While no one would defend the idea that the wealthy should be able to use their power to silence critical journalism, Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press doesn’t exactly carry this simple idea to a fulfilling conclusion. In director Brian Knappenberger’s world, Hulk Hogan fucking Bubba the Love Sponge’s wife on camera leads to Peter Thiel’s immaculate oddness, leads to a subtly treacly midsection about the dumpy-looking reporters of the Las Vegas Review-Journal being bought out by the exponentially dumpier-looking billionaire and sack of wrinkled polenta with a topping of singed hair Sheldon Adelson, to simple, reductive, old fashioned Donald Trump-apocalypse-porn.
The problem with suturing the Hulk Hogan sex tape trial to the grandiose, histrionic, and increasingly banal metanarrative of the alleged death of the “free” press should, when you think about it, have been obvious—after all, with so much serious truth-telling going on in the contemporary internet media ecosystem, is a snarky, petty blog like Gawker the highest example of what journalism can be? Are we supposed to obediently forget that CNN and the other shill networks have demonstrated more of an active interest in suppressing newsworthy information than disclosing it, when they cover it at all?
Sometimes, Knappenberger’s arguments almost feel right, while his pace feels wrong; the film’s algebra seldom settles in a surprising direction. While the plight of the Las Vegas Review-Journal staff can at times be charming and somewhat interesting, their small-time newsroom drama ends up too self-contained to do much work for Knappenberger’s narrative. The viewer finds herself left against the glum dead end that, well, maybe these poor reporters losing their paper is only a sad reflection of changing economic and technological circumstances—rather than some other more toxic force acting on journalism in a vacuum.
And yet, if that toxic force is the consolidation, corporatism, and skulduggery of select wealthy insiders. . . how exactly is mainstream television infotainment produced by a handful of easily-controlled corporate subdivisions anything at all resembling a panacea, as the film’s finale overwhelmingly implies, even going so far as to soundtrack cable news with heroic music?
It gets worse. To fully realize the predictable Donald-Trump-doom-conclusion, Nobody Speak trades on the implicit notion that mainstream cable media is the carrier of the torch of truth and free expression, even when the journalism Knappenberger lionizes them for “doing” is simply holding devices in the proximity of Trump and occasionally yelling.
The spectator is struck with the feeling that they are somehow supposed to see these pundits as a magnified, even more distinguished counterpart to the Kmart earnestness of the Las Vegas Review-Journal staffers who gave up their jobs rather than work for a shithead like Sheldon Adelson. But from Jeff Bezos to Carlos Slim to the mega-conglomerates that have increasingly consolidated all television media, how can this argument escape its own circularity and seem even somewhat honest in the process? Does a Thomas Jefferson quote in one of the film’s final frames really lend much gravitas when everyone is bought and sold?
Was the real catalyst behind this documentary less a thorough concern for the state of free speech than another attempt to capitalize on widespread, lockstep public sentiment? Are the cable shows—which are more performance, publicity, and puffery than actual public interest journalism or commentary—really the best exemplars of what a free press is or ought to be? And who the fuck is Bubba the Love Sponge anyway?
Nobody Speak fails in its aim of restoring the fourth wall of a mainstream media whose monopoly on thoughtcontrol the Trump campaign, and now the Trump presidency, has viciously challenged. Technological progress and its wide, unfiltered dissemination of paradigm-challenging information through subversive channels is the future of journalism; corporate media hegemony is the past. And Hulk Hogan still has nothing to do with it.