Over three decades, Washington City Paper has faced its share of angry readers. Restaurateurs have griped that our critics slammed their eateries. Community activists have complained that we give short shrift to their neighborhoods. Supporters of Marion Barry, among others, got worked up over a headline that used a very naughty word to describe an incident involving the former mayor, a girlfriend, and a tape-recorded reference to a certain sexual activity.
But in its 30-year history, City Paper has never been accused of trafficking in Nazi, Soviet, and medieval moral ugliness—at least not all at once.
As anyone in listening range of sports-talk radio learned last week, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has filed a $2 million lawsuit over “The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder,” a November cover story in these pages by Cheap Seats columnist Dave McKenna. The suit, filed in New York rather than in any jurisdiction where Redskins fans or City Paper readers predominate, claims that the sports mogul was defamed in various ways by the story. We disagree, and stand by the story. The paper is represented by our longtime media counsel, Seth Berlin at Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz. Our ownership group has retained Floyd Abrams, the legendary First Amendment lawyer, to join in the defense.
As media types, we’re accustomed to gawking at other people’s media circuses. So it’s been a bit strange to be at the center of one.
Still, when Snyder’s legal threats became public, it was at least partly a relief. We’d first learned about his displeasure back in November via a letter from Redskins General Counsel David Donovan. The missive wasn’t directed to our editors, who most people would contact with complaints. Instead, it was sent to the investment company that controls the media firm that owns City Paper. It included this doozy of a statement: “We presume that defending such litigation would not be a rational strategy for an investment fund such as yours. Indeed, the cost of the litigation would presumably quickly outstrip the asset value of the Washington City Paper.”
In other words: You can’t afford to keep covering us, so just stop.
To their credit, no one up the corporate chain ever tried to make us do anything like that. McKenna has kept covering sports, and Snyder, in the same sharp-elbowed, fearless, professional way he always has. We offered Snyder a chance to meet, to write a response, or to point out errors. He sued instead. When the matter became news last week, our colleagues elsewhere in the media reacted with near-unanimity to the complaint. Snyder’s effort was variously described as “unbearably stupid,” “unbelievably misguided,” and the work of “a man stepping on the First Amendment rights of a legitimate news organization because he doesn’t like what they say about him.”
In hundreds of online comments on our website and elsewhere, the general public has reacted the same way. Threatening to put someone out of business because you don’t like their coverage has a way of upsetting Americans’ sense of fair play. People lampooned Snyder’s contention that the cover’s image of him (doctored, a la your fifth-grade teacher’s yearbook photo, with a goatee and devil horns) was anti-Semitic. And, perhaps because the term “breast cancer” never appeared in the 4,000-word story, few people bought Snyder’s contention that we’d made fun of his wife’s battle against the disease.
At the suggestion of several online commenters, we also established a legal defense fund. By the end of its first five days, the fund had received about 500 gifts totalling more than $18,000. We’ve also gotten requests to throw fundraisers, offers of pro bono legal help—and at least one shipment of cookies.
Every journalist dreams of someday being in the middle of one of those epic, David-and-Goliath, right-versus-wrong First Amendment showdowns. Still, during a week when Egyptians were facing physical threats in order to protest an autocratic government—and working reporters were subjected to actual violence while covering the demonstrations—there was something a mite embarrassing about having our version of that battle take the form of a collision with a local sports-team owner. Yes, City Paper has the right to paint a truthful, unflattering portrait of Snyder’s business and football record. But it’s not like the team has an army and a secret police force at its disposal.
The owner of the Redskins is no Hosni Mubarak. All the same, Dan Snyder’s efforts to put City Paper in its place are worth caring about. And, for the record, they’d still be worth caring about even if his Redskins were perennial playoff contenders, even if FedExField were a model of affordable ticket pricing, and even if Snyder was the sort of beloved civic figure people decorated with halos rather than devil horns.
In an age when media organizations have been battered by a lousy national economy and a rapidly shifting advertising and audience landscape, the balance of power between powerful people and the reporters who cover them has shifted, too. The First Amendment was written to keep government from abusing our rights. But citizens also need to be able to speak freely about influential public figures in the private sector. When wealthy individuals can use the threat of lawsuit to sway coverage of their questionable actions—or to jeopardize the employment of a journalist who had the temerity to report on those actions—it’s dangerous for all of us. That’s true whether the wealthy individual in question is a CEO, a politician, or just the owner of a regionally prominent NFL franchise.
City Paper’s ownership may not have been cowed by the assertion that a small paper’s net worth was such that it shouldn’t even bother to fight back. But some other media organization’s owners might not have that kind of steel. And that would really be something to get cranky about.
Michael Schaffer is the editor of Washington City Paper.