Not Content With Ads, U.S. Chamber Investing in Making the News Too
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce isn’t just using its cash to flood the airwaves, reports the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard this afternoon; it’s also been investing in its own publishing platform, running both a national site and a network of local publications that focus on legal issues (like tort reform) in areas where the business community has decried the decisions of local courts. It’s part of a growing trend of nonprofit groups getting involved in publishing, the only difference being — you guessed it — the Chamber doesn’t actively disclose its involvement in the funding and promotion of these news sites:
“We’re beginning to see advocacy groups, nonprofit groups, mission-directed groups, not always evil by any means, having a particular truth that they see and a particular lens through which they look at news and they want to report news through that lens,” Jan Schaffer told me. She’s executive director of J-Lab at American University, and she pointed to Kaiser Health News, owned by the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Foreign Affairs, owned by the Council on Foreign Relations, as examples.
But there’s a big difference between the sites Schaffer mentioned — which happily promote their nonprofit parents — and the Chamber’s sites, which are published by a subsidiary called the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform. Nowhere on the main pages of the Chamber sites is the Institute or Chamber mentioned. In 2008, the most recent year available, the Institute spent $41 million (pdf) on various activities pushing for the cause of tort reform. At the same time, the Institute’s reporters are covering civil cases with large settlements and other tort reform-related news — and working for news outlets set up in some of the nation’s most tort-friendly jurisdictions.
Reached for comment, the publisher of the sites, Brian Timpone, said the Chamber is no different from any other media parent company — maintaining a hands-off approach to editorial operations. But the Chamber is pinpointing its news coverage in areas its own U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform’s annual State Liability Systems Ranking Study has highlighted as among the worst in the country for doing business.
Especially in an online context, the Nieman Lab notes, when other news sources are beginning to routinely link to the Chamber-sponsored coverage without knowledge of its involvement, the issue of groups like the Chamber getting into the creation of news becomes more fraught.