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'Incredulous' tone of voice alone insufficent for libel claim

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'Incredulous' tone of voice alone insufficent for libel claim 12/14/98 ILLINOIS--A federal district court in Chicago in early November dismissed…

‘Incredulous’ tone of voice alone insufficent for libel claim

12/14/98

ILLINOIS–A federal district court in Chicago in early November dismissed a claim filed by the owners of a Chicago liquor store who alleged that a local television reporter defamed them when he used a skeptical tone of voice in his story about alcohol and minors.

Judge David Coar concluded that WFLD reporter Larry Yellen’s allegedly sarcastic and skeptical tone of voice could not, alone, support a defamation claim.

Yellen had stated on the air that the liquor store owners’ deliverymen told him they had carded a minor and discovered that she was underage, then left a keg of beer with her temporarily and only to avoid a parking ticket. The owners of Eastgate Wine and Spirits complained that Yellen had defamed them with “incredulous and skeptical” descriptions of their deliverymen’s statements.

They asserted that his manner of speaking “falsely gave the impression, innuendo, inducement, and inflection” that the deliverymen were lying and that an illegal transaction had occurred.

In early September, Coar considered the store owners’ claim for defamation per quod — defamation that involves statements that are not defamatory on their face, but have a defamatory meaning only when considered with extrinsic facts — and refused to dismiss the store owners’ suit.

At that time, Coar found it improbable that intonation alone could support a defamation claim, but reserved judgment and invited the parties to the case to present him with additional arguments on the matter. The parties did so, and Coar subsequently concluded that Illinois precedent mandates that when the only extrinsic fact alleged is a reporter’s skeptical tone of voice, a defamation per quod claim cannot survive.

The owners sued WFLD in federal court in Chicago after the station’s Jan. 26, 1997 story on alcohol and minors showed Eastgate deliverymen placing a keg of beer in the vestibule of an address where only a minor, who was working with WFLD and who failed to produce identification when asked by the deliverymen to do so, was present. After the girl failed to produce proper identification, the deliverymen were shown accepting cash from her, and then returning to a double-parked car.

Yellen and a cameraman confronted one of the deliverymen as he was returning to the car. In his report, Yellen stated that he and his cameraman had interrupted the delivery but that the deliverymen insisted they had carded the girl and were not delivering alcohol to a minor, but were going to wait in the car, in order to avoid a parking ticket, until an adult returned.

The store owners alleged Yellen’s intonations gave the false impression that the deliverymen were lying, but never alleged that Yellen’s statements were defamatory absent those intonations.

The night after the original story aired on WFLD, the station ran a follow-up story in which Yellen stated that out of the nine liquor stores surveyed for the original story, Eastgate was the only store whose delivery drivers asked for identification, realized the purchaser was a minor, and refused to complete the delivery. (Hanash, v. WFLD Fox Television; Media Counsel: Steven P. Mandell, Chicago)