Over the weekend, we questioned whether filing a lawsuit against the Washington City Paper meshes with the current effort of Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, with the assistance of new P.R. specialist Tony Wyllie, to alter Snyder’s image and reputation in the D.C. market. Our point was that Snyder’s availability to and interaction with the media during Super Bowl week helps the effort far more than loading up the legal cannon for a fight against a publication with relatively small readership, especially in light of the national attention the suit has generated.
Wyllie has provided a response on behalf of the Redskins and Snyder.
“The lawsuit was a last resort, filed only after much soul searching and looking for any other way to put a stop to unconscionable personal attacks from a writer who, as far as we know, has never been to a Redskins game, has not even been in the stadium, and has never met Daniel Snyder,” Wyllie told PFT via e-mail. “Most importantly, and an important journalistic point, [Dave] McKenna and [the City Paper] did not call the Redskins for a response or a fact check before publication of the November article. We saw it for the first time on the day of publication.
“You accurately quote Dan’s interview with PFT Live as to the reasons for the suit: ‘I understand what heat I take. But you can’t call me a criminal. . . . All they had to do was apologize and run a correction and apology, and they wouldn’t do that.
“Obviously, our goal was not to financially cripple a hedge fund with hundreds of millions of dollars under management. As you say, ‘The real goal could be to put other publications on notice that Snyder will no longer remain silent when he is criticized with untrue facts serving as the ammo.’ Add to that abusive personal attacks and you have a pretty good explanation of the reasoning behind the suit.
“I would hope that you as a professional journalist, and in fact I would hope that any true journalist, would join us in saying there are some lines that should not be crossed.
“Finally, I have to challenge your statement that filing a lawsuit ‘allows his critics to paint him as ruthless, short-sighted, vindictive and/or mean.’ One might suggest that all those adjectives apply far better to the City Paper columnist who has written more than 50 columns about Dan in the last eight months.
“Which brings me back to your headline, ‘Wrong way to alter Snyder’s image.’ True, but that’s not the purpose. But when other means have failed, it’s a plea for honesty and fairness. I hope you will support those goals.”
We definitely support those goals. The media should strive to be honest and fair at all times. And while public figures have a tougher time establishing defamation due to the requirement of “actual malice,” that standard can be met with proof that the publisher of the statements knew the information was false or that the publisher acted with reckless disregard to the truth or falsity of the statements. The easiest way to prove the absence of a “reckless disregard” for the truth is to provide the subject of the piece an opportunity to respond. If, as Wyllie contends, the City Paper did not contact the Redskins before publishing an apparent opinion piece premised on a slew of negative facts regarding Snyder, the City Paper could have a big problem if any of those negative facts is not accurate.
All that said, there’s a difference between right and reputation. If the Redskins and Snyder believe that false statements were made about the owner with “actual malice,” it’s “right” to stand up and take action. Even if the goal isn’t, as Wyllie concedes, to use the lawsuit to alter Snyder’s reputation, the lawsuit against the City Paper will make Wyllie’s broader task even tougher.