First off, the basics: Washington, D.C.'s City Paper published "The Cranky Redskins Fan's Guide to Daniel Snyder" last November, and it was a thorough dressing down of Daniel Snyder, someone who's made many awful decisions while in charge of a once beloved franchise. Snyder didn't like the story. He claims it included false statements, called it anti-Semitic (because of an illustration that accompanied the article), and had his lawyers write a threatening letter that basically stated Snyder had enough money to sink the paper. Then he sued. Snyder was widely criticized for being a bully and, more specifically, being “unbearably stupid,” “unbelievably misguided,” and “a man stepping on the First Amendment rights of a legitimate news organization because he doesn’t like what they say about him.”
The issue is far from over. Prompted by public support, the City Paper started a legal defense fund that, as of yesterday, had collected $18,000 from more than 500 donations. The original article now has nearly 800 comments and has garnered a daily feature/permanent headline on the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies homepage and Gawker's Deadspin.com. The City Paper's latest issue includes a story about how Snyder, of all people, defended the First Amendment when he was sued for defamation 10 years ago.
So, why should we care? This is happening in courts thousands of miles away, and, after all, it's a football owner we're talking about. Well, Michael Schaffer, editor at the City Paper, addressed that in a letter also published this week. It's worth reading the whole thing, but here's how it concludes:
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.