On the front page of today’s New York Times is a story on the prodigious corporate funding of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the tax-exempt group that supports business-friendly policies and has been an aggressive spender in recent (and upcoming) elections. The story, by Eric Lipton, Mike McIntire, and Don Van Natta Jr., focuses on the secrecy surrounding donors to the Chamber, which the group is not required by law to report.
But money isn’t the only area where associations can be kept quiet. For the past several years, the Chamber has also invested in its own publishing platform, running a network of local publications (print and online) that focus on legal issues in areas where business interests have been critical of the decisions of local courts. It also runs an online-only national publication called Legal Newsline.
“We’re beginning to see advocacy groups, nonprofit groups, mission-directed groups, not always evil by any means, having a particular truth that they see and a particular lens through which they look at news and they want to report news through that lens,” Jan Schaffer told me. She’s executive director of J-Lab at American University, and she pointed to Kaiser Health News, owned by the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Foreign Affairs, owned by the Council on Foreign Relations, as examples.
But there’s a big difference between the sites Schaffer mentioned — which happily promote their nonprofit parents — and the Chamber’s sites, which are published by a subsidiary called the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform. Nowhere on the main pages of the Chamber sites is the Institute or Chamber mentioned. In 2008, the most recent year available, the Institute spent $41 million (pdf) on various activities pushing for the cause of tort reform. At the same time, the Institute’s reporters are covering civil cases with large settlements and other tort reform-related news — and working for news outlets set up in some of the nation’s most tort-friendly jurisdictions.
Along with the national site, the Chamber-affiliated local publications are all set in areas where plaintiffs’ attorneys have had success with class-action suits and other litigation. There’s little else that would connect the states of Louisiana and West Virginia and the areas around East St. Louis, Illinois (Madison and St. Clair counties) and Beaumont, Texas. To give an idea of the flavor of the publications, here’s the about page for the Louisiana site, the Louisiana Record:
To be sure, whether one agrees or disagrees with the happenings at our courthouses, no one should believe that what happens at them is the norm. This year, Louisiana’s courts were ranked among the most unfair in the nation, according to a survey (Harris Interactive) of top corporate lawyers and business executives.
Many accomplished local plaintiffs’ attorneys and erstwhile activists would argue that, in fact, they are the great leaders of their time, holding that Louisiana has it right and everyone else has it wrong.
On the flipside, many who drive this country’s economic engine — small businessmen, medical professionals and corporate executives — argue the opposite. They hold that plaintiffs’ attorneys use frivolous lawsuits to game the system and pillage private property. If every state were like ours, they say, America would be out of business.
At The Louisiana Record, we hope to provide an objective view of the playing field as well as an active forum for both sides of the argument so that all of us can decide for ourselves.
Similar phrasing appears at the West Virginia, Madison, and Southeast Texas sites. (The Madison site says a “welcome mat to class action filings and lottery-like awards have helped create a ‘judicial hellhole’ reputation.”)
The mention of a Harris Interactive survey refers to the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform’s annual State Liability Systems Ranking Study, which gave low marks to the jurisdictions where the Chamber publications are based.
The publisher of the sites, Brian Timpone, says the Chamber is no different than any other parent company. “The Chamber is like most media owners — it stays out of editorial operations,” Timpone told me over email. “That was the deal upon which we agreed when I started the first Record in 2004 (I was a community newspaper publisher then) and it remains the deal today. Myself and my editorial team have full editorial control. There is no direction from ownership — thematic or otherwise.”
Timpone called his disclosure policy — explaining who owns the publication when the Chamber is specifically mentioned in the story — fair. He said in an email that that is when it is the best time to tell readers because it is “communicated in a useful, proper context.”
When asked for comment, a Chamber spokesperson said in a statement that it “has great respect for the norms of professional journalism. Our professional publisher, editors and reporters have strong journalistic backgrounds and skills, and operate under the highest professional standards and conduct.” The Chamber statement said it is not involved in the day-to-day of the operations, and is hands off when it comes to editorial control.
Legal Newsline has the look and feel of a trade publication, the kind read by members of the legal community, lawmakers, and traditional reporters looking for story ideas. Several journalists I spoke with said they thought the Chamber should be more upfront about its connection, even if the journalists working for them publish accurate stories.
“I think they should just put on the site that they’re the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,” Mary Jacoby, the editor-in-chief of a legal publication called Main Justice, told me. (I wrote about Main Justice in May.) Jacoby is particularly irked because story subjects on the Chamber’s sites sometimes overlap with hers, which covers the Justice Department. Several of her reporters linked to Legal Newsline in their stories before she was aware that the site wasn’t an independent trade publication. “It’s news, it’s true that they have real news and they have real reporters, but they’re writing it from an agenda and trying to underline certain ideas that they have,” she said.
For example, the current top story at the Southeast Texas Record is “With retirement announced, tort reform groups praise Judge Jack’s impact.” An excerpt:
[Retiring U.S. District Judge Janis Graham] Jack’s 2005 decision also “laid a corner stone for future investigations of abuse of the civil justice system,” according to Darren McKinney, spokesperson for the American Tort Reform Association.
“We here at ATRA…are admiring of Judge Jack’s impact in Texas, which has long been known to be a judicial hellhole,” McKinney said. “Her decision reverberated throughout the nation.”
ATRA is the group that publishes an annual list of “Judicial Hellholes,” which it describes as “America’s most unfair jurisdictions.” Each of the areas covered by the Chamber publications is mentioned in the executive summary of the list — West Virginia as a “Hellhole,” Madison County, Ill., and the Gulf Coast of Texas on a Hellhole “Watch List,” and Louisiana’s Orleans and Jefferson parishes as “other areas to watch.”
The Southeast Texas Record story also features approving quotes from Texans for Lawsuit Reform and Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse, two groups that share the Chamber’s perspective on tort reform. But because the story does not mention the Chamber specifically, it carries no disclosure.
On the web, disclosure is perhaps even more important than in print. Readers aren’t necessarily making an active choice to consume information on Legal Newsline; as with any site on the web, visitors often arrive via search or a link from a mainstream source. USA Today, for example, has linked to articles on the site on its automatically aggregated topic pages. USA Today’s online editor Chet Czarniak said he’d take a look at the Chamber sites to see if the reader needs more of a heads up. “It’s been a while since we’ve done a full review” of the sources used in the topic pages, Czarniak said. “I think frankly, I’m now curious about the sites we have out there.”
This isn’t the first time the disclosure policy has come into question. In 2007, the Southeast Texas Record came under fire from plaintiff attorneys who said the print edition, which is distributed at the local courthouse, was a dubious attempt to influence jurors.
Nonprofit journalism is booming, at the local and national level. When our Jim Barnett was trying to suss out what makes a nonprofit news outlet “legit” in his eyes, he cited financial transparency as a key element. Looking at the front page of one of the Chamber’s publications, that transparency is sometimes hard to see.