Frank VanderSloot is a major Republican donor -- he funneled more than $1M to the Romney campaign -- who is tapped to be one of the kingmakers in the party's leadership race. But the multi-level marketing nutritional supplement billionaire has a dark history he'd like to erase: his many, high-profile, vicious campaigns against gay people.
Mother Jones published investigative articles about VanderSloot's involvement in the Romney campaign in 2012, and received complaining letters at the time from VanderSloot's lawyers. Then, when Mojo broke the story of Romney's infamous 47% remarks ("[The] 47 percent ... who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it... [M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.") and VanderSloot sued.
In the years that passed, VanderSloot spent millions attacking Mother Jones, its writers, writers for other news organizations, claiming that Mother Jones had defamed him when they reported on his homophobic practices. VanderSloot had financed multiple campaigns across the country to ban gay marriage and disqualify judges who were friendly to the proposition, to ban TV shows about gay parents, and had outed a gay reported for an Idaho newspaper after the reporter broke a story about a Mormon Boy Scout leader who had sexually assaulted the children in his charge with impunity for years, shielded by Mormon bishops.
VanderSloot responded by placing a full-page ad in the newspaper outing the reporter as gay, and saying that the reporter had trumped up the story to discredit the Mormon church and the Boy Scouts, who had maintained a policy of keeping gay people out of scout-leader roles.
Mother Jones's insurer spent millions defending the suits -- one is still underway against the reporter that VanderSloot outed -- and prevailed, winning a summary judgment on all counts.
(Hilariously, VanderSloot issued a statement saying he was "absolutely vindicated" by the court, which rejected every one of his claims)
But the real issue here is that the 0.0001% have a powerful weapon in their arsenal: punitive civil lawsuits through which they spend less-resourced news-agencies into the ground to prevent the truth from being reported or kept in the public record.
This kind of legal onslaught is enormously taxing. Last year, Lowell Bergman, the legendary 60 Minutes producer (whose story of exposing Big Tobacco was chronicled in the Oscar-nominated film The Insider), talked about a "chill in the air" as investigative reporters confront billionaires who can hurt a news organization profoundly whether or not they win in court: "There are individuals and institutions with very deep pockets and unaccountable private power who don't like the way we report. One example is a case involving Mother Jones…A superrich plaintiff is spending millions of dollars while he bleeds the magazine and ties up its staff."
Litigation like this, Bergman said, is "being used to tame the press, to cause publishers and broadcasters to decide whether to stand up or stand down, to self-censor."
Over the past three years, we've had to face that decision over and over again. Should we just cave in—retract our article or let VanderSloot get a judgment against us—and make this all go away? It wasn't an easy choice, but we decided to fight back. Because it's not just about us. It's about everyone who relies on Mother Jones to report the facts as we find them. It's about the Fourth Estate's check on those who would use their outsized influence and ability to finance political campaigns to control the direction of the country. It's about making sure that in a time when media is always under pressure to buckle to politicians or big-money interests, you can trust that someone will stand up and go after the truth.
And it's about one more thing. Just a few years ago, no one thought that America could move so far, so fast, toward respecting the rights of gays and lesbians. No one thought that by 2015 same-sex couples would have a constitutional right to marry or, for that matter, that the Boy Scouts would rescind their ban against gay troop leaders and the Mormon Church would back them up. That happened because a lot of people stood up to threats and discrimination. They came out to their families and communities. They declared their love for everyone to see. They didn't let themselves be intimidated. Nor will we.