MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
A prominent lawyer squares off against big business in Beaumont, Texas. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has started its own newspaper to report exclusively on civil lawsuits, and it's distributed for free outside the Beaumont County Courthouse. But one of Beaumont's top attorneys says the newspaper's real purpose is to poison the opinions of potential jurors and to campaign against what it says are frivolous lawsuits. NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.
WADE GOODWYN: Along Interstate 10, east of Houston, refineries and chemical plants go for mile after mile - lots of good-paying, working-class jobs and plenty of toxic air pollution to go with them. Seventy years of industrial production has made the Texas coast one of the most litigious regions of the country. So last month, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce started its own newspaper in Beaumont, The Heart of the Gold Coast. The paper is focusing exclusively on covering civil lawsuits.
Mr. BRENT COON (Lawyer): They have big racks out at the courthouse steps, so when you walk in to the courthouse, there's a great big stack of them. And they're free, and they want everybody to get one.
GOODWYN: Brent Coon is a Beaumont lawyer who's built a very successful practice around asbestos lawsuits. During the first week of April, while Coon was in the middle of a case involving a worker who died from mesothelioma, lawyers for his firm say they saw someone inside the courthouse with a stack of a brand-new newspaper called The Southeast Texas Record, and the nature of the stories on the front page caused Brent Coon a certain level of agitation.
Mr. COON: This newspaper - I don't think you can call it a newspaper - it's a propaganda sheet. The front page of it had a big article on the tort tax, so that when jurors came up there, the first thing they see is this article talking about how everybody pays more for everything as a result of awarding damages in personal injury lawsuits.
GOODWYN: Among the headlines on the front page of the Southeast Texas Record that day: "Study Shows Tort Cost Total More Than 2 Percent of Gross Domestic Product" and "Man Cuts Off Fingers, Sues Church." This is not the kind of light reading Brent Coon wants jurors or potential jurors perusing as they wait to be called to trial or take recess while in the midst of deciding a civil case.
Mr. COON: So then if you're a juror, you say, you know, these people are asking for money, and I'm just a juror. But, you know, I just read this article about somehow I got to pay more for everything if I award a lot of money to this person.
GOODWYN: Coon believes the essence of the newspaper's purpose is political.
Mr. COON: To poison jurors. Why would they create a newspaper and spend a lot of money and hire editors and reporters - why would they do all this and give it away for free? They do it because they know that when they send this message out - that lawsuits are bad, that there's frivolous lawsuits, that the jury system's run amuck and needs to be fixed - when you hear their rhetoric over and over again, the more they say it and the more different ways they communicate that message, the more the public's likely to believe it.
GOODWYN: How you view this is likely dependent on your political persuasion. If you're conservative, you're probably clapping your hands that at least somebody is trying to print the truth about civil lawsuits in Beaumont because you certainly can't depend on the liberal media to do it. If you're liberal, you're probably outraged at this crass attempt to influence, if not trick, the jury pool with corporate propaganda slickly disguised as a mainstream newspaper.
Ms. MARILYN TENNISSEN (Editor, Lead Reporter, Southeast Texas Record): The chamber does not tell me what to write, does not tell me what to put in the paper, does not tell me how to write the stories.
GOODWYN: Marilyn Tennissen is the editor and lead reporter for the Southeast Texas Record. It is she who writes most of the articles. Tennissen was a former reporter for the local paper in Port Arthur before signing on to this gig.
Ms. TENNISSEN: I don't believe it is jury poisoning material. I consider myself a journalist. I consider what I'm doing as printing public information, and that's all I've done.
GOODWYN: Tennissen says she realizes her publisher has a strongly held point of view when it comes to the politics of tort reform. But she didn't realize -perhaps naively - how she was going to be drawn into the center of the storm by taking this job.
Ms. TENNISSEN: I never thought that I was going to be involved in anything that questioned my credibility. It's been kind of unbelievable.
GOODWYN: Brent Coon asked Judge Donald Floyd for permission to depose Marilyn Tennissen. He wanted to discover whether she had been purposely distributing the newspaper inside the courthouse. At first, Judge Floyd agreed to allow Coon to depose the reporters. Then he reconsidered after lawyers for the chamber protested that the judge's order violated the newspaper's First Amendment rights. The chamber of commerce runs three newspapers across the country, each located in regions that have litigious reputations: Madison, Illinois, the entire state of West Virginia, and now, Beaumont, Texas.
Mr. BRIAN TIMPONE (Publisher, Southeast Texas Record): Our stories are as straight and objective as any stories in America. And just because the owners of the paper have an agenda doesn't mean that the content can't be fair.
GOODWYN: Brian Timpone in Chicago is the publisher of the Southeast Texas Record, and he says the paper's reporting is fair and balanced.
Mr. TIMPONE: Point of view - point of view is interesting. Okay? That's why Fox News trumps CNN, because they have more debate. That's what we endeavor to do with these newspapers.
GOODWYN: Both sides say their heartfelt desire is to get the word out about their opponent. Brent Coon says he wants everyone to know just who the Southeast Texas Record represents: the Union Carbides and Dow Chemicals of the world. And Brian Timpone of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says he wants the public - and that includes potential jurors - to know the truth about civil lawsuits.
Mr. TIMPONE: You know, the whole point here is to get people engaged on these issues - to talk about them, period. And it's a victory if we even talk about them, and that's what I - that's the way I see it.
GOODWYN: One man's jury poisoning is another man's consciousness raising. There's really no debate between the two sides about what's going on in Beaumont. The point of contention is what to call it.
Mr. TIMPONE: This is a newspaper, just like any other newspaper, and we're entitled to the First Amendment - just like the Eastern Chronicle, just like the Beaumont Enterprise, and just like you.
GOODWYN: Brian Timpone says the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has the means and intends to defend their newspaper against all attacks. Brent Coon says his initial legal maneuvers with respect to the Southeast Texas record were just an opening salvo.
And the political leanings of the region will help Brent Coon. Unlike other parts of Texas, the Golden Triangle has a history of 70 years of union organizing - organized people versus organized money, it promises to make this a good fight.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.