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Stations Fined for Taping Callers

Two local TV-news operations are in hot water with the Federal Communications Commission for airing telephone calls with people who reporters failed to notify were being taped. One of the violations was for simply taping a voice-mail message with the sound of a caller hanging up.

KNOE Monroe, La., and WEWS Cleveland face fines of $10,000 and $6,000, respectively.

KNOE was sanctioned for a Sept 12 report about corruption among members of the Ouachita Parish Police Jury, the equivalent of a county council. Reporter Ken Booth called the home of Juror Mack Calhoun and recorded only his voice mail message. 

Booth called again on Sept. 25 and Calhoun hung up after the reporter identified himself. KNOE aired the sound of Calhoun hanging up.

WEWS was hit for a Oct. 21, 2003, report about a claim dispute at MedMutual insurance company. Reporter Duane Pohlman called company spokesman Don Olson to request an on-camera interview. WEWS subsequently aired Olson’s refusal to go on-camera.

Although radio station shock jocks are the most frequent recipients of fines for airing taped telephone conversations, sanctions against legitimate news operations are not unheard of.

The taping ban carries no exemption for news, and the FCC says county councilmen and other public officials do not surrender their privacy rights simply by holding office.

Kathleen Kirby, outside counsel to the Radio-Television News Directors Association, says attempts to eliminate the restriction on taped calls have failed in the past.

She says the ban is one more example of broadcasters’ second-class status relative to print reporters, who can quote people with no legal restrictions whatsoever.