The nation’s largest journalism organization wants me to pour out 2,000 cans of beer.
If I don’t, they’ve threatened to file a cease-and-desist order against me and a Florida craft brewery. The brewery’s co-owner is defiant. “Go for it!” he told me yesterday.
This is all because of Putin.
Last month, a friend who runs a Florida craft beer website interviewed the owners of a brewery in Lviv, Ukraine. They’d converted their bottling line to produce Molotov cocktails. They also shared on social media a handful of their recipes. That’s a big deal, akin to KFC or Coca-Cola doing the same thing. The owners asked breweries around the world to produce one of their beers to raise money and awareness.
Intrigued, we recruited a local brewery and did our own version, called Beer For Bombs. It honors the journalists slain while covering this awful war, listing their names on the can. We also decided to send all the proceeds back to Pravda Brewery – so they could make more Molotov cocktails or do whatever else they wanted with the money.
Pravda has spent some of their donations on med packs, food, and even surgery for a 9-year-old girl wounded in the shelling. But they’ve mostly bought and made weapons.
(We later Zoomed with Pravda’s head brewer, who said, “10 Molotov cocktails can stop a Russian tank.” That impressed me, because obviously he’s counted.)
When we began promoting Beer For Bombs – and it’s been covered by a Top 50 daily, a community newspaper, a Spanish-language newspaper, an alternative weekly, and local broadcast news – public opinion split neatly down the middle.
Some folks think we should restrict our donations to humanitarian aid. Others believe when you’re invaded, you need bullets now so you won’t need bandages later.
Obviously, me and the other Beer For Bombs organizers want Pravda to decide. They’re there and we’re not. And they’ve told us: We want weaponry.
This is where the irate journalists come in.
I’m an elected leader with the Society of Professional Journalists. The guy who runs the beer blog serves on the board of Florida’s chapter. Another organizer is also a member.
In my elected role, and as I’ve done for a decade, I made SPJ one of the preliminary sponsors. I thought it would be an enlightening discussion: Should a journalism organization do more to defend frontline journalists than issue statements after they’re killed? SPJ does that a lot.
I approached the Florida chapter (where I’m also the treasurer, but only because no one else wants to do math). The vote was 6-5 against. Like I said, split nearly down the middle.
I didn’t mind losing that vote, but I was surprised at how I lost.
I wanted a rousing ethics debate, because that’s what makes journalism fascinating. Instead, a couple of board members called me unethical, immoral, and violent. I never raised my voice, but they sure did.
To be fair, some board members argued compellingly and correctly. Here’s what one wrote after our tense Zoom meeting…
I happen to think Beer For Bombs is headed toward a noble cause, but I think it’s beyond the purview of a journalism organization. There isn’t a scenario where I would agree with the organization giving money to something like this, but personal donations are different.
He might be right. Maybe SPJ shouldn’t sponsor Beer For Bombs. But you don’t know till you talk it over.
He concluded, “Maybe hemming and hawing over what money goes where in this circumstance reeks of privilege, since my life isn’t in immediate danger this way.”
That’s exactly what I wanted to discuss.
I call it the Peace Privilege.
It goes something like this: “I’ll just feel more comfortable if I buy you meals instead of missiles, even though your neighbors are getting raped and executed while I’m safe from invasion by Canada or Mexico.”
In other words, we can all feel better about ourselves if we don’t buy what Ukrainians say they need.
On April 13, I emailed SPJ’s national leadership with the Beer For Bombs link. I sought the same conversation, and I’d abide by their wishes. Instead, I heard nothing. I emailed again. Nothing. So as I’ve done in the past, I went ahead with the sponsorship on behalf of SPJ Region 3 (which is my territory, basically the southeast United States).
Then, on Monday morning, as I’m pulling out of the parking lot of the 26 Degree Brewing Company in Pompano Beach – where I just watched the beer being canned – I got a call from SPJ’s executive director John Shertzer.
“The board of directors doesn’t want to be associated with Beer For Bombs,” he said. “They want you to remove the SPJ logo.”
“Sure,” I said.
In fact, this wasn’t the first time I’ve been told to take SPJ’s logo off an event. In 2015, I organized a debate about an online shitshow called GamerGate. SPJ’s national leaders were both scared and mad. So they called a meeting, we talked it over, and the live-streamed event didn’t feature the SPJ logo.
What’s funny: SPJ AirPlay, as it was called, is still the only time SPJ ever trended No. 1 on Twitter, and it got nuanced coverage in the Columbia Journalism Review. A few months later, SPJ gave me an award for “out-of-the-box programming.” They even issued a press release.
I doubt the current SPJ board will give me an award after Saturday’s Beer For Bombs release party. Unlike 2015, they refuse to even talk to me. And I’ve asked three times now.
While we’ve removed all the SPJ logos from the website and social media accounts, we can’t un-can the beer.
And there are 2,000 cans.
Via email, I asked what they wanted me to do with all that beer. The email I got Wednesday night insisted “those will need to be eliminated.”
And if I didn’t? I was told SPJ had already started looking for an attorney to file a cease-and-desist order. That might lead to a trademark infringement lawsuit.
Worried about the brewery more than myself, I offered to place tiny stickers over the tiny logo on each can. The next day, I drove to OfficeMax at 8 a.m., right when it opened. A nice woman named Denise asked me what I needed. I took one of the Beer For Bombs cans out of my bag and said, “I need a sticker that’ll cover this.”
After squinting at the tiny logo, she said, “Right.” I bought 2,000 round ¾-inch stickers. (If I’ve learned anything positive this week, it’s that you can bring beer into OfficeMax.)
Apparently, those stickers weren’t good enough. A few hours later, this was the entire email I received: “Thank you for your response, and for the option. We insist that the beer cans with SPJ’s logo still not be distributed or used.”
Since we live in such a litigious society, I hired my own attorney. Thankfully, he has experience dealing with SPJ. I hired him just a few months ago, when this same board ordered me to take down a video of an open meeting. His name is Justin Hemlepp, and his position is clear: Unless SPJ is willing to buy the beer itself, it can’t retroactively demand its destruction.
“You followed SPJ’s rules and traditions,” Hemlepp says. “You have a track record, documented in SPJ’s own minutes, of using their logo until you’re told not to. You’ve complied in every way possible, and the only issue left are some beer cans – which is too late to remedy because they didn’t reply to you twice in three weeks.”
Hemlepp added, “Even so, you proposed a reasonable solution so you wouldn’t have to destroy a product that will raise money to defend innocent lives in a wartorn country.”
Hemlepp says SPJ would have to go to court and earn a ruling that we violated its trademark. He thinks that’s a long shot.
“By the time they get on a docket, the beer is sold, no one made a profit, and the money went to charity,” Hemlepp says. “If SPJ claims the event damaged their reputation because they disagreed with the cause, the burden is on them to prove what that actual damage was.”
Interestingly, the brewer agrees.
Yonathan Ghersi co-owns the 26 Degree Brewing Company, less than a mile from the beach in a city equidistant from Palm Beach and Miami Beach. He’s not letting SPJ near his beer: “If they want me to get rid of it, they can buy it. They can send the money to Pravda.”
And screw the stickers, he says. The cease-and-desist threat doesn’t scare him. Yesterday in his taproom, Ghersi pointed to the half-inch SPJ logo on the side of the can and said, “For this? Go for it!”
Sadly, this war of words has nothing to do with the actual war in Ukraine. I wanted journalists to debate ethics and Americans to help Ukrainians. Instead, SPJ’s national leaders are accusing us of “egregious acts” that “put SPJ in a legally perilous circumstance” – although they haven’t said how. Maybe Putin will sue us?
One of them has even claimed…
Since the beer is a consumer product regulated by state law, if someone were to get sick on Saturday drinking such beer, which is made from a recipe “inspired by Pravda Brewery in Lviv, Ukraine,” SPJ could be sued for an alleged breach of contract that involves a contaminated batch.
Three weeks ago – hell, anytime before Monday – I would’ve gladly dropped SPJ from the entire project. I’m relieved to do it now. As Ghersi told us yesterday, “This isn’t about them. It isn’t about us. It’s about Ukraine.”
I need a beer.