Absence of Malice 

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

On August 3, Clear Channel Communications canned two KATZ (100.3 FM) disc jockeys, Kaos and Syllli Asz, amid pressure from prominent local and national police groups. The DJs drew the cops' ire by discussing a hypothetical confrontation between an armed officer and an unarmed suspect whom the officer had just purposely unshackled.

But much was shoved aside in the rush to judgment -- including exactly what Kaos and Syllli Asz said, and the context in which their comments were made.

Tensions were already running high at the time of the July 13 broadcast; eight days earlier, nineteen-year-old Kevin Johnson allegedly shot and killed Kirkwood police officer Sergeant William McEntee while the officer was responding to a call in the Meacham Park neighborhood. After an intense three-day manhunt, Johnson's relatives arranged for a peaceful surrender to police in the north-county suburb of Northwoods.

Between July 8 and 10, on an Internet message board popular with St. Louis County cops (http://members5.boardhost.com/COUNTYBROWN), several people -- presumably irked that Johnson was treated humanely upon being taken into custody -- posted missives claiming Northwoods Police Chief Greg Moore "struggled to get a third-grade education" and was "illiterate," among other taunts.

On July 11, Kaos and Syllli Asz, both African-Americans, revealed the postings on their popular show, Kaos in the Morning, which had climbed to second in the ratings since the pair took over KATZ's 5-to-10-a.m. time slot in January.

Two days later, Kaos posed the following scenario to his broadcast partner: If, after being handcuffed by a police officer, that cop willfully took off the handcuffs and challenged Syllli Asz to a fight, would Syllli go for the cop's gun first or his radio? Syllli responded by saying he'd go for the radio first, so that the cop couldn't call for backup.

KATZ owner Clear Channel suspended the DJs indefinitely on July 15. On that same day, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran its first account of the imbroglio, which included comments by St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Joe Mokwa, who characterized the duo's comments as "taboo and inappropriate." Mokwa also added that he understood "they were trying to be funny, [and that it was] time to let go and move on."

Kaos and Syllli were about to discover another meaning to "let go" and "move on."

In a July 17 "Rimshot" on the Post-Dispatch opinion page, entitled "Wacky Morning Guys," Kevin Horrigan (writing sans byline on behalf of the entire editorial board) chided Kaos and Syllli for engaging in a "public-spirited dialogue with listeners on how best to beat up and otherwise neutralize police officers."

The next day FOX's Hannity & Colmes played host to Mike Guzy, a 21-year veteran of the St. Louis Sheriff's Department and onetime Post-Dispatch editorial columnist. On this broadcast, while acknowledging that he'd "never listened to the program," Guzy opined that Clear Channel should feel "negligent in their obligations to the public to allow these people to use the public airways to air tutorials on how to injure and kill police officers."

KATZ general manager Lee Clear, meanwhile, played a tape of the broadcast for Mokwa, who, according to department public-relations director Richard Wilkes, "didn't provide any insight either way."

"It really is not an issue with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department," says Wilkes.

The St. Louis chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police on July 19 called for the immediate firing of the two KATZ DJs, a position the chapter formalized in a July 21 letter to Lee Clear. In the letter, local FOP president Kevin Ahlbrand threatened to "call for an immediate boycott of all advertisers of KATZ and any other Clear Channel media outlet" if the station failed to fulfill their request.

National FOP president Chuck Canterbury echoed Ahlbrand's call for dismissal in a July 26 letter to Clear Channel's board chairman, Lowry Mays. On July 28, Post-Dispatch reporter Emily Dulcan wrote a brief account of police reaction, describing Kaos and Syllli as having "discussed on the air how to injure police officers."

On August 2, Kaos retained the services of Clayton defense attorney Scott Sherman (Syllli has yet to retain counsel but has consulted with Sherman). The next day, Kaos and Syllli were fired, learning of their terminations via a written Clear Channel announcement issued to the news media.

Two days later, Post-Dispatch reporter Todd C. Frankel penned a short recap of the entire affair, describing the jettisoned disc jockeys as "talking with callers about how to injure officers and take away their radios so they couldn't call for help."

When Sherman and Ahlbrand appeared side-by-side on FOX's (Channel 2) Jaco Report two days later, Ahlbrand conceded he'd never heard the broadcast or read its transcript.

(Ahlbrand and Clear did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment for this article.)

On August 8, the Post-Dispatch's opinion page again weighed in, under the headline "Kaotic and Aszinine." Writing for the editorial board, Bob Joiner supported Clear Channel's decision while acknowledging that "some fans of the two hosts stressed that they knew the controversial discussion wasn't meant to be taken seriously."

At this point, no one at the Post-Dispatch had actually heard the broadcast or obtained a transcript. Neither, by their own admission, had any of the FOP officials involved in demanding the DJs' termination.

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."

More by Mike Seely

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