Hours before a controversial segment of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” aired Thursday night, a lawyer for the four Washington Redskins fans featured in it sent one of the program’s producers a letter revoking their consent to appear in the piece.
The attorney, Virginia state Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen, asserted in the letter to Matt Polidoro, one of the program’s producers, that the fans were persuaded to go on the show based on “intentionally false” statements. The fans were recruited after being assured that there would be no face-to-face confrontation with Native American opponents of the Redskins’ name, said Peterson, a Democrat who represents Fairfax County.
But during the Sept. 13 taping at a Dupont Circle hotel, “Daily Show” producers surprised the fans by bringing in a group of Native American activists for a showdown over the name. The move led to a heated confrontation, leaving one fan so distraught that she called police two days later alleging that she had been subjected to a hostile environment. The police told her no crime had occurred.
The fans had signed consent agreements to be on the show, but Petersen sent his letter to Polidoro revoking their permission Thursday afternoon, hours before the segment was aired during the show’s 11 p.m. broadcast on Comedy Central.
“As those agreements were procured under false pretenses, they are NULL AND VOID,” Petersen wrote to Polidoro. “The purpose of this letter is to inform you that my clients DO NOT CONSENT to the use of their image or any of their statements by The Daily Show, either for a show about The Washington Redskins or any other subject.”
Vate Powell, vice president and senior counsel at Viacom, which owns Comedy Central, responded to Petersen on Friday afternoon, arguing that simply because the fans were “unhappy to be confronted during the taping does not serve as the basis for any legal claim.” Powell noted that the fans signed “valid and binding releases” and that Polidoro’s statements to persuade the fans to participate “do not undermine this in any way.”
“If anything, [the segment] was a more sensitive representation of your clients than was required, as many more volatile statements — made alone and to the Native American panel — were omitted from the final piece,” Powell wrote.
Before the segment rolled Thursday night, Stewart acknowledged in an unusual preamble that the Redskins fans were unhappy: “We learned later that some of the individuals who participated in the piece, they didn’t enjoy the experience. It’s something that happens a lot less than you would think. But we take the complaint seriously. We generally don’t want people who participate in the show to have a bad experience. We work very hard to find real people who have real beliefs and want to express those beliefs on television, and we work hard to make sure that the gist of those beliefs are represented accurately, albeit sometimes comedically on our program.
“If we find out that someone in a piece was intentionally misled or if their comments were intentionally misrepresented, we do not air that piece. We would not air that piece. So that being said, I hope you enjoy the following piece.”
The segment featured almost no footage of the tense confrontation between the fans and the Native Americans.
Petersen said he is not sure whether the fans will file a lawsuit. In his letter to the producer, Petersen asked for copies of the signed consent agreements and “the original and all copies of the video” made for the taping.
Petersen is a natural choice to serve as the fans’ attorney. This year, he was part of a group of Virginia state senators and delegates who formed the “Redskins Pride Caucus” partly to defend the team name.
Three of the Redskins fans who appeared on the show referred all questions to Chapman: Kelli O’Dell, a former teacher who lives in Alexandria and writes about the team for an NFL fan site and also once worked as a sales director for FedEx Field, according to one of her online biographies; Brian Dortch, who runs a home-repair business in Dinwiddie, Va.; and Charles Barr, 36, an office administrator for a heating and air conditioning company in Petersburg, Va., who also runs a Redskins blog. The fourth fan, Maurice Hawkins, 43, a sales consultant from Hampton Roads, Va., did not return a voice mail seeking comment.
Peterson said he suspected that Stewart’s introduction to the piece may have been the show’s way of appeasing his clients. And even though the program cut most of the tense moments between them and the Native Americans, Petersen said his clients are still angry.
“Who wouldn’t be when you’re put on national television and called a racist and that segment is on the Internet for the rest of their lives?” he said.
Gregg Deal, one of the Native Americans who appeared on the show, said he was gratified by the experience. “You don’t have to set them up to make fun of them,” he said. “While everyone’s up in arms about it being an ambush, there was an exchange afterward that was amicable.”
Another of the show’s producers, Brennan Shroff, also seemed delighted by his work. “So Washington got their ass kicked last night,” he tweeted Friday afternoon, providing a link to the segment. But Shroff may have had a change of heart — the tweet was later deleted.