It’s certainly been an exciting few weeks at Washington City Paper. As many of you know, Dan Snyder filed suit this month over a story, “The Cranky Redskins Guide to Dan Snyder” by long-time columnist Dave McKenna, that ran back in November. The lawsuit generated massive amounts of coverage for City Paper, nearly all of it positive. We’ve seen an astonishing outpouring of support from short-term and long-time readers worried that the wealthy Redskins owner could drive our 30-year-old organization out of business. We’ve seen support from people who understand the protections of the First Amendment. And we’ve seen support from Redskins fans. More than 600 supporters have given checks, most of them for just $20, to ring up more than $28,000 to a legal defense fund we set up to help us fight the suit. Generally, we’re thankful for the attention this media firestorm brought to us, though we wish it didn’t take a lawsuit to make it happen.
But beyond the thrill of fighting to defend our journalism, there’s also something deeply troubling going on. Snyder’s litigators, and ours, are about to spend significant time and money battling over a series of legal complaints that, in our view, don’t represent what our story actually said or implied. The story didn’t actually say the things Snyder has claimed it does—like call him a criminal, or a user of illegal military chemicals, or mock his wife’s battle against breast cancer. It did none of those things. In media interviews and in our own pages, City Paper editors have pointed this out repeatedly since the case was filed.
For instance, the lawsuit alleges that the story accused Snyder of using the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange on some trees between his house and the Potomac River. That’s simply not the case. Using the sort of hyperbole known to great columnists the world around, McKenna writes that Snyder “made a great view of the Potomac River for himself by going all Agent Orange on federally protected lands.” In our view, no one could read that to mean that Snyder, or anyone else, deployed a carcinogenic military chemical right next to his own property. Indeed, the piece goes on to say Snyder “cut down trees.” An inspector general’s report subsequently blamed a top parks official for intervening to give Snyder a green light. But what’s undisputed is that Snyder arranged to cut down 130 trees on park service land.
Likewise, the lawsuit implies that our story accused Snyder of personally committing the crime of forgery. In fact, we have no reason to believe he personally did any such thing—and our story never says he did. What it says, and what is true, is that Snyder Communications was fined $3.1 million by the Florida attorney general for “slamming” customers, including thousands of cases of forgery. For the record, the fine was paid after Dan Snyder sold the company and without any admission of liability. But the settlement resolved claims that happened during Snyder’s ownership. We remain baffled that anyone could read McKenna’s piece and imagine that a billionaire telecommunications CEO was personally on the phone talking customers into switching long distance carriers, or filling out the necessary forms with forged signatures. Indeed, in the characteristically colorful language of a columnist, McKenna’s piece goes on to say that the fine was imposed on the company after “investigators uncovered more slamming in its offices than you’d find stagefront at a Limp Bizkit show.”
And then there’s Mrs. Snyder, who by all accounts is a brave woman, who has thrown herself into worthy public-health efforts. McKenna’s article says not one word about breast cancer—hers or anyone else’s—or her role as the NFL’s national breast cancer spokeswoman. Nor did Mrs. Snyder mention breast cancer even once in the interview McKenna quoted. In the legal complaint and in subsequent public comments, Snyder has accused City Paper of some sort of insensitivity to breast cancer and of attacking his wife. We understand that someone would be extra zealous about press accounts that slight beloved family members. I have my own incredible family who are vulnerable to hate-filled labels, and make no apologies for being an aggressive watchdog against anyone who would insult them. But in this case, we did nothing of the sort.
Lest there be any doubt, no one’s ever said or meant that Snyder personally engaged in any forgery or that he sprayed Agent Orange on or near his property. And of course neither City Paper nor anyone else has a problem with Tanya Snyder’s admirable efforts to bring awareness to breast cancer. Fortunately, the public and press commentary show that readers get all of this. We have no doubt that a court will too.
But at the end of the day, it shouldn’t have to come to that. We have a city to cover. Dan Snyder has a football team to run. One thing I’ve been struck by during my conversations with readers these past few weeks is how much people want City Paper to continue its fiercely independent role in our community—and how much those same people want the Redskins to build a successful team. In a city divided by race and class and identity, the team, even now, retains a unique ability to make the District proud and bring people together. Another Super Bowl championship wouldn’t solve all of D.C.’s troubles, but it would be a moment of tremendous joy and unity. By contrast, a lawsuit pitting a billionaire NFL owner against Washington City Paper is a distraction.
During these last few weeks, I have thought a lot about what kind of institution we at City Paper want to be and who we are. I’ve reflected on what it means to us to be journalists; how to evaluate whether we have it right; and how to stand up for ourselves. I have renewed excitement about the incredible First Amendment protections we have in this country, and our role in fighting to keep them strong. I am proud of what we do and stand by the things we print. Just as Snyder has his complaints about City Paper, I take umbrage at Snyder and his people calling us liars, bigots, insensitive to breast cancer—and, worst of all, bad journalists.
Mr. Snyder, in all the public uproar about your suit, what people seem to be saying is that —just as we plan to continue focusing on putting out relevant journalism each week—they want you to focus for as long as you own the Redskins on the stewardship of the team, an institution that is much older and admittedly much more prominent than ours. The last three weeks have reminded me that the region is filled with fans who want to see the Redskins build a winning team, coaching staff, and organization. They want you to bring the generosity of spirit your lawyers described in reciting your charitable activities to everyday interactions with players, fans, and ticket holders. They want you to concentrate on the greatness of the business at hand.
We at City Paper will survive this, and in all likelihood will come out stronger on the other end. In fact, we’re confident we’ll triumph in court. I would suggest that your fans, and ours, would have been better served if we each focused on our real work—in the newspaper and on the field, not in the courtroom.
Publisher, Washington City Paper