Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: As I was pondering this Megyn Kelly/Alex Jones mess, I thought of the Pentagon Papers movie Steven Spielberg’s making with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. It struck me that he has a subject that is to journalism what Saving Private Ryan was for WWII soldiers: one of the last conflicts with a moral urgency to act, and plenty of heroism for those who did. Just as subsequent wars got stickier, media now has become impossibly polarized, scrutinized down to whether Kelly and NBC even had the moral right to profile a notorious conspiracy theorist who labeled as a hoax the massacre of 20 first graders and six others at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. That’s just one of the outrageous claims he slips into his highly popular Infowars, nestled between sales pitches for personal hygiene products (ironic given his offensively odoriferous conspiracy rants). Peter, what did you think of Kelly’s decision to expose this guy?
BART: I think she looked foolish Sunday night, giving primetime attention to a fringe low life. But that didn’t justify the decision of JP Morgan Chase to pull its ads from NBC News. Equally brain dead was the decision of Delta Air Lines and American Express to pull sponsorship of the New York Public Theater (its Julius Caesar featured a blond Donald Trump figure). It’s as though advertisers wake up each morning wondering what will hit them next. When a news personality like Bill O’Reilly becomes enmeshed in a chain reaction of sexual harassment suits, I can understand (but still don’t endorse) advertiser panic. But by messing with very specific coverage or performances, the ad men are playing with fire. Why is everyone suddenly running scared? Advertisers, normally stolid and apolitical, are canceling commitments on news shows, theatrical performances and other public events. It’s as if corporate America is ducking for cover. Is this a reflection of political polarization, or merely a display of corporate cowardice? As President of Lorimar some years ago, I petulantly canceled a series of ads in Variety because I was pissed off by a story. A day later I cancelled my cancellation.
FLEMING: What pissed you off?
BART: The Variety story suggested Lorimar was not high on Being There, a Peter Sellers film I happened to love. But manipulating ad budgets, I concluded, was both a dumb and dangerous way to influence the news – an attitude I endorsed later when I became Variety’s editor-in-chief and all this become up front and personal.
FLEMING: It might not have been effective then, but it certainly hastened O’Reilly’s demise and brought Sean Hannity to heel with his unproven conspiracy theories about murdered DNC worker Seth Rich.
BART: But look at the failure of pressure to undercut ad support for Stephen Colbert because of his anti-Trump tirades. Advertiser pressure is an especially sensitive issue for the network national news shows, which are suffering continued ratings declines; CBS last week pulled the anchor chair from Scott Pelley, who was running third among news anchors. While the thriving cable networks continue to be ever more aggressively opinionated, the stodgy network shows still fight for the noble but antiquated ideal of objectivity. Though they are “news” shows, and the flow of news is fast-paced, they devote over half their time to tedious lifestyle features that are as boring as the ads for arcane pharmaceuticals, with their lengthy and lethal lists of risks and symptoms. By contrast, the CBS This Morning show anchored by Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell has gained viewership — it actually focuses on news, not lifestyle.
FLEMING: In the midst of this, Netflix on Friday premieres Nobody Speak: Trials Of The Free Press, the Brian Knappenberger-directed documentary the streaming service bought in a splashy deal after its Sundance premiere last January. It’s a timely addition to the conversation of the precarious position journalists find themselves in. Knappenberger presents a real-time chronicle of Hulk Hogan’s landmark $140 million judgement against Gawker for publishing footage from a leaked sex tape. It expands into cautionary tale territory with the revelation billionaire Silicon Valley investor and Facebook board member Peter Thiel secretly financed Hogan’s case and basically settled a grudge by ending the media outlet that previously had outed him. I had the movie sent to you. What did you think?
BART: I thought it was a terrific doc. The disturbing subtext is not so much corporate power (advertising) as billionaire power as a threat to a free press. Thiel epitomizes the billionaire bully. He is the Silicon Valley’s most ardent Trump supporter, who vigorously pursues Trump’s doctrine that legal muscle can defeat any opponent, no matter how entrenched. The new documentary forcefully dramatizes Thiel’s war to put Gawker out of business and takes it further by showing how casino mogul Sheldon Adelson secretly acquired the Las Vegas Review Journal, and sent forth signals that a free press is vulnerable to billionaire avarice. On the other hand, I must note that Amazon’s proprietor, Jeff Bezos, has proven to be a generous champion of free press as owner of the Washington Post, supporting and expanding its print and digital presence.
As docs go, Nobody Speak is both fascinating and creepy. Its protagonist, Hulk Hogan, seems oddly uninvolved. The whole battle concerns a sex tape that no one has seen or wants to see. The leading players are hard-ass legal mercenaries, whose only commitment is to run up fees. So what you end up with is a doc about an important issue, but starring a cast of characters who couldn’t care less about anything except money.
FLEMING: Knappenberger did such a good job showing the broader implications that it changed my mind about the demise of Gawker.
FLEMING: My initial reaction was, good riddance. I thought its handling of news subjects was ruthless and that they cloaked themselves in the First Amendment for often scurrilous purposes. What was the higher purpose of publishing a sexual encounter and ridiculing its famous participant? Knappenberger told me he chose the subject because it was so messy on all sides, including the plaintiff: idolized by a generation of children, Hogan bedded his friend’s wife, and reportedly used racist and homophobic language on the tape that would get him fired by the WWE and removed from its Hall of Fame. Then, Thiel made the whole thing surreal. Knappenberger said the case probably would have been settled, but when Thiel’s legal eagles removed a count of “emotional distress” from the suit, it allowed Gawker’s insurer to escape liability. That left Nick Denton’s media outlet and its journalists susceptible to the death blow that followed.
“Going in, I chose this because of the competing tensions between privacy and First Amendment in the first time a sex tape has ever gone to trial,” Knappenberger said. “It became a very different story when the $140M verdict came down, with the requirement that Gawker pay $50M right away, which was effectively its death sentence. The revelation that a super-rich venture capitalist from Silicon Valley was funding the case in secret meant the trial you saw was Kabuki Theater; now, we’re in this world where money was leveraged to silence a news organization. Peter Thiel called Gawker a ‘singularly sociopathic bully.’ I just think that’s absurd,” Knappenberger said. “Look at all we’ve seen lately: Alex Jones calling the Sandy Hook killing a false operation where the parents were actors; Sean Hannity fanning the Seth Rich conspiracy story; Facebook — Peter Thiel is on their board – with its own huge problems with bullying and outing people. There was even a murder, broadcast on Facebook Live. Some of the articles coursing through Facebook up to the election included one that [Hillary Clinton campaign chairman] John Podesta was running a child sex ring out of a pizza joint in Virginia, a false claim that caused somebody to go in there with a gun. There were false Facebook articles that claimed the Pope endorsed Donald Trump. Facebook throws up its hands and said, ‘What can we do?’ Sure, Gawker was snarky and crossed lines at times and it would be absurd for me to defend every article. Broadly speaking, they were going after the New York media establishment, doing it in a relatively artful way, and mostly punching up. Show me an article that wasn’t true. The idea there is no place for Gawker in the media ecosystem, in a country that historically has protected even extreme forms of free speech, is troubling. The part that becomes most problematic for me is the big money behind the scenes, controlling this in secret, which meant [Thiel] was able to decide who is a sociopathic bully, and who gets the right to publish and who doesn’t.”
Back to Megyn Kelly for a moment: Peter, what was your final verdict on her Alex Jones interview?
BART: She doesn’t look comfortable on her own show. Her “takedown” of Alex Jones was blah. Rather than sitting around in a studio, Mike Wallace in his prime would have tracked Jones emerging from a crack house or bordello. By comparison, Wallace’s son Chris did a great job beating up on Trump’s lawyer on Fox News. And Megyn’s follow-up pieces were benign — yet another travel piece about the glories of New Zealand and the discovery (!) that you can get home delivery of pot. This is definitely work in progress.
FLEMING: I mentioned the Pentagon Papers, and I bet the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe and others that published that study felt like they were on firm ground at the time. Same with Watergate. I think a lot of the journalism being done right now, the scrutiny on Trump, will reflect flatteringly through the prism of time. The aspiration for Kelly’s piece has to be one of those classic 60 Minutes moments with Mike Wallace, cameras rolling, the newsman waving a damning secret document and chasing down the street some rattled CEO. Just like with Vladimir Putin, Kelly is merely asking blunt questions on well-covered controversies, which the subjects deflect. The Jones piece was supplemented by pundits condemning his actions, and a heartbreaking interview with a father whose son was slain at Sandy Hook. But Jones wasn’t directly confronted by that stuff, and he probably built his following by preemptively releasing audiotape of Kelly courting him for the interview. She explained that away to NYT by saying this is part and parcel of getting undesirables to sit for interviews: “I don’t know if people know how journalism works,” she said, “but you don’t show up, scowl at the subject of your interview all day, cross your arms and try to project as frosty an image as you can.” This brought to mind Billy Bush, rendered a pariah for clumsily doing basically the same thing while the future president of the United States made reprehensible sexist boasts in a conversation also not meant for broadcast. Kelly had every right to interview Jones and tell America about a scoundrel who has the ear of President Trump. But she needed to score a knockout, and barely laid a glove on her subject. Knappenberger, by the way, thinks that the First Amendment journalism battleground will get even stickier as social media continues to supplant traditional media.
“The new public square is Twitter and Facebook, and they are private company platforms where there is no guarantee of freedom of speech,” he said. “They can kick you off if they want to; it’s part of the terms of service that you agree to. There have always been consequences to free speech, but it gets really disturbing when government gets involved, and big money secretly funding lawsuits against news organizations and buys them. Basic notions of free speech and civil liberties are being challenged in all kinds of ways, and we don’t know yet how it’s going to turn out.”