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Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder announced this weekend that he was dropping his defamation lawsuit against Washington City Paper. It’s a dispute that put the local alt-weekly in the national spotlight, raising questions about the rights of free speech and journalism. We talk with City Paper editor Michael Schaffer.
- Michael Schaffer Editor, Washington City Paper
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFor football fans across the United States, this weekend marked the beginning of a new season in the National Football League. For the people at the Washington City Paper, it marked the end of a high stakes legal battle with one of the most high profile organizations in the game, and one of the most powerful businessmen in the Washington region. Washington Redskins' owner Daniel Snyder announced this weekend that he was dropping his defamation lawsuit against the city paper, a suit he filed earlier this year over an article the City Paper published called "The Cranky Redskins Fans' Guide to Dan Snyder."
MR. KOJO NNAMDISnyder's charges threw the local alt-weekly into the middle of a nationwide dispute over free speech and responsible journalism, a dispute that both sides are now walking away from claiming victories. Joining us in studio is Michael Schaffer. He is the editor of Washington City Paper. Michael Schaffer, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. MICHAEL SCHAFFERThanks for having me.
NNAMDIFull disclosure, I am the chairman of the Public Access Corporation which filed an Amicus Curiae, a friend of the court brief in this case asking for the suit to be dismissed because it was in violation of the SLAPP laws in the District of Columbia, SLAPP being the acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.
NNAMDIDan Snyder accused your media and your reporter, Dave McKenna, of defaming him. As recently as last week, he was repeating that assertion that his lawsuit was about right and wrong, but he's dropping it. And you're saying that that's what you've wanted all along. What are you taking out of all of this?
SCHAFFERYou know, we have thought from the beginning that Snyder's lawsuit was baseless. And we thought the real purpose of it was not to address any alleged defamation, but to bully and intimidate a publication that has run a bunch of unflattering things about him that have all been true over the years.
SCHAFFERDave McKenna is a great reporter and a civic treasure in Washington. He's -- he does -- you know, he has his weekly sports column, which half the time -- or maybe more than half the time, writes about the sort of stories no one's ever heard of in the local sports scene, about legends of African-American sports who were completely denied the attention they deserved because of a segregated school sports system and racist media, about girls in DC PS sports who's -- who are victims of a system that doesn't treat girls' sports equally and so on.
SCHAFFERAnd other parts of the time, he does the other thing that all weeklies do a lot of, which is writing rigorously and skeptically about local institutions of power. And there's no institution of power more powerful locally than the Redskins. Snyder, I don't think, has liked that stuff. And they seized on the story, I think, erroneously. And apparently, now Snyder admits he hasn't even read the story, at least according to the New York Times, and sued us.
SCHAFFERAnd it's been a very frightening period because, you know, our paper's small. It takes a lot of time and a lot of money to defend yourself against this sort of thing. But I'm actually really proud that we continue to publish, we continue to write about the Redskins and did not back down. And after, what, nine months now he has gone away without the apology he wanted, without the correction he wanted, without anything.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. How did you react upon learning of Redskins' owner Daniel Snyder's intention to sue the Washington City Paper for defamation? Or how has the dropping of the lawsuit affected your view of City Paper, or your approach to watching the team and enjoying the games? 800-433--8850 or you can send us a Tweet at kojoshow.
NNAMDIThe Redskins released a statement this week and through the team's spokesperson that tried to claim some vindication. They said they forced you to admit that certain parts of the piece were not correct. Let me read the statement from Tony Wyllie. "In the course of the defendant's recently filed pleadings and statements in this matter, the Washington City Paper and its writer have admitted that certain assertions contained in the article that are the subject of the lawsuit were, in fact, unintended by the defendants to be read literally as true."
SCHAFFERNot for the first time since this started, my reaction is, give me a break. We said from the very beginning of this that there is no way that a reasonable person could, for instance, think that when Dave writes that Dan Snyder went all agent orange on some trees by his house that we were literally accusing him of using a Vietnam era chemical weapon. We weren't and I don't think a reasonable person could read it that way. Of course, that's hyperbolistic and we said that. We said that in February, we said that in March, we said that in April.
SCHAFFERThey claim that this is in recent filings, but, in fact, we had said that well before -- back when they were trying to sue us in New York for reasons I don't still understand. After we had said it, they still withdrew their case in New York and re-filed it in D.C. and said all of these outrageous things about our paper. And so I just don't buy that. If that's the limb they want to go out on, that's fine. But we have said the same thing the entire time. We have not reluctantly admitted anything. We've proclaimed things.
NNAMDIYou started a legal defense fund to help cover the bills. A lot of people seem to rally around the City Paper after the suit was filed. What were your concerns in the early weeks of this dispute about whether or not it was going to be big enough to crush the paper?
SCHAFFERWell, you know, they sent us a letter that said -- you know, they didn't send it to us, sorry, they sent it to the investors who control the company that controls the parent company that controls the paper. And it said something along the lines of, you know, defending -- or as you know Mr. Snyder is a very wealthy man. Defending yourself against him would not be a good use of your money because the cost of that defense would outstrip the asset value of the paper.
SCHAFFERYou know, that's a pretty frightening thing to hear. You know, I think a court -- if it had gotten that far a court would've decided that it was also a totally outrageous thing to hear and that would've helped our case a great deal. You know, City Paper distributes for free and people don't have to pay to read it. We're -- we make money from advertisements. But, you know, I think this -- City Paper's been around 30 years, this is the 30th anniversary year. And I think the fact that people ponied up their own money, you know, $20 here, $40 there, $50, there, and we raised over $34,000 towards legal defense, I think that shows the role we have in the community and...
NNAMDIBut I do have to say that $34,000 was a drop in the ocean in terms of the real legal expenses you incurred...
SCHAFFERI'm not even sure what the total number is, but -- and I think that that is a factually accurate statement, Kojo.
NNAMDINot that you are not grateful for the...
NNAMDI...readers and supporters who ponied up that money.
SCHAFFERI mean, look, you know, publications have insurance for a reason. But it is still -- you know, we are a small publication. It's gone through a lot of financial uncertainty over the years. When I was in my 20s and I used to come on your show to talk about politics, the paper was a lot fatter -- the whole media was a lot fatter than anyone in the media is today. So any expense that you have to spend, particularly any unnecessary expense to respond to a baseless lawsuit is no fun. I would much rather have spent that story doing what we're supposed to do, which is writing about the culture and politics and news of Washington D.C.
NNAMDIHere's David in Potomac, Md. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVIDHi. I was just going to make the observation that Dan Snyder is just a terrible bully. And I sort of look back at the case two or three years ago where a judge filed suit against a dry cleaner for millions of dollars.
NNAMDIPants man, administrative law judge Roy Pearson, yes.
DAVIDAnd this is the same thing. And Snyder's done the same thing with planting -- tearing down trees that he could have a better view of the river and everything like that. And he still has to understand that this is a democracy and this isn't the way to treat the freedom of the press and the people and everything else.
SCHAFFERWell look, the thing about bullying is that it often works. And, you know, in this case, I -- you know, I didn't have any doubt that we were going to fight this. But I'm actually really lucky that we had a publisher and ownership group and a city that backed us up and sort of understood the stakes. And we're all lucky, those of us who live in the District of Columbia, that there is a strong law in the District of Columbia that would penalize people who bring baseless lawsuits that are designed to bully people.
NNAMDIDavid, thank you very much for your call. Lest I be subjected to a defamation lawsuit myself, allow me to explain that the individual I affectionately refer to as Pants man was administrative law judge, Roy Pearson, who brought a suit against a dry cleaners in Washington for some, I think, $60 million because the dry cleaner, he said, ruined his pants. How do you think your paper has benefitted, if at all, from this dispute? "The Cranky Redskins Fans' Guide to Dan Snyder" turns out to be the most visited story in the history of your paper's website after all.
SCHAFFERYou know, it's been -- I could give you chapter and verse on how hard it's been at the -- particularly on that they -- how much of my attention as editor and how much of a lot of the staff's attention have been focused on, you know, conversations with lawyers, when we'd rather be doing journalism. But I do think it kind of serves as a reminder of what we do and why it's important. And I think that's something the public has seen and I'm happy and proud about that.
NNAMDIYour paper and Dave McKenna, as you referred to earlier, have continued to cover the Redskins. How have you instructed him to cover the team while this suit has been hanging over your newspaper?
SCHAFFERWell, you know, he's a very good reporter so, you know, I told him to keep doing what he's doing and we've been careful. We've, you know -- we're always careful, but when you are dealing with someone you know to be a litigant, and in this case, you know, to be a litigant who is unencumbered by some of the logical problems with his arguments, you go slowly. You read things more often than you would.
SCHAFFERBut, you know, I think our idea has been from the beginning that if this -- if we believed as we've said that we -- that this was actually designed to pressure us to control his coverage, the answer to that is any submission that enables him to control his coverage is the case of Snyder winning. And so we've said we're going to keep doing what we do. Because, you know, in America just like the president doesn't get to pick who covers the White House and the mayor doesn't get to pick who covers City Hall, the sports owner doesn't get to pick who covers the team period.
NNAMDIAnd we should, of course, mention that we have invited Daniel Snyder to come on the program, an invitation that still stands. And the Amicus Brief I referred to earlier that was filed by the organization with which I'm affiliated, the Public Access Corporation, was joined by a lot of other organizations, maybe 20 or 30 of the organization, is that correct, including Channel 9, Channel 7 and NPR and other median.
SCHAFFERRight. And the Snyder team argued in their reply that the District of Columbia, under its limited home rule, does not actually have the right to have passed this law. I was amazed that a local -- even though it's someone who lives in the suburbs, I was amazed that a local business figure would have sought to overrule a duly passed law in our democratic self governance. I mean, just for the -- even if they believed that at some point you're going to want to count on the goodwill of the citizens and, you know, in Washington particularly, overruling a locally passed law is fraught with racial implications, with political powerful implications, with city versus suburb implications. I wouldn't have gone down that road.
NNAMDIAnd the councilmember who introduced that legislation, Mary Cheh of Ward 3 also joined the Amicus, the friend of the court brief in that situation. You grew up here, but what did the story reveal to you in the end about how people here react to news about the Redskins and the people who run the team?
SCHAFFERYeah, I will say I'm a native Washingtonian and a lifelong Redskins fan. I continued to be a Redskins fan even when I lived in Philadelphia for seven years, which, as you may know, is like taking your life in your hands.
SCHAFFERYou know, it's -- the people love the Redskins and, you know, I could flatter myself and say a lot of the attention that came over this was just because it was a David and Goliath case. But it was a David and Goliath case involving the Redskins. And the Redskins are one of the very few kind of common denominators we have in Washington that anyone can talk to anyone else about. And I really hope that doesn't change.
SCHAFFERI think people have been very -- sort of very sad about the direction of the team. It's gotten just shabbier, everything about the experience. And we hope that changes. And we wrote this in our statement this week that, you know, we hope that by turning attention away from this, Mr. Snyder -- Dan Snyder could actually focus on putting a winning team on the field, which would be very good for Washington. I think it'd be a happy thing for our city at a tough time.
NNAMDIWell, they won their game against the Giants yesterday, which will have manic fans already talking Super Bowl even though it was a depleted New York Giants' team. Did you watch?
SCHAFFERI did not, but I think this may have been a case of Snyder winning himself some karma.
NNAMDII do have to mention that you mentioned earlier that Snyder told the New York Times magazine that he hadn't even read the entire article, and that he didn't have to. What was your initial reaction upon hearing that?
SCHAFFERI wasn't sure if it was true or false and I wasn't sure which would be more outrageous, if it was true or false. But assuming it is, you know, again I think this case was unfortunate and misguided the whole time. And if this case was all done on someone else's say so and on someone else's recollection of what the article may or may not have said, when our point the whole time was that it didn't say what he said it said, I think that is particularly too bad.
NNAMDIMichael Schaffer is the editor of Washington City Paper. Congratulations.
NNAMDIThank you very much for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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