What would Publius think? The Washington Post’s Jeffrey H. Birnbaum reports that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has stealthly (“nowhere was it reported (the USCOC) created it”) launched a weekly newspaper, The Madison Record, in Madison County, Illinois, that reports on one subject: lawsuits filed in southern Illinois against businesses. Why? “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. Birnbaum reports that nowhere in the paper is it revealed that the paper is partly owned by the Chamber.
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.
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.’ “
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.
As it has been outed (by a traditional newspaper journalist, no less, not a blogger), The Madison County Record’s website has now posted a story about being “splashed onto the front page of the liberal-leaning Washington Post.”
As for the whole “lines blurring between media and lobbying” and the “cringing,” indignant calls for full disclosure, I find there to be a significant, and somewhat ironic, precedent in American history that suggests the authors of the U.S. Constitution would have absolutely no problem with what the Chamber of Commerce is doing.
(Disclosure: I am associated with a company that publishes numerous publications for lobbying organizations and membership associations. However, everyone of these publications are clearly — and prominently — disclosed and labeled. That said, I’m still a big fan of the authors of the U.S. Constitution and feel that if they thought it was okay to publish annonymous papers that advocated why the nation needs a free press, then who am I (obvioiusly not a journalism professor) to argue with them?)