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What Peter Thiel’s war against Gawker can tell us about Trump

A new documentary called “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” links the Thiel-funded Hulk Hogan lawsuit to the present day.

Hulk Hogan, Peter Thiel, Nick Denton and Donald Trump From left: John Pendygraft-Pool / Getty Images; Alex Wong / Getty Images; Asa Mathat for Recode; Bill Pugliano / Getty Images

When a Florida jury said Gawker would have to pay $140 million for publishing an excerpt of Hulk Hogan’s sex tape, Brian Knappenberger knew he wanted to make a documentary about it. Then it came out that Hogan’s case was secretly bankrolled by venture capitalist Peter Thiel.

“To me, that changed the story significantly,” Knappenberger said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka.

It was clear from the beginning of the Hogan lawsuit that “you couldn’t separate the dynamics of this trial from this larger, bizarre election cycle,” he added. But the connecting tissue of Knappenberger’s “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” emerged thanks to Thiel, who later allied himself with then-candidate Donald Trump.

“It did feel urgent,” said Knappenberger, who wrote and directed the film. “This story felt like an echo of what were seeing in the Trump campaign. When we started this, it was before Peter Thiel gave money to Trump and spoke at the RNC. These things are deeply, deeply intertwined.”

“Nobody Speak” premieres on Netflix this Friday. The film connects a series of recent stories involving hostility to and distrust of the media: The rise of Donald Trump, Sheldon Adelson’s secretive purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and the Hogan/Thiel/Gawker showdown, which ultimately led to Gawker Media filing for bankruptcy and selling itself to Univision for $135 million.

You can listen to the new podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Spotify (mobile only), TuneIn, Stitcher and SoundCloud.

“Nobody Speak” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 24, just days after Trump’s inauguration. Netflix bought the film at the festival — reportedly for around $2 million — and it has since been updated with a new ending and clips of Trump allies Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer talking about “alternative facts” and false crowd numbers.

Knappenberger said he was sympathetic to Hogan’s story before Thiel’s involvement was revealed. And he acknowledged that there is “legitimate criticism of the press: It’s gotten too corporatized, too cozy with power, that it’s for too long traded softball stories for access to power and celebrity.”

However, he called the coverage of the Trump administration by the Washington Post and New York Times a “ray of hope,” saying their work is causing newsrooms everywhere to wake up and try harder.

“If what Trump does is remind everybody why they’re here and what a strong, vibrant press is there for — to question authority, service the truth and speak truth to power — I think it could be a good thing,” he said.

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on Apple Podcasts— and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Peter. Tune in next Thursday for another episode of Recode Media!

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