The US Chamber of Commerce is quietly developing its own network of media outlets to push for changes to the law that would make life easier for corporations, says a report from Harvard University's Nieman Journalism Lab.
According to the Lab's Laura McGann, in the past few years a subsidiary of the Chamber has built a network of business-focused print and online publications across the US with the intention of pushing for tort reform -- changes to the law that would make it more difficult to sue corporations for wrongdoing, among other things.
McGann reports that in 2008, the last year for which data is publicly available, the chamber spent $41 million on campaigning against tort reform. Its publications -- which do not identify themselves as sponsored by the chamber on their sites -- have been "critical of the decisions of local courts" when it came to corporate law.
The news comes as many critics of the Chamber grow increasingly alarmed over its spending on political ads in the current election campaign. The group has said it plans to spend $75 million on the current election cycle. This year through September, the Chamber spent a record $144 million on lobbying.
A report in the New York Times last week chronicled multi-million-dollar donations to the group from such corporations as Chevron Texaco, Dow Chemical and Goldman Sachs.
Among the Chamber's publications are Legal Newsline and a number of local publications, including the Louisiana Record, the St. Louis-area Madison Record, the Southeast Texas Record and the West Virginia Record.
Legal Newsline's "about us" page makes no reference to the US Chamber or its subsidiary that funds the publications, the US Chamber Institute for Legal Reform.
But the Louisiana Record's "about us" page hints at the paper's editorial direction:
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....
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.
The sites' publisher, Brian Timpone, told the Nieman Lab that the Chamber's involvement in the publications doesn't affect editorial decisions.
“The Chamber is like most media owners — it stays out of editorial operations,” Timpone said.
But McGann points to news articles that suggest the publications are on side with the Chamber on tort reform. In one article at the Southeast Texas Record, a spokesperson for the American Tort Reform Association is quoted as saying that Texas is a "judicial hellhole." And in 2007, the paper's publisher was questioned over whether he had attempted to influence jurors by handing out copies of his publication in a courthouse.
Earlier this month, the Chamber was criticized for sponsoring an event that instructed businesses on how to outsource US jobs. And the Democratic Party accused the Republican-leaning Chamber of "stealing the election" because of its use of foreign money in campaign spending.
ThinkProgress ran a series of articles exposing the Chamber's donations from foreign corporations, some of which have reportedly gone into a general fund that pays for political ads. But other observers point out that both sides in the elections have taken money from foreign sources.