A Dec. 6 article about groups blurring the line between media and advocacy incorrectly identified Kathleen Hall Jamieson and misspelled her last name. She is the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. (Published 12/7/04)
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.
"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).
Neither Anderson nor Timpone see any need for the paper to disclose in its pages that the chamber is an owner. Timpone said the chamber doesn't dictate the paper's news content and he defends the stories he runs as genuine news. He said he chose not to divulge the Record's connection to the chamber in print because "I was afraid we'd be prejudged. I thought, 'Let people judge us by our actions.' "
At the same time, Anderson doesn't conceal his pleasure at the newspaper's obsession with reporting about the filing of seemingly frivolous class action and other lawsuits. The Record even maintains a running tally of class action filings on its front page. The Record "has a point of view," conceded Anderson, who keeps a framed copy of his editorial in the Record's inaugural edition on his office wall.
Timpone admitted: "I'm a biased guy. I'm a Republican."
Depending on how well the Record performs, Anderson said, the chamber plans to launch similar newspapers in counties that the pro-business lobby considers to be problems, particularly in West Virginia.
The National Threat Initiative (NTI) is trying a different medium to get out its message: TV drama. With the MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, the three-year-old advocacy group co-founded by former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) has bankrolled a one-hour movie tentatively titled "Out of the Barn." It stars former senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), a professional actor, as a U.S. president who confronts terrorists armed with a purloined nuclear device -- precisely the kind of scenario that the NTI pushes to prevent.
The program is fictional but was designed to open viewers' eyes to what the NTI sees as the very real danger posed by unsecured nuclear materials. An NTI official said it was Nunn's idea to make the cause more gripping by creating a drama. The show was written and directed by Ben Goddard, the media consultant who pioneered the use of commercials as a lobbying tool with "Harry and Louise." His groundbreaking TV ads were instrumental in killing President Bill Clinton's health care plan in 1994.
Long-form dramas that promote real-life issues, Goddard said, could well become the next rage in TV lobbying. "Out of the Barn," he said, is "my new Harry and Louise." NTI is negotiating with a cable network to run the program early next year, Goddard said.
At the moment, the film notes briefly in its credits that it was paid for by NTI and the foundations. However, the network that might air the show is considering adding interviews with Nunn and other NTI supporters, Goddard said. Another version of the show to be distributed free and through video stores will also include conversations with Nunn and Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), who is on NTI's board.
On the Internet, Congress.org has been attracting a growing number of people who care about government and politics. This year it drew 169,000 page views a day on average, up from just 62,000 last year, according to Mark West, a senior vice president of Fairfax-based Capitol Advantage LLC, which runs the Web site. The site offers information about legislation, lawmakers and the White House. Readers can also use Congress.org to e-mail federal, state and local elected officials.
At the same time, the Web site subtly provides a forum for Capitol Advantage's hundreds of lobbying clients, which range from AARP, the senior citizens' lobby, to the American Bankers Association. Under the heading "Issues and Action," readers can click on topics ranging from agriculture to women's issues. They then see a long list of action alerts written by lobbying groups and designed to persuade voters to contact government officials.
The site was established as a public service, West said. But it also "is a way of allowing advocacy groups to reach a broader audience than they'd otherwise be able to reach." It apparently has worked. The "alerts" were read more than half a million times this year, West said.
Another consultant wants to lure an even larger audience. District-based Issue Dynamics Inc. (IDI) recently formed Policy.net, which bills itself as "your one source for political and public policy news." As a come-on to general-interest readers, the site carries news articles as well as "action alerts." IDI President Samuel A. Simon calls Policy.net a combination "promotion-public service" because "it can benefit a lot of people and, obviously, there's commercial interest for us."
The National Rifle Association believes more lobbying groups will mimic traditional media formats or buy them outright to disseminate their viewpoints. If the NRA buys radio stations it won't bother to label them with its name. "We wouldn't need to any more than NBC needs a disclaimer that it's General Electric-produced or than ABC needs a disclaimer saying it's Disney-produced," said Wayne LaPierre Jr., the NRA's executive director.
"I hope everybody gets into the media business and, I think, many interest groups will," LaPierre said. "We have as much right to be at the table delivering news and information to the American public as anyone else does."