Murdoch, he has bought newspapers in the US and Israel, largely to promote his personal interests.  He has been using his wealth to push his political agenda ever since he felt the Democrats abandoned Israel, and so now he casts his support behind whatever Republican candidate is the most pro-Israel.

The Adelson Primary became a spectator sport in the last election cycle, although it has yet to yield a winner.  In 2012 he backed Gingrich.  In 2016 he initially backed Lindsey Graham, but when he saw he had another loser on his hands he opened the floor to whoever made the best pitch, eventually backing Ted Cruz.  Here again he was upstaged by Hurricane Donald, who he reluctantly supported in the general election.

By contrast, Thiel was on board with Trump from the get go, quietly funding the Bollea v. Gawker case on the side, which ultimately bankrupted Gawker.  Of course many of us would say no big deal.  Gawker made its mark by going after disingenuous celebrities like Hogan, in this case a "sex tape."  These tapes were all the rage in the early 2000s and Gawker figured this was just Hogan looking to promote himself after his reality show failed.  Little did they know that lurking behind the scenes was a ghost from the past.

Peter Thiel had never forgiven Gawker for the 2007 story that outed him.  Nick Denton had also gone after Thiel's Silicon Valley deals in other incarnations of the on-line blog.  Thiel saw his opportunity and pounced.  What makes this particularly troubling is that Thiel's only purpose was to shut down Gawker.  He didn't care about Hogan. Who could?  He just wanted to destroy the infamous on-line rag.

This raises the thorny question regarding the first amendment, which is now under fire by no less than the President himself, who continues to insist that the mainstream news media is "fake."  Trump hit an emotional nerve on the campaign trail, often turning his audiences against the media, even to the point of singling out reporters like Katy Tur.  The director, Brian Knappenberger, connects Trump, Thiel and Adelson as part of a concerted effort to body slam the news media.

Ominously, this is a lot like what Putin did in Russia back in the early 2000s.  He didn't like the criticism he was getting from the Russian press over his handling of the Kursk submarine episode, the Moscow theater crisis, and the Beslan school tragedy, not to mention the ongoing war in Chechnya.  As a result, he essentially shut down the free press by using the iron grip of the federal tax service.  Within a matter of months all the major Russian news outlets found themselves under investigation for tax fraud, their top brass was purged and new executives put in place.  After that, Vlad has received mostly favorable press from Russian news services, until recently, forcing him to go through purges once again.

In typical American fashion the assault isn't coming so much from the White House, as it is from conservative media robber-barons determined to control the press and use it as a corporate propaganda tool.  If they can't buy out the major media outlets directly, they seek to undermine their credibility.   In the last 20 years, the last decade especially, we have seen the rise of alternative news networks aimed largely at an all-too-gullible conservative audience.

This is pretty much an extension of news syndicates like Gannett, which owns a staggering 100 daily newspapers and 1000 weekly newspapers around the country.  Syndicates like this essentially control the flow of information and promote their own syndicated columnists who provide local communities with easily digestible manufactured opinions that support their parent company.  The irony is that many conservative readers believe there is a liberal bias in the news media.  These conservative syndicates rely heavily on an audience that will take their word at face value.

Of course, none of this would have been possible had not Congress gutted the anti-trust and anti-monopoly laws in this country over the years, allowing for media syndicates to swallow up so many small city papers.

Thiel and Adelson are a bit different in that they are driven by personal vendettas.  Adelson's attack on the Las Vegas Review-Journal is particularly vicious as he went after one man -- John Smith.  The newspaper columnist had written a book on the gaming industry, which cast some of the casino owners in an unfavorable light.  Adelson sued Smith for defamation of character, at one point offering to cover the hospital expenses of Smith's daughter, who was being treated for a brain tumor, if only the journalist would admit to having defamed his character.  Smith was having none of it, and eventually won the case in court.  Adelson then went after the newspaper through his son-in-law.

Of course, the Internet levels the playing field to some degree as you don't need to worry about expensive printing costs, but still it takes money for a blog to generate a following and get the kind of clout many blogs now have.  You often see correspondents from HuffPost, Politico, Daily Beast and other powerful blogs on mainstream television outlets.   As a result, they have become targets, as we saw when BuzzFeed published the full dossier on Trump's "Deep Ties to Russia."

Blogs have a lot more latitude than traditional newspapers, but apparently not as much as they thought as was the case with Gawker.  Unfortunately, the documentary pretty much just scratches the surface, suggesting a lot of things, like the blogs themselves, without uncovering any deep ties.  This is why we continue to appreciate good journalism, as it forces us to reconsider an institution, as many of us saw in the movie Spotlight that told the story of the Boston Globe's investigation into the sex abuse surrounding the Catholic Church in the greater Boston area.

Just the same, Nobody Speak provides us food for thought.

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