Absence of Malice

The termination of Kaos and Syllli Asz: a rush to judgment?

Not that it would have done Kaos or Syllli Asz any good, says national FOP president Canterbury. "Absolutely not," he says when asked if being privy to the broadcast in its full context might have influenced his organization's stance. What the DJs did was, he says, "like screaming 'Fire!' in a movie house."

The Post-Dispatch's Joiner offers the same analogy. "I did not hear the broadcast," he says. "If Howard Stern got seriously fined, I don't think anyone would go back and listen to the broadcast. Sometimes you just go with what's in the paper." (Paradoxically, Joiner also notes that "we have a policy on the [editorial] page to do primary research when we write about just about anything.")

"I stand by what we said," he continues. "[The DJs' comments] reminded me of shouting 'Fire!' in a crowded theater."

Frankel maintains that Clear Channel refused repeat requests to obtain a copy of the broadcast, and that attempts to track down the broadcast via clipping services and attorneys proved fruitless. But nowhere in his reportage or that of his colleagues were these efforts noted, leaving readers -- and Kevin Horrigan -- with the notion that someone at the paper had direct access to the material in question.

"Yeah, I thought someone had actually listened to the broadcast," says Horrigan. "But if the station would not supply a tape in a timely manner, I'd be OK with writing based on second-hand accounts from good sources."

Art Silverblatt, a communications professor at Webster University, isn't satisfied with Horrigan's rationalization. "What they should do is include that in their discussion or opinion," says Silverblatt. "You can't be influencing opinion without having heard it. If you're going from second-hand accounts, that's not terribly responsible."

David Klinger, an ex-Los Angeles policeman and an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, applies the same ethical logic to the police group's protocol. "If you're going to take a position in public about what someone's said or done, you'd darn well better have your facts straight," he says. "And in this case, that means listening to the tape of the broadcast."

On August 11, Frankel became the first Post-Dispatch employee to actually listen to a recording of the broadcast, one day after Scott Sherman played the tape for reporters from KMOX (1120 AM), FOX-2 and the Riverfront Times. With three news stories, two staff editorials and two fired disc jockeys in his paper's rearview mirror, Frankel accurately characterized the July 13 broadcast as replete with humorous crank calls and a listener poll attempting to crown the worst local police department (Jennings won in a landslide). The show highlighted handy speed-trap tips ("Do not speed on Lucas and Hunt!" exclaimed Kaos) and was generally complimentary of St. Louis city cops, featuring a friendly telephone exchange between Kaos and Sergeant Sam Dotson, a top Mokwa aide.

"The guy's a comedian," says Sherman of his client. "And whether it's Chris Rock or [David] Letterman, comedians are going to use outrageous humor to comment on serious subjects."

Sherman has not made Kaos available to reporters, noting that he and his client are "leaving all our options open" -- attorney-speak for "there's blood in the water."

"Anyone who wrote authoritatively without listening to this is irresponsible, because otherwise you're just guessing," says Sherman. "And when you do that, you make yourself vulnerable."

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