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$30 million can make media shy of truth

Somewhere in the dim haze of history the first newspaper appeared, except that it was probably written on papyrus or even carved in stone. Some enterprising soul wanted to get the word out -- a death in the family, a little local gossip, an enemy at the border or all of the above. The idea grew, and newspapers became horses of many different colors, including good and bad. There are many brands of bad. Good journalism, though, has developed certain constants, including fairness, an honest search for the truth and, yes, at times, entertainment.

Each of these characteristics is situated on real-life shifting sand. Truth, goodness and beauty are universal aspirations rather than anyone’s personal property. We at NCR wrestle with them every week. We have just been vindicated in a $30 million lawsuit, but next week again we will be juggling the real and ideal and trying to make sense out of life.

Our founding mission statement expresses the ideal: “a newsweekly that reports and comments on the church in the modern world ... pressing for as much information as can be had about events and their meaning ... constantly assessing the overall situation of Catholic life ... the orientation is toward reporting the news, toward enterprise and relevance, toward dialogue with practically everybody.”

On good days we live up to that standard; the other days we try.

We live in a privileged time and in an amazing country where openness and freedom of speech and the uninhibited search for truth are not only fiercely protected by law but cherished in the hearts of the people. It wasn’t always so, and in some places still isn’t. Our history is full of tales of killing the messenger, and not just metaphorically. Tyrants and despots, past and present, gained and still gain power or wealth or both by muzzling the press. Free speech is a powerful agent that, let loose, can play havoc with injustice and other ills of society.

And even in America the lofty theory is getting dented in practice. Nobody is cutting off the messenger’s head. Today, the trend is toward killing the truth softly. It is done with lawyers and lobbyists and great gobs of money.

Some would say a $30 million suit isn’t doing it softly.

One week in 1994 we heard that the small-engine company Briggs & Stratton was in dispute with local unions and sent off a reporter to look at it. There were probably a dozen good stories vying for our attention that week but the Milwaukee case was the one we chose. Who knows what we would have done had we known what covering the story would cost us?

Reporter Leslie Wirpsa came back with a complex story of workers’ jobs and livelihoods weighed in the balance against corporate profits. The workers were hurting and seemed to be getting a raw deal. The articles painted the picture. Briggs & Stratton sued.

For three years now we have been constrained from commenting much on the case -- a $30 million suit scares the daylights out of the average citizen, which of course was what Briggs & Stratton had in mind.

But now a federal judge has thrown out the suit -- or what was left of it after the Briggs and Stratton corporation, its president John Shiely and company labor attorney Thomas Krukowski dropped out as the day of reckoning drew near, leaving their mouthpiece, George Thompson, to bear the heat of the day on his own (though fortified by Briggs & Stratton money). Now, therefore, it must finally be safe to quote our own original commentary as presented in Judge C.N. Clevert’s dismissal ruling:

This week’s cover story shows with stunning clarity how corporate decisions hurt ordinary people and what they reveal about decision-makers who live in either denial or moral blindness.

What makes this week’s story on Briggs & Stratton particularly painful is that among the decision-makers involved -- among those seemingly blind to the consequences of their choices -- are Catholics educated in Catholic institutions.

So that nobody need take NCR’s words for it, here are the judge’s further words:

In this case, it is indisputable that a public controversy existed. Beginning in the late 1980s, Briggs & Stratton, once the largest employer in metropolitan Milwaukee, began transferring jobs from its Milwaukee area plants to plants in Murray, Ky., Poplar Bluff, Mo., and Juarez, Mexico. On May 17, 1994, in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the company announced the transfer of 2,000 Milwaukee area jobs to nonunion locations in the southern United States while the corporation was earning record profits.

It is gratifying to see the judge conclude, “that the defendants [that’s NCR] thoroughly investigated the facts underlying the articles,” and point out again the lengths to which we went, in vain, to get the Briggs & Stratton side of the story.

The Briggs & Stratton action has been often referred to as a SLAPP suit, meaning a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, words that speak for themselves. Such suits have lately grown common and are designed to make individuals or seemingly more vulnerable media think twice before criticizing big corporations or interests. It is, in other words, a bullying tactic rather than a search for justice, never mind a search for truth.

This same tactic seems to have been used by Briggs & Stratton against the union -- in that case for $17 million. This takes us back to where we all came in: the question of justice in Milwaukee. The SLAPP suit against NCR helped for three years to blur the picture of what the transfer of union jobs to nonunion areas did to the lives of thousands of people.

It is part of NCR’s mission to look into stories like that -- and we will continue to do so.

National Catholic Reporter, April 24, 1998