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Ex-FBI director clears Papa John's founder of racial bias, slams 'clearly inaccurate' media

Louis Freeh says some reporters "falsely construed" John Schnatter's comments on NFL controversy, creating cancel culture moment in board room.

Updated: December 8, 2020 - 6:50pm

In a detailed rebuke of the news media, former FBI Director Louis Freeh said his exhaustive investigation of Papa John's founder John Schnatter found no evidence of racial animus, citing corporate transcripts that directly contradict news reports suggesting the pizza executive had criticized NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem.

"A thorough examination … found that the public comments by Mr. Schnatter were neither intended nor can reasonably be interpreted to reflect any racial bias, prejudice, or disrespect for African Americans or people of color," Freeh wrote in a report slated to be made public Tuesday.

"Any attempt by some media to characterize Mr. Schnatter's statements as attacking NFL players or the basis for their protest was factually incorrect, and in effect an editorial comment by the reporting facility," he added.

The report, a copy of which was obtained Monday evening by Just the News, was commissioned by Schnatter's law firm.

It provided a detailed analysis showing how false and misleading media reporting drove a cancel culture movement inside the board room, ultimately forcing Schnatter to resign in 2018 from the pizza company he founded in 1984 and made famous with TV commercials showcasing NFL stars.

Freeh compared the verbatim corporate transcripts where Schnatter talked about race issues in 2017 and 2018 to the news stories about the comments, exposing what he said were misleading and inaccurate reports prior to Schnatter's resignation as chaiman. It documented how truncated quotes and outright inaccuracies created a false public narrative.

In one instance, Freeh cited an Associated Press article headlined "Papa John's apologizes for criticizing NFL anthem protests" that suggested Schnatter was "blaming sluggish pizza sales on NFL players kneeling during the national anthem."

Freeh pointed out that the full transcript of Schnatter's comments during an earnings call in 2017 showed he never criticized the anthem protests at all. Rather the iconic pizza executive criticized NFL leadership for failing to resolve "the current debacle to the player and owner's satisfaction," Freeh wrote, pulling quotes verbatim from the transcript. 

In other words, Schnatter was urging that the players' concerns be addressed and satisfied, the former FBI director argued, and was not criticizing the protests themselves.

"Mr. Schnatter's comments were falsely construed as criticism of the players' 'protests' both in print and social media," Freeh wrote.

"Contrary to the clearly inaccurate reporting, as can be seen from the transcript itself, Mr. Schnatter never took issue with the players' protest, and in fact never even mentioned the players or their race as part of the problem. Rather, he said the problem fell squarely in the lap of NFL leadership," he wrote.

A spokesperson for AP did not immediately return a request from Just the News seeking comment Monday.

Schnatter issued a statement Tuesday saying Freeh's report "coincides with what I have said all along – that my comments in May 2018, which clearly reflected my total disdain for racism, were reversed and mischaracterized by the media to damage my reputation and harm the company I founded, built, and love."

He said "there’s much more to be revealed in the near future" from his litigation that will show there was a "malicious set-up" perpetrated by a contractor and certain board members that led to his ouster. 

Freeh described how initially inaccurate stories later were "simply restated" without fact checking by other media to create a false narrative about Schnatter that ultimately created public pressure for the founder to leave his company.

"This repeated mischaracterization by some media continued to define the public reaction, as Mr. Schnatter's comments were distorted as criticizing the NFL's failure to curtail players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality against people of color," the former FBI director wrote.

Freeh said his team also conducted the equivalent of an FBI background check to see if there was any evidence over the last four decades that Schnatter harbored racist sentiments and found none. Rather, it identified a large and vocal groups of supporters in the African-American community, he added.

"The FGIS background investigation of Mr. Schnatter, and specifically the  personal experiences and reputation he currently has with very prominent African Americans and other people of color, completely validates and corroborates the separate finding that Mr. Schnatter had no prejudicial intent or racial animus when he made the public comments at issue," the report added.

"There is no credible evidence that Mr. John Schnatter has engaged in a pattern of speech or actions which can be fairly termed as racially insensitive, prejudicial, or biased against African Americans or people of color," the report added.

One of the African-American leaders interviewed during the review was Dr. Samuel C. Tolbert, Jr., the president of the National Baptist Convention of America, who approached Schnatter to support his organization's move to Louisville, Ky., where Papa John's is also based. In a video interview accompanying the report. Tolbert said he did a thorough review of the media allegations and found "the news coverage was not fair to John."

"The context of what John said was totally disregarded," Tolbert said. "Being a preacher, I have to preach from the Bible, and I have to be very careful about the context when I'm preaching a text. His remarks were taken out of context."

He added: "One of the things I know is that many of the black leaders in this country were not called upon by the media to respond to John's comments. And I believe there is some purpose behind that, because some of us who are actually black would've been able to speak to the context of the comments."

The review by Freeh, a former federal judge appointed by President George H.W. Bush and a former FBI director appointed by President Bill Clinton, provides a detailed forensic examination of the statements that led to Schnatter's departure from the iconic pizza chain.

In so doing, it is likely to revive the debate about whether a broadening cancel culture movement in America has led to hasty and under-informed decisions driven more by media hysteria than underlying facts.

The report also is likely to be used by Schnatter in litigation.

The Papa John's founder recently filed an amended lawsuit against his former marketing firm, Laundry Service, alleging the firm plotted to "bury the founder if Laundry Service was not paid $6 million." That lawsuit was filed partially under seal but Schnattner's lawyers are seeking a court order to make its underlying evidence public.

Freeh's report directly analyzed an episode in which a secret tape recording from a May 2018 race-sensitivity training session conducted by Laundry Service with Schattner was leaked to the news magazine Forbes, which reported Schnatter had used the n-word during the session. The magazine story broke shortly before Schnatter resigned as chairman.

"'Colonel Sanders called blacks n-----s,'" Schnatter said, before complaining that Sanders never faced public backlash," Forbes reported, adding that Schnatter had issued an apology to the magazine for the comments.

Freeh reported, however, the full transcript of the Laundry Service session showed Schnatter immediately declared, "I never used that word" to show he opposed racism based on his childhood experiences, but the magazine did not include that part of the quote.

"Mr. Schnatter did not use the word as a racial slur, nor was it directed at any person or group," Freeh wrote. "Media reports of Mr. Schnatter's use of the n-word as a 'slur' are inaccurate.

"Simply put, at no time on the phone conference did he call anyone the n-word. At no time on the call did he ever use language that insulted or disparaged any race or ethnicity. The comments were not made in the context as to be prejudicial, but rather to demonstrate his opposition to racism and frustration with his attitude toward race being so misconstrued during the controversy of his comments on the NFL."

In a separate videotaped statement accompanying the report, Freeh sharply criticized Forbes magazine for the way it truncated the quote to create a misleading portrait of the episode.

"Outrageously this is leaked by somebody — who has control and access to the tape recording would be my best bet — to Forbes magazine, who writes this very horrific story painting John Schnatter as a racist and using and relying on, improperly, the reference he made to someone else using the word," Freeh said.

"The Forbes article was not only outrageous because it was the source of a leak, but it was doubly outrageous because it was inaccurate," he added.

A spokesperson for Forbes did not immediately return a request from Just the News seeking comment Monday.

Freeh's ultimate conclusions have impact far beyond Schnatter's plight. They remind Americans that a news industry that ruined the reputations of falsely accused individuals like Richard Jewell in the Atlanta Olympics bombing case and Wen Ho Lee in an Energy Department nuclear secrets leaks case in the 1990s has even more power in the 21st century to distort the truth and mislead public opinion through omissions of facts and context that quickly propagate across social media.

In the end, Freeh wrote, facts and fairness were "drowned out by the more sensationalized mischaracterization in the mainstream and social media."

"These interviews and testimonies confirm the only reasonable conclusion which a fair person can make after reading the statements at issue by Mr. Schnatter — that he did not intend or harbor any racial bias or prejudice against anyone when those statements are heard in the context made," the ex-FBI chief wrote.

"Indeed, he continued, "the disparity between those comments, and the distorted way some media have characterized and misstated them, makes it clear that Mr. Schnatter has been unfairly treated, with his good reputation for treating everyone without prejudice unjustly challenged."