Sports

Washington N.F.L. Owner Dan Snyder Sues Media Company for Defamation

Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington N.F.L. team, has accused an online media company of accepting payment in exchange for publishing defamatory rumors, including one that Snyder was named on a list of sexual offenders maintained by Jeffrey Epstein, the sex criminal and financier.

In a lawsuit filed Friday in New Delhi and in federal court papers in California, Snyder said the news site, Media Entertainment Arts WorldWide, whose parent company is based in India, published stories that it knew were false and designed to malign him, some using information from anonymous posts on social news sites including Reddit.

The suit is Snyder’s first public strike after a wave of attacks on his operation of the team, from minority owners and sponsors who sought to divest, to a Washington Post report of widespread sexual harassment within its front office. Snyder, who seeks $10 million in damages, wants to identify if, and by whom, M.E.A. WorldWide was paid to publish the articles, his lawyer, Rizwan A. Qureshi of the firm Reed Smith, said in a statement.

“While Mr. Snyder understands that truthful criticism about the Washington Football Team comes with the territory of owning the team, malicious criminal allegations cross the line. He intends to hold all of those responsible for this defamation accountable, and will donate any proceeds recovered in the lawsuit to charity.”

In a phone interview, Nirnay Chowdhary, a founder of MEA WorldWide, acknowledged “some sort of errors” were made in the stories about Snyder. “We are going to be launching an internal investigation,” he said.

However, Chowdhary said his company does not accept money in exchange for articles and his employees have been contacted by people asking him to reveal who planted the stories. “My entire company has been harassed,” he said. “They started asking us, ‘Who had paid you to write these articles? If you are not going to tell us the name, we are going to file a lawsuit. They are trying to force us to give us some name of someone but we have no name to give to them. This person doesn’t not exist.”

The stories, which have since been removed from M.E.A. WorldWide’s website, asserted that Snyder was involved in sex trafficking and speculated that the team’s minority owners were “looking at bringing him down citing inappropriate and unchaste behavior as one of the major reasons,” according to parts of the story included in the complaint.

The stories surfaced in mid-July and elements of them were alluded to or repeated on social media. They appeared just as The Washington Post published an investigation that detailed allegations made by 15 women of sexual harassment, misconduct and abusive behavior by team executives and football personnel over more than a dozen years.

Before the newspaper published its article on July 16, several posts on Facebook and Twitter suggested that The Post would include some of the information that ultimately appeared in M.E.A. WorldWide stories. The Post’s article did not include the details flagged on social media or Reddit, or those included in the M.E.A. WorldWide stories that are now the subject of the lawsuit.

The filing comes at a fraught time for Snyder and his team. After decades of standing by its former name, Snyder last month said that the team would drop its logo and the name “Redskins,” which many consider a racist slur against Native Americans, amid pressure from several of its largest corporate sponsors. He also removed any mention of the team’s founding owner, George Preston Marshall, who named the franchise and was the last team owner in the N.F.L. to hire Black players.

ImageIn July, the team faced renewed pressure to change its name, including from major sponsor FedEx, which pays about $8 million a year for the naming rights to the team’s stadium in Landover, Md.
Credit…Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA, via Shutterstock

The team’s three owners of the largest minority shares — Frederick W. Smith, Dwight Schar and Robert Rothman, who together own about 40 percent of the team — have also been trying to sell their stakes for about a year. Minority stakes in sports teams are often hard to sell separately from the sale of the entire team because they are expensive but include no voting rights. The downturn in the economy triggered by the coronavirus pandemic has made selling these shares even harder.

Smith, who is the chairman of FedEx, threatened to remove the company’s name from the team’s stadium in Landover, Md., if Snyder did not change the name of the club.

Snyder also hired a new head coach, Ron Rivera, at the end of last season, fired his longtime team president, Bruce Allen, and replaced a number of other top executives.

This is not the first time Snyder has sued a media company. In 2010, Snyder filed suit against the Washington City Paper after the local alternative weekly published an article that it billed as “an encyclopedia of the owner’s many failings.” The article included the organization selling bags of expired airline peanuts to fans, firing a beloved announcer and suing a 73-year-old season ticket-holder because she no longer could afford payments on her seats. The lawsuit was eventually dropped.

Snyder acknowledged in his complaint that he and his team were “fair game for true and accurate coverage.” However, according to the complaint, he said he wants to “rectify the harm to his personal and professional reputation,” and to “deter defendants and other ‘hired gun’ misinformation providers from taking similar actions on behalf of their illicit clients against him or anyone else so that their family and friends can be spared the same terrible experience endured by Mr. Snyder and his family.”

M.E.A. WorldWide is emblematic of “click-baity junk news websites,” also known as content farms, “that create stories with headlines that will pull people in and generate advertising revenue,” Samantha Bradshaw, a researcher with the Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda Research Project, said. “It’s not even about the content being factual, it’s about how sexy the content is.”

The site publishes some articles that are created with independent reporting, like one published this May based on an interview with actor Kelly AuCoin to promote the Showtime drama “Billions.”

Bradshaw said that content farm websites solely pushing blatantly false stories are being joined by a new breed that blend fabricated stories with more accurate ones. “That is what we see happening as more and more people become skeptical and critical readers,” she said. “These providers create this false sense of credibility to say: ‘We’ve done journalism.’”

Snyder said in the complaint that one of the owners of M.E.A. WorldWide “is frequently hired (many times anonymously) by Governments and intelligence services in order to spread misinformation on rivals.”

Credit…Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Though it is not out of the ordinary for journalists to get wind of a big story, The Washington Post’s article on the team’s toxic office culture prompted an unusual round of internet speculation before its publication. Reporters and sports media personalities publicly discussed on social media and on radio the assumed explosive nature of their competitor’s impending article and rumors about a coming story. Rumors spread both by professional journalists and anonymous Reddit, Twitter and message board users had circulated for days ahead of publication, beginning after the team fired two player personnel employees without publicly giving a reason.

On July 12, four days before the Post published its article, Scott Abraham, a reporter at the local Washington ABC affiliate, posted to Twitter that he was “told by a source there will be some more news that comes out tomorrow other than the name change.” Over the next few days, journalists and sports personalities from the Washington, D.C. CBS affiliate, NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Stadium, ESPN and other outlets, all referenced a damning story that would supposedly be published soon.

The Post’s story was indeed damning. It led to a number of resignations or firings and prompted the team to hire a former federal prosecutor to investigate its workplace culture. But even before it was published the discussion about it had gotten out of control.

Social media sites and football message boards, prone to conspiracy theories, hyperbole and fabrications in even the soberest scenarios, went wild. Allegations far beyond harassment were made about Snyder and the team, a few of which M.E.A. WorldWide seemingly amplified and attributed to “internet says.”

One of the now-deleted articles that was published on M.E.A. WorldWide early on July 16 referred to sex trafficking allegations against Snyder in its headline. The source of these allegations was a thread in a section of Reddit for fans of Washington’s football team that summarized a number of rumors about what would supposedly be in the forthcoming Post article.

At the bottom of the site’s story that suggested there was a connection between Snyder and Epstein, a disclosure stated, “M.E.A. WorldWide cannot independently verify the claims or accusations being made on the internet.”

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