A series of events involving a local liberal blogger, a San Francisco
conservative radio station and the reaction of two of the larger corporate
advertisers in the country -- Bank of America and MasterCard -- is
revealing how slippery freedom of speech has become in the digital age.
The tale of Spocko, a self-described "fifth-tier" blogger who lives in San
Francisco, exemplifies how one person with a computer and an Internet hookup
can challenge the views of a major media corporation -- and what a media
corporation will do to stop him.
For the past year, Spocko has been e-mailing advertisers of KSFO-AM with
audio clips from its shows and asking sponsors to examine what they're
supporting. Some sponsors have pulled their ads, after hearing clips like one
of KSFO's Lee Rodgers suggesting that a protester be "stomped to death right
there. Just stomp their bleeping guts out."
Now, bloggers and media freedom advocates are concerned about the legal
reaction from Disney/ABC-owned KSFO. Shortly before Christmas, an ABC lawyer
demanded that Spocko remove audio clips from his blog on the grounds that
Spocko's posting of KSFO content was illegal. Digital freedom advocates counter
that the clips constitute fair use and worry that critical voices could be
silenced by corporations threatening legal action for violation of copyright
"That's inevitably been the modus operandi of the media companies in these
types of situations," said Ronald Coleman, legal counsel for the Media Bloggers
Association, which provides legal support to bloggers. "It doesn't matter the
size of the blogger."
Spocko, who asked that his real name not be used because he fears
retaliation, is a hobby blogger; he says he gets 15 visitors a day -- and no
advertisers -- to his political and media criticism blog.
A little over a year ago, he became so annoyed by the "violent" tone of
commentary on KSFO-AM that he and some of his readers e-mailed more than three
dozen of the station's advertisers.
"I want to emphasize that if you withdraw your ads you aren't limiting
their free speech, just removing your paid support of it," Spocko wrote to
In a statement Wednesday, KSFO program director Ken Berry said, "Many of
the remarks attributed to KSFO on the Internet are old, lacking context and, in
some cases, outright lies. When our hosts have stepped over the line, they have
apologized and have been reprimanded."
Berry declined to specify Wednesday which remarks were old or lies or who
was reprimanded. Instead, at noon Friday, KSFO will pre-empt regular
programming to allow four KSFO personalities cited in Spocko's e-mails to
answer questions on-air about the controversy from the public, bloggers and
media. "I don't tell people what to say, but I do think there will be some mea
culpas there," Berry said.
Berry said KSFO will invite Spocko to appear on the air, but the blogger
has declined such invitations in the past, saying in an e-mail to The
Chronicle, "I'd be just another revenue generating 'event' for them to their
audience, and they would love that kind of 'controversy' because it would MAKE
them money and they still had control."
The station didn't have control over what Spocko sent to sponsors.
Among the clips circulated to advertisers was one of morning show co-host
Melanie Morgan saying of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, "We've got a bull's-eye
painted on her big laughing eyes." Morgan said she has never called for
anybody's assassination and was speaking merely in political terms, as she is
researching Pelosi's background for a book proposal. "Yes, this is a freedom of
speech issue, and this individual is entitled to say what he wants to," said
Morgan. "But he's trying to take away my livelihood, and I'm not trying to take
After his Internet service provider received a letter from ABC lawyers,
Spocko pulled down the 30 audio clips on his blog. But supporters have taken up
his cause on influential liberal blogs like DailyKos and firedoglake, and
reposted the clips all over the Web, arguing that Spocko's freedom of digital
speech must be protected. A supportive YouTube video featuring some of the
clips drew more than 31,000 viewers within days.
"One thing the Internet is good for is holding people accountable for
their speech," said Karl Frisch, a spokesman for the liberal watchdog group
Media Matters. For months, the organization has posted an online petition
urging media outlets to not give a platform to "conservative hate merchants"
An attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation said Spocko didn't do
anything that millions of bloggers don't do every day: post commentary
alongside slices of copyrighted material.
"This is prototypical fair use of copyrighted material," said Matt
Zimmerman, an attorney with the San Francisco civil liberties and digital
privacy organization. EFF is not representing Spocko, but has reviewed his
situation and is monitoring it. "Bloggers shouldn't have to be worried about
being sued every time they post a screen shot from 'The Simpsons.' "
Spocko described himself as a communications professional, but is not a
journalist and does not work for a KSFO competitor and is not a former or
current station employee. Most of the clips he circulated were pulled from a
morning drive-time show on KSFO co-hosted by Morgan and Rodgers and from an
evening program hosted by Brian Sussman.
In one audio clip making the rounds, Sussman tells a caller: "I would take
it that you're probably Muslim."
"No," the caller said, "I'm independent. I don't subscribe."
"Why don't you right now say Allah is a whore and that would prove it to
me," Sussman said.
After receiving an e-mail from Spocko's group last spring about the
station's content, KSFO advertiser Bank of America reviewed other programming
on the station. Eventually, the corporation pulled its advertising after
hearing material it felt was polarizing. MasterCard, which received similar
e-mails about KSFO's programming, also decided not to advertise again on
The Michigan Economic Development Corp. asked its ad buyer to exclude KSFO
if it purchases time on the ABC radio network. Said spokesman Michael Shore on
Wednesday: "The speech was about as offensive as one could imagine."
Spocko said it would be dangerous to dismiss the comments he's heard on
KSFO as the sort of ratings-boosting hyperbole endemic to talk radio, even if
it's uttered in the name of entertainment.
"It's entertainment until somebody is attacked," Spocko said. "Until it
crosses the line, which I think this does."
© Copyright 2007 San Francisco Chronicle