The Madison County Record, an Illinois weekly newspaper launched in September that bills itself as the county's legal journal, reports on one subject: the state courts in southern Illinois. A recent front page carried an assortment of stories about lawsuits against businesses. In one, a woman sought $15,000 in damages for breaking her nose at a haunted house. In another, a woman sued a restaurant for $50,000 after she hurt her teeth on a chicken breast.
Nowhere was it reported that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce created the Record as a weapon in its multimillion-dollar campaign against lawyers who file those kinds of suits.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce created the Madison County Record.
(The Washington Post)
"We wanted to educate [the people] that their county is the laughingstock of the country" because of the large number of lawsuits filed there, said Stanton D. Anderson, chief legal officer for the chamber, which is a part owner of the Record.
The chamber is one of a growing number of advocacy groups that blur the distinction between legitimate media and propaganda to promote their causes. One group has produced a made-for-TV thriller, intended for a cable network, to dramatize the danger of unprotected nuclear materials. Two lobbying consultancies have set up Web sites on politics and government that direct readers to position papers from pressure groups. The National Rifle Association, which already has a national radio show, is thinking about buying its own radio stations.
Communications scholars cringe at the notion that lobbying groups are obscuring or playing down their participation in publications and programs that push a narrow point of view. "People judge communication by its source so when you deny people full knowledge of that source of information they are losing something important about evaluating the message," said Kathleen Hall Jamison, dean of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication.
Geneva Overholser of the University of Missouri's journalism school's Washington bureau said anything less than thorough disclosure "is deceitful and imbalanced." Otherwise, she said, citizens "don't have enough information to judge" publications or broadcasts.
Anderson said he didn't agonize over ethics when he was thrashing around last spring for a new way to bring attention to the increasing burden class action lawsuits place on companies. He was focused instead on his frustration that Madison Country's court system plays host to more class action lawsuit filings than any other country in the nation -- 106 last year alone.
His brainstorm: buy a newspaper to spotlight the county's courts. Purchasing an existing publication proved too pricey even for the chamber's Institute for Legal Reform, which spent $40 million this year to battle trial lawyers. So he and Thomas J. Donohue, the chamber's president, decided to start a newspaper from scratch.
Through a common acquaintance, Anderson met Brian Timpone, 32, co-owner of a small chain of community newspapers in Illinois. Over the summer, Timpone agreed to become the Record's publisher with the chamber as his silent benefactor. The chamber has poured about $200,000 into the 6,000-circulation broadsheet and expects to invest more, Anderson said.
The chamber hopes the Record's influence will spread beyond Madison County and help push tort reform nationally. Anderson distributes the Record to interested companies and business trade associations. Timpone sells subscriptions to law firms and companies across the nation -- some of which have cases pending in the county. The Record is also online (www.madisonrecord.com).