A radio consumer advice Talker told a caller that a business was lying to him, leading the damaged business to come after the Talker – but the Ninth Circuit found for the defense. The Talker was Westwood One’s Tom Martino.
The incident involved a caller complaining about a boat purchase. The caller complained that the craft had been suffering repeated breakdowns, and that the dealer, based in Oregon, had promised a refund only to declare the problems fixed and pull back the refund offer. A producer on the show contacted the dealer, and was referred to the manufacturer, then back to the dealer again.
The upshot is that Martino told the caller that the retailer was “lying” and that the product “sucks.”
The retailers sued Martino and the network for “defamation, false light invasion of privacy, intentional interference with economic relations, and intentional interference with prospective economic advantage,” according to the Metropolitan News Enterprise.
However, the court found that even though Martino was accepting the caller’s version of the story as true, he was merely expressing an opinion of what the caller said, not making a statement of fact.
The court said that in the context of the high-intensity, confrontational program, “contains many of the elements that would reduce the audience’s expectation of learning an objective fact: drama, hyperbolic language, an opinionated and arrogant host, and heated controversy.”
The retailer said it immediately received phoned threats, jeers from passing cars and estimates it lost $600K in business. It is not expected to appeal. In fact, this was an unsuccessful attempt on their part to get an earlier ruling in Martino’s favor overturned.
A reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “Don’t bother suing for slander, because no one reasonably expects objective facts from the typical talk show host.”
RBR/TVBR observation: Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing, but it should not be used to inflict material harm on another citizen. If we’ve gotten to the point where broadcasters can skate in a legal case on the presumption of permissible hyperbolic speech, and that citizen’s should expect to take broadcast statements with five pounds of salt, where have we gotten?