by David Lyle/Media Matters
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Legal Reform (ILR) pursues a campaign against laws that hold corporations accountable, hammering home familiar buzzwords such as "frivolous lawsuits" and "jackpot justice." It also owns newspapers and an online news service that cover those very issues. Recently that service, Legal Newsline, reported on a Supreme Court case in which the Chamber of Commerce filed a brief without disclosing the site's relationship to the Chamber in the article. This failure to disclose its parent's interest in the matter highlights the ethical issues and potential conflicts arising from an advocacy organization like ILR owning a news organization.
The Legal Newsline article in question dealt with the Supreme Court's recent decision in Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham Corp, another in a series of 5-4 pro-corporate decisions by the Court's Republican-appointed majority. The Chamber of Commerce, as it often does, filed a brief in case, arguing for the position the majority adopted, that pharmaceutical sales representatives are not eligible for overtime pay. The Legal Newsline article recites the facts of the case and summarizes the majority opinion (but not the dissent). The article does not mention that the Chamber of Commerce -- which through the Institute for Legal Reform owns Legal Newsline -- was involved in the litigation and took a position in favor of the employer in the case.
Legal Newsline discloses its ownership by Institute for Legal Reform on its "About Us" page. The disclosure is not, however, obvious to the reader of an article on the site, who would only see it if he or she clicks the "About Us" link and reads to the sixth paragraph of the statement found there. Even this limited disclosure was apparently recently added by the site; a report on ILR issued in October 2011 stated that ILR's ownership of Legal Newsline was not disclosed on the site at all as of October 18, 2011.
In a 2010 article on the ILR's media properties for the Nieman Journalism Lab, Laura McGann wrote that the publisher of the sites has stated that their disclosure policy is to "explain who owns the publication when the Chamber is specifically mentioned in the story." By its terms, such a policy would not apply in a case such as the Legal Newline article on the Christopher decision, in which the Chamber was involved in the case but not mentioned in the article. But regardless of whether it violated its own policy, Legal Newsline still reported on a lawsuit in which the parent of its owner had taken a position without disclosing that information.
The Chamber said in a statement to McGann that it is not involved with the day-to-day operations of the publications, and is hands off when it comes to editorial control.
McGann described how Legal Newsline's reporting can shape the work of journalists writing on the legal and corporate accountability issues it covers:
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.
McGann also points out that "[o]n 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."
Given that, Legal Newsline should disclose its ownership by the Institute for Legal Reform when writing about cases in which ILR and the Chamber are involved.