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Q&A: Gawker’s fall and press freedom in the Trump age

Hot Docs

The People vs. Gawker

Hulk Hogan looks on in court moments after a jury returned its decision in his lawsuit against Gawker Media on Monday, March 21, 2016, in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Filmmaker Brian Knappenberger and former Gawker editor John Cook discuss the site's downfall ahead of the Canadian premiere of documentary Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press

It was classic Gawker – cheeky, ironic, taunting, pushing the envelope of good taste: "Even For a Minute, Watching Hulk Hogan Have Sex In a Canopy Bed is Not Safe For Work, but Watch It Anyway."

But if, by some measures, the October, 2012, post (which included a brief snippet of a Hogan sex tape) was just another of the thousands published over the years by the notorious news and gossip site, the result was catastrophic. Hogan sued in a Florida court and, funded by the tech billionaire (and Donald Trump backer) Peter Thiel, won a $140-million (U.S.) judgment, which forced Gawker to shut down.

This Sunday, Toronto's Hot Docs festival will feature the Canadian premiere of Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, a riveting account of the case and other threats to press freedom. Director Brian Knappenberger and former Gawker editor John Cook (who was a reporter when the post was published) recently spoke by phone with The Globe's Simon Houpt. The three will conduct an onstage Q&A following the screening.

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Read more: Hot Docs 2017 - The Globe's guide to North America's largest documentary festival

How does it feel to watch the film?

Cook: There were two real gut-punch moments for me. One was the actual verdict. And then the Trump election-night coverage – watching that was a similar experience. This will sound convenient but it's absolutely true: When the verdict happened [in March, 2016], Lacey Donohue, who was at the time executive managing editor of Gawker Media, turned to me and said: 'Trump's going to win.' Just that idea of – there is this surge of resentment and anger directed at the media, at reporting, at journalism. The size of the verdict was this deliberate lashing out by that jury.

Brian, if Trump hadn't won, it seems you'd have had a very different film on your hands.

Knappenberger: I think that's probably true. Trump was always in the film, and we were always kind of charting this attack on the media that he was engaged in and drawing parallels between that and what was going on with the Gawker trial and also with Sheldon Adelson [the casino magnate whose purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal in late 2015 led critics to say it had been rendered toothless]. But, yeah, it was cautionary and then suddenly it was very real.

Brian Knappenberger

It seems to me there's an overriding irony at play. In the film, we see Trump attack the press as liars and scum, and, of course, we're supposed to react with horror. But Gawker itself began in 2002 not dissimilarly, mocking the media for all of its scumminess and chumminess and hypocricy.

Cook: I would energetically and vigorously reject that … I take your point that one of Gawker's founding principles and motives was to critique the New York media. But, just purely from an aesthetic perspective, Gawker was motivated by wit, it was artful, it was about good writing. It was about surfacing the truth, it was about being honest about how power works, including the power of media institutions. Donald Trump is in every conceivable respect a foul and vile inverse of that idea. I mean, he's literally throwing his own feces at people. We were taking a scalpel to the New York press establishment.

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Still, Brian, some people will look at this case and say: 'Well, hell, both Gawker and Hogan have done some unsavoury things, so why should I care about what happened?'

Knappenberger: Most audiences have been super warm and on the sort-of Gawker side, but there's always that one person who says Gawker had it coming. There's a little bit of the The People vs. Larry Flynt in this: The most interesting and compelling cases and stories are happening right there at the edge of free speech.

Cook: It's very important for everybody to remember, two federal district court judges and a three-judge panel of an appellate court in Florida, all in pretrial decisions, affirmed the newsworthiness of the publication of the excerpt that we published. But as we were arguing, defending, explaining, I look back now and I just think that Peter Thiel must have been laughing his ass off. Because [the trial was] a device, a mechanism to destroy us, for motives that had literally nothing to do with Hulk Hogan or any tape. It was purely about animus and vindictiveness from a billionaire, about the completely truthful things we published about him and his friends.

A still from Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, making its Canadian premiere at Hot Docs.

The NYU journalism prof Jay Rosen suggests in the film, 'It's possible we're sliding toward authoritarianism.' Do you believe that?

Knappenberger: I think so. What do you look for when you look for democracies around the world? You look for an independent judiciary, you look for a free and independent press, you look for free and fair elections. These are things that Trump has attacked. Also, inequality has been a problem for a long time, this kind of insane wealth gap, but now it's being leveraged in ways that are really disturbing. Jay says this towards the end of the film: 'These people are saying, we are more powerful than truth, we can control the truth.' When there's nothing to believe in, who are we? What is a participatory democracy without a strong press, without the ability to go after the truth?

Looking back now, John, do you wish the post hadn't been published?

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Cook: [Deep inhalation. Nine-second pause] Um. I mean – [grim laugh] – so, the short answer to that is, yeah. I think everybody involved would say that. That's not to say that, given what we knew at the time and the sort of mores at the time, that it was a mistake. I would like to see what things would look like if we hadn't done it. However, there was a shark under those waters that we didn't know about. [Thiel] was determined to do what he did, and he would have found another way to do it. And we created space for every other reporter to operate in. I think that's a little bit of the dynamic that led to the publication of the Trump dossier by BuzzFeed.

There's some interesting timing here, John. For years, you were one of the most aggressive reporters covering Bill O'Reilly – which seemed to irritate him no end. How do you feel, now that he's gone?

Cook: Everything feels empty and hollow now. [Laughs] There is no joy in the world. Watching Roger [Ailes, the former head of Fox News] and Bill go down, I mean, it's obviously very satisfying. I've been struggling a lot since the election with just, like, what's the point? Like, you know, if [Washington Post reporter David] Fahrenthold gets the stories and gets the Pulitzer but nobody listens and we elect this guy …? But I think the work by The New York Times on the Bill O'Reilly stuff is a really great example of the ability for journalism to still have an impact and still actually change things.

This interview has been condensed and edited, and a few expletives have been deleted, too. Sorry, Mr. Cook.

Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press screens at Hot Docs on April 30 with Brian Knappenberger and John Cook in attendance; as well as May 2, 5 and 7.

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