Two weeks ago, we told you about Mother Jones‘ victory in a lawsuit filed by a billionaire political donor, Frank VanderSloot. On Monday, another portion of the case came to a conclusion: VanderSloot’s case against Peter Zuckerman, a former Idaho newspaper reporter whose work we cited in our article, was settled.
Here’s the background: In 2005, while working for the 26,000-circulation Post Register in Idaho Falls, Zuckerman got a tip about a pedophile in the local Boy Scouts. He dug deeper and ended up writing an award-winning investigative series exposing how Boy Scout and Mormon Church leaders had failed to stop the man from working in a Boy Scout camp.
VanderSloot took issue with the series and placed full-page ads in the Post Register attacking both the series and Zuckerman. The ads pointed out that Zuckerman is gay and said that “for whatever reason, Zuckerman chose to weave a story that unfairly, and without merit, paints Scout leaders and church leaders to appear unscrupulous, and blame[s] them for the molestation of little children.”
When we wrote about VanderSloot in February 2012—after it emerged that his companies had donated $1 million to Mitt Romney’s super-PAC—we took note of this controversy.
That’s what VanderSloot sued us over. He also filed suit against Zuckerman for an interview the reporter had given to Rachel Maddow after our article appeared. (Mother Jones has paid for Zuckerman’s defense.) In a document filed with the court this past July, Zuckerman detailed his experience in 2005, after VanderSloot’s first ad about him ran.
“There was an immediate and dramatic impact in my life, which I believed was directly tied to the publication of the ad and was like nothing I’d experienced before. By outing me in my own newspaper (and linking my orientation to an attack on my integrity as a reporter), the ad profoundly affected my daily life as well as my professional reputation.
“My experience was that I was ‘outed’ because of the ad—a large audience, if not most people I interacted with in Idaho, found out I am gay because of the ad.”
The day after the ad ran, Zuckerman said in the document, he came home from work and found his partner on the couch. “He appeared to have been crying. I asked what was wrong. He told me he had been fired because they had found out he is gay because of the ad.”
There had been harassment before, Zuckerman continued, especially when the hosts of a local radio show went after him and the series. But it “quickly died down…What happened after the ads ran was traumatic, one of the worst periods of my life.”
People left notes on his doorstep, he said, one of which read “FUCK YOU FAGGOT.” Someone called, more than once, and threatened to rape him with a handgun. A man approached his car in a parking lot one evening and said, “I know who you fucking are. You better watch your back,” before running after him as he drove off. Another man followed him through the aisles at Walmart and said, “I read about how you’re homosexual and who you are. You’re going to fucking pay for this.”
A young woman at the drive-through where he got coffee, Zuckerman said in the document, “refused to serve me. She said something like, ‘I read about you in the paper and I know what you are. You aren’t welcome here and you don’t belong in Idaho Falls.”
There’s more. You can read the full document, which is public as part of the lawsuit, here.
In a statement released as part of the settlement, Zuckerman said his comments on the Rachel Maddow Show “could have been clearer.” He reiterated that there had been attacks against him before VanderSloot’s ads. He also said that while his then-boyfriend had claimed to have been fired because of the ads, that turned out not to have been true. (VanderSloot threatened to sue the ex-boyfriend last year, backing off only after the ex-boyfriend recanted his previous statements.)
Zuckerman also took note of VanderSloot’s recent support for a campaign to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to Idaho’s anti-discrimination law. “A ‘gay basher’ would not be a strong supporter of such a campaign,” he said in the settlement statement. “I hope Mr. VanderSloot and his companies further their support for this human rights movement.”
Zuckerman’s attorney, Gary Bostwick, said in a statement, “Peter was sued for commenting on television about someone who played a major part in the last national campaign for President. I have often been surprised that someone who chooses to jump into the ring of public affairs can’t take a critical punch without suing. But I’ve seen it a lot. And I’m proud to have done what I could to help Peter fight for our treasured right to freely debate how we are to be governed.”
As for us at MoJo, we’re glad this ordeal is over for Zuckerman. He has been standing up to intimidation and attacks from VanderSloot for more than a decade, and we hope this is the last of it. The kind of reporting he did for the Post Register—local muckraking that often offends the most powerful people in town—is absolutely vital for a functioning democracy, and it is under enormous pressure across America. We salute it, and him.