Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder was facing a bind. His April libel suit against the Washington City Paper over “The Cranky Redskins Fans Guide to Dan Snyder” was scheduled for a critical courtroom showdown this fall.The D.C. attorney general had just issued a brief bearing on the case, and there was a hearing in D.C. Superior Court scheduled for Oct. 14.
That would be two days before a critical showdown between the Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles at FedEx Field.
You know what they say about distractions: Snyder and his people wanted to get the lawsuit out of the way before the football started, which explains why the owner is ending his suit against the newspaper and its chief (only) sportswriter, Dave McKenna, just hours before Sunday’s opener against the New York Giants. (Disclosure: I am a former editor of the Washington City Paper.)
Statements from both sides indicate that the cessation of these hostilities is a one-sided matter. Snyder is dropping the lawsuit, and the paper is giving little in exchange — merely a commitment not to seek payment of its legal fees and to refrain from countersuing, according to Washington City Paper Editor Michael Schaffer. A statement issued by Snyder spokesman Tony Wyllie sheds light on the dynamics:
“The lawsuit was pursued as a means to correct the public record following several critical factual misstatements in the Washington City Paper article,” Wyllie said. “In the course of the defendants’ 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. Therefore, we see nothing further to be gained at this time through continuing the lawsuit. We prefer to focus on the coming football season and the business at hand. We remain committed to assisting with responsible reportage of the Team and the many people involved in our organization, including Dan Snyder, and the principle that the truth and the facts matter in responsible journalism has been vindicated.”
It’s fitting that Wyllie should articulate the reasons for backing out of the lawsuit. He, after all, was the person that Snyder identified as pivotal in convincing him to sue in the first place. The statement would have been so much easier to craft if the City Paper had given up something, anything — a correction, a clarification, some italicized mumbo jumbo at the foot of the online version of the story saying that it didn’t mean it.
That wasn’t the case, according to Schaffer. So Wyllie had to figure out some way to save face. He settled on this sentence: “In the course of the defendants’ 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.”
Factually defensible, practically flimsy: A June filing by the City Paper’s lawyers indeed makes the point that the disputed passages in the articles weren’t intended literally, particularly the line saying that Snyder “got caught forging names as a telemarketer with Snyder Communications [and] made a great view of the Potomac River for himself by going all Agent Orange on federally protected lands.”
Yet the newspaper’s editors and lawyers have been saying since Day 1 that those assertions “were, in fact, unintended to be read literally as true.” That’s been the paper’s key rebuttal since winter, when things got testy between the two parties over the November cover story.
“We’ve said that all along,” says Schaffer, who takes issue with Wyllie’s use of the word “admitted,” as if the process has forced the City Paper to cede ground. “It’s not stuff that we’ve admitted; it’s stuff that we’ve proclaimed. They could have saved everyone a great deal of hassle . . . by actually focusing on the content of the story instead of engaging in months of expensive bullying.”
When asked late Saturday whether the litigation was necessary to produce the outcome cited in the statement, Wyllie referred me to the statement.