Most print journalists would agree that publishing statements about businesses and people without solid verification is suicidal and potentially slanderous. Such is the case with Tom Bernard and his potentially slanderous statement that seeks to defame the Village Wok restaurant in Stadium Village. If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you’re probably aware of it: A Village Wok employee ejaculated into a customer’s meal, thereby somehow infecting a patron with herpes.
Writing a newspaper opinion or hard news piece as if the urban legend had credibility would be disastrous to both the writer and the publishing company, and rightfully so. Such irresponsible journalism could seriously jeopardize an entrepreneur’s business.
So why has it been so difficult for the Village Wok to nail Tom Barnard and his KQRS morning crew for supposedly broadcasting the rumor as fact for all the metro area to hear and believe?
First of all, for the sake of saving my own hide, maybe because it’s not true. KQRS is not attempting to verify the validity of the Village Wok comments, which is what most libel defendants attempt to do to ward off punishment. Instead, KQRS lawyers deny the charges altogether: The crew, they say, never said anything about the Village Wok.
So maybe some bored soul dreamed the scenario up and whispered it to William Chan, the restaurant’s owner, for giggles. But this seems unlikely to me, as the allegations are fairly specific in nature. The crew’s comments about the Village Wok were supposedly heard on several different occasions, including a segment of a “best of” show.
Instead, it seems KQRS is taking advantage of a legal loophole specific to the medium of broadcast media. Unlike the newspaper, radio broadcasts cannot be retrieved and perused at your local library. There are no government monitors keeping track of every word uttered daily over the television and radio airwaves. Does this mean the words of radio personalities disappear forever into the big blue after they’ve been said? Not really.
The lack of documentation has given rise to the demand for private broadcast monitoring services. These monitoring services tape all news broadcasts that air on television and radio and then sell certain stories to certain customers. Obviously, this raises some sticky copyright issues.
But so long as monitoring services are not selling their product to, say, morning show die-hards who happened to miss any given show, but instead to PR firms whose clients are interested in what’s been said of them on the news, monitoring services have been sort of OK. That is, not too many production companies have sharpened their teeth for the copyright kill. But this doesn’t mean they can’t, won’t or haven’t.
An Atlanta-based broadcast monitoring service named TV News Clips tried to stand on this legal leg a few years back when Harpo productions, Oprah Winfrey’s notorious corporate tyranosauraus, decided to sue them on a whim.
Due to the relative newness of visual media, many legal issues have yet to be ironed out in regard to copyright infringement. Therefore, the courts don’t recognize the fine-but-significant difference between selling somebody’s artistic property and selling the service of research and documentation. TV News Clips lost the case and went out of business, while Harpo productions stomped forward like Godzilla, with a tiny lump digesting in its belly.
About five years ago, a KSTP lawyer happened to be thumbing through the yellow pages and saw an ad for a news monitoring service that made his eyes light up with little dollar signs. The lawyer called this particular monitoring service and demanded that they stop selling KSTP’s television news shows — or else.
Aware of the legal haziness involved with the issue, the monitoring service complied out of fear. Shortly thereafter, the lawyer died, and with him died the station’s desire to place sanctions on the monitoring service. The monitoring service still sells airings from KSTP, but their relationship remains uneasy.
In short, television and radio stations would rather not spend the time and money trying to maintain libraries of clips and transcripts for the customers who want them. Instead, they transfer customers who call the stations in search of clips and transcripts to the monitoring services, ignoring the legal haziness for their own convenience. But when they make a boo-boo, like Tom Barnard seems to have done, they have the option of attacking the very monitoring services that help them out.
It seems to me this is what’s happening with KQRS and the Village Wok. While the station denies having said anything about the restaurant, Village Wok lawyer Stephen Cooper says they may or may not have transcripts. Seems a strange thing to say, unless Village Wok and whoever sold Village Wok a transcript are worried about being counter-attacked by the defendants. In addition, KQRS happens to be a branch of yet another corporate superpower: Disney Productions.
It seems radio and television stations don’t really have to be held accountable for what they say as do producers of print, because the broadcast medium is fleeting, the government isn’t monitoring them and private monitors find themselves intimidated by legal haziness.
True, a number of witnesses could conceivably convince a jury that they heard Tom Barnard say slanderous things, but wouldn’t it be easier just to see the stupid transcript or listen to the taped segment?
Due to these glaring problems, broadcast monitoring services have formed an association named the International Association of Broadcast Media (IABM). The IABM is currently undergoing talks with the National Association of Broadcasting to iron out some of these issues, but it could be a year before new laws are postulated.
Sadly, for the Village Wok, a mom and pop restaurant — which is becoming more and more of an oddity in this area — one year might be a bit late.
Rob Kuznia’s column appears every Tuesday. Send comments to [email protected]