Friday, February 16, 2007

ConsumerAffairs.com - Front? Legit? A Front but Disclosed?

An interesting story from the Media Research Center-formed CNSNews.com (h/t B.S.) about the ConsumerAffairs.com website.  The main idea:

A self-described consumer watchdog website that forwards complaints to at least one plaintiffs' attorney has helped boost consumer lawsuits by trial lawyers and has been a source for negative media reports on various companies. The organization is now facing litigation from disgruntled firms that claim it is misrepresenting itself and its motives.

ConsumerAffairs.com, a for-profit website operating at least partly on ad revenue, appears to be a news site. It was started by former journalist Jim Hood and boasts a stable of accomplished contributors.

It looks like a typical website, but as consumer advocates often warn: Read the fine print. In this case, the fine print can be found at the bottom of certain pages on the site.

According to the organization's site, it works "in association with" lawyers, namely Horwitz, Horwitz & Associates in Illinois, but also with Joan E. Lisante in Washington, D.C. and Virginia, who according to Hood no longer practices law but frequently writes for the site.

Two lawsuits are pending or imminent alleging defamation and that the site misleads readers into believing it is purely a consumer-oriented news site.

The site's privacy policy, which is linked to fairly prominently throughout, does state that submissions may be shared with attorneys for possible consideration for suit, which makes the exposé a little less, well, exposing.  And the response page has this (and has since at least mid-2006), which mitigates it further:

We work with attorneys with specific expertise in many areas of consumer law. It is sometimes necessary for them to contact you in order to determine whether there is a legal remedy for your complaint. There is no charge for any such consultation. Check below if you DO NOT want to be contacted by an attorney.

That said, the site does have the distinct feel of a place that's trying to suggest that it's strictly news and information for consumers.  (It also has the feel of a place that's trying to see just how many Google ads can be fit on one screen.)

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/tortsprof/2007/02/consumeraffairs.html

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Tracked on Feb 22, 2007 6:46:03 AM

Comments

Although CNSNews.com refers to me as a "former journalist," I believe that what I do every day still meets the job description normally associated with journalism.

But more substantively, CNS' hatchet job states:

"The organization is now facing litigation from disgruntled firms that claim it is misrepresenting itself and its motives."

In fact, one of the lawsuits CNS refers to was withdrawn and the other was never filed. CNS was advised of this but took no action to correct its story.

I was taught in journalism school -- and have since been lectured ad infinitum by one or more of my many lawyers -- that saying someone is "about to be sued" is roughly equivalent to saying that someone is dead when in fact she or he is not. It is at the least bad reporting and under some circumstances can be actionable.

We do spend a lot of money defending ourselves against nuisance lawsuits filed by businesses that often have unsavory records with their local and state consumer agencies. I'm not quite clear how that makes us a tool of the plaintiffs bar (though it certainly makes us a good client) but CNS does not appear to be digging for the truth; it appears to be writing "news stories" that meet the political agenda of its underwriters.

It's interesting that CNS carps at length about our association with lawyers but doesn't mention our medical writer (a practicing physician), our Ph.D. sociologist or other credentialed contributors. It's OK to consult with doctors but not lawyers?

We have lots of ads on our site? Yes, we do, for the simple reason that advertising is our only source of revenue (other than my checkbook). We are hoping to someday become self-sufficient though just when that might be is far from certain.

Posted by: Jim Hood | Oct 7, 2007 9:55:08 AM

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