In This Corner: The Case of Laura Robitschek vs. Ray Appleton

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Ray Appleton is the voice for many right-wing causes such as this 2009 rally at Fresno City Hall to demand more subsidies and welfare for corporate farmers.

By Richard Stone

Author’s note: Radio station KMJ is the most powerful and far-reaching station in the area. Ray Appleton is the local face of the station and a full-on participant in the station’s regimen of what some people call “hate radio.” This means 90-plus hours per week of prime-time programming featuring hosts who unanimously denigrate women, immigrants, gays, ethnic minorities and liberals without regard to fact or fairness.

In 2010, I joined the Committee for Civility and Accuracy in Media (CCAM), which was trying to publicize to those unfamiliar with KMJ the actual content, and the potential social damage, of the station’s prime-time programming, and to seek from the station a modicum of diversity of opinion. Despite more than a thousand signatures on petitions asking for “fairness and accountability,” the station management refused to discuss the issues, citing the programmers’ free speech rights and their own freedom to conduct business as they see fit. Appleton himself derided and misrepresented CCAM’s mission, leading to a spate of threatening and/or pornographic communiqués from his followers.

With this unpleasant experience as background, I received with interest an e-mail from Laura Robitschek stating her intention to sue KMJ and Appleton. The following is the result of my investigation into her allegations.

By the time this appears, it may have already been reported in local media that Appleton and his employer, KMJ-Radio, have been sued by Robitschek, mother of popular mixed martial arts fighter Cole Escovedo.

I am not in a position to judge the merits of the case, especially since Appleton and Patty Hixson, the general manager of KMJ, say they are constrained by company policy from commenting. But I have interviewed Robitschek and Escovedo; have read transcripts of the communications between Appleton and Robitschek and the Facebook exchanges between Escovedo and Appleton loyalists; have read the accusations filed by Appleton with the police against Robitschek and the resulting police report; have read the text of Robitschek’s suit; and have experienced for myself the negative impact of Appleton’s on-air pontificating. Holding all this in mind, I offer my take on the significance of the events that have transpired.)

Background

Escovedo is a locally based cage fighter who achieved an international ranking before having an accident and a subsequent illness that left him incapacitated. The prognosis was that he’d never fight again. But through persistence and effort he regained his strength and was making a comeback, with enough success to earn a high-profile fight in Las Vegas. Robitschek, his mother, acting as unofficial promoter for Escovedo, had been enlisting local media to follow his comeback story, made more newsworthy by his ongoing charity work with Children’s Hospital.

With the Vegas fight coming up, Appleton finally agreed to do an interview on his daily show. However, the interview never happened. According to Escovedo, this was because he is obligated by contract to follow the interview dictates of the organization he fights with and they had him engaged in other interviews at the time he was supposed to be on KMJ. I have not verified this story, but there was certainly no reason for him to intentionally slight Appleton.

Nevertheless, Appleton (though acknowledging it was the organization’s responsibility more than Escovedo’s) railed on air against the failed interview, resulting in a flurry of Facebook entries about Escovedo such as “What a jack-off” and “He’s had all his brains knocked out, the fool knows no better.”

Learning of these, Escovedo attempted to apologize on Facebook and assure everyone of his gratitude for past support and his continued loyalty to Fresno and Children’s Hospital. A few listeners took this in and urged others to relent, but the scathing commentary continued for a while.

Shortly thereafter, Robitschek tried to call in to Appleton’s show on another matter altogether, but although they were taking callers she was cut off. Later, while out driving, she heard on KMJ that Appleton was broadcasting live from a Clovis restaurant. Being in the vicinity, she stopped by to ask Appleton why he’d treated her and her son so badly. She was, she felt, brushed off again, whereupon she went out and texted him, “You should not have dead-miked me, asshole.” His return text read, “Dead-mike you? What in the fuck is that, bitch?”

Robitschek sent a copy of Appleton’s text message to station manager Hixson, who initially expressed distress at Appleton’s language, though I would surmise she didn’t know about Robitschek’s provocative prior message. In any event, it appears that after talking with Appleton she decided no follow-up was called for. Appleton, however, did.

Appleton filed a complaint with the police claiming that Robitschek had made threats against his safety, and (he told the police) knowing of Escovedo’s martial arts abilities, he felt endangered. Consequently, the police showed up at Robitschek’s door to question her about the allegations, which she denied. When it turned out that Appleton claimed to have lost the written and recorded evidence of the threats, and the situation appeared to have cooled down, the police determined no action on their part was required.

But Robitschek—who has had legal experience—felt her rights had been violated by Appleton’s actions, which she believed were meant to intimidate her. (She says this interpretation is supported by the fact that Appleton did not make a police report immediately after the purported threats were made, but only after Robitschek had contacted Hixson.) The lawsuit is her answer.

Commentary

To repeat, I must leave the legal merits of the case to the courts. Still, a few things seem evident to me:

  • Escovedo’s story is remarkable, and after meeting him I would judge him to be an extremely earnest and conscientious young man. Whatever the circumstances of the blown interview, he did not deserve the reprobation Appleton aroused by his on-air petulance.
  • This was no fluke. The atmosphere produced by the broadcast antics of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and local imitators like Appleton are intended to engender reactive anger and animosity among listeners, and are directed by the whims and ideologies of the hosts, with no regard to truth or justice. And these fearless opinion-peddlers take no responsibility for the whirlwinds they foster; after all, they like to say, “It’s just entertainment.”
  • Despite the provocation of being called “asshole,” Appleton’s reaction in a quasi-public medium as a public figure who aspires to influence if not respect was puerile and vindictive. A response from his station manager would have seemed in order.
  • For Appleton to involve the police without, so far, producing any hard evidence beyond the “a-word” being brandished makes him seem if not an asshole then perhaps kin to that local politician whose response to a DUI stop was, “Do you know who I am?” To all appearances, here is someone using his media-built reputation to mobilize public resources in a personal vendetta.

Based on the evidence presented so far, I would hypothesize that Appleton’s sense of vanity and entitlement led him to badly misjudge his rights—and his opponent. And if he thinks my statements misrepresent him, hey, I’m just trying to entertain.

P.S. In Appleton’s e-mails to me explaining why he wouldn’t comment and stating that he knew nothing about the Community Alliance (i.e., we’re not worth responding to), he ended, “Take care.” I wonder: Should I take that as a sign of affection, or as something else?

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Richard Stone is on the boards of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence and the Community Alliance and is a member of Citizens for Civility and Accountability in Media (CCAM). Contact him at richard2662559@yahoo.com.