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Guest commentary

KNEW finds Peterson guilty

KNEW billboard truck makes its rounds in Redwood City.

KNEW radio wants you and your neighbors to be Scott Peterson’s judge and jury, if not his executioner.

With the trial imminent, KNEW (AM 910), part of the ClearChannel Communications empire, has posted billboards urging people to phone in their opinions on whether Mr. Peterson is guilty, and voting is possible via the station’s Web site as well. At last check, Mr. Peterson was on a fast track to death row.

Richard Knee

Bob Egelko, a long-time legal affairs reporter and law school graduate now with the San Francisco Chronicle is clearly irked with KNEW. “It’s hard enough to try to contribute to public education about the law through daily journalism, and it frosts me that a supposed organ of the same profession seems intent on undermining the purpose of my work and the work of other serious reporters,” he said.

"Maybe this is just restating the obvious, but KNEW seems to be going out of its way to foster misinformation about, and disrespect for, the legal system," said Mr. Egelko. "Like much of talk radio, it’s an exercise in phony populism, and one with an insidious premise that people have enough information to voice a meaningful opinion on guilt or innocents in a capital case, before any evidence has been presented or tested in court. Why bother with technicalities like cross-examination, reasonable doubt, hearsay rules and the rest?”

Dan Garvey, a retired journalism professor at Cal State Long Beach, calls the entire episode “troubling.”

“When prosecutors or defense lawyers decide to try a case in the media, the only possible assumption is that they assume the media coverage will influence the jury. It’s wrong for the media to be willing partners in this game; it corrupts the whole concept of a fair trial,” he said, adding: “It’s even more wrong for members of the media to use events like this to build circulation or audience share. If it’s the murder of the week or Janet Jackson’s right breast, report the damned story and get on with it.”

Neither KNEW nor its parent company responded to my repeated e-mails, but Clear Channel Vice President Joe Cunningham told the San Francisco Chronicle KNEW is a talk-radio station simply responding to overwhelming audience interest in the trial. The station's poll, he argued, is merely reflecting public sentiment about Mr. Peterson's guilt, not making any assertion itself.

Of course the poll is completely unscientific and offers no insight into public opinion.

But Mr. Cunningham's remarks raise another question: Do the mainstream media share in the blame for creating the circumstances under which KNEW could promote itself?

"That’s probably the case,” says Niels Erich a former journalist who still follows issues affecting the profession. “I always wonder what the ‘X factor’ is that propels a particular case to become a Menendez brothers or a Peterson case. I understand celebrity cases, but there must be dozens of Peterson-type cases in a year. One commentator said recently it was a combination of Laci’s smile in the photos and the fact that (her disappearance) happened on Christmas Eve, but I have no idea,” says Erich, now a business public relations consultant.

“You can’t even call it ‘infotainment,’ -- it’s more like speculatainment,” comments media critic Norman Solomon. Asked if he was referring to the trial coverage, the poll or both, he said, “I’d say both -- with the KNEW poll being a (tiny) subset of the mainstream coverage."

It’s easy to see why the Peterson episode has drawn so much media attention. First, it has the lurid elements that make for a TV drama; in fact, as I write this, the USA network is getting ready to air one about the case.

Second, especially for TV reporters, covering a murder case is easier than, say, explaining how the widening gap between rich and poor is tearing at the nation’s social fabric.

I’ve always been taught that an essential part of journalism is explaining to readers, viewers or listeners what a given story means to their lives -- why they need to know about it. Reporters haven’t done that with the Peterson story.

As for KNEW’s poll, certainly, it’s ill-conceived, precisely for the reasons that Mr. Egelko laid out. But lay citizens aren’t the only ones prone to make premature judgments. Two summers ago, my wife and I were invited to a Superior Court in San Francisco as mail-theft victims; several times, defense attorneys had to remind the judge that their clients were alleged perpetrators.

P.S. If you want to voice your opinion about the KNEW poll, there’s a feedback page on the station’s Web site. In addition, you can e-mail L. Lowry Mays and Mark P. Mays, respectively the chairman/CEO and president/COO of parent ClearChannel, at LowryMays@ClearChannel.com and MarkPMays@ClearChannel.com.

Richard Knee is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist and a member of the GradetheNews.org Community Advisory Board. E-mail him at rak0408@earthlink.net.

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