Commentary

Consumer Reports Collides with Lawyers

One of the most prominent examples of private safety assurance is Consumer Reports. Long ago CR realized there was a market for people who wanted sober, independent product reviews, and the magazine emphasizes its sobriety and independence by famously refusing ads. Now litigation threatens CR, independent safety reviews, and free speech. Because of CR’s strong reputation, when the magazine weighs in on a product, consumers and producers react. In fact, industry lawyers are still reacting to CR’s late 80s assessment that Suzuki Samurais are prone to roll over in sharp turns. The press got so bad for Suzuki that it eventually pulled the Samurai from the market. Suzuki filed suit against CR and the issue is still alive today. While I’m not familiar with the particulars of this case, it’s my guess that Suzuki is upset with CR precisely because the magazine’s reputation is so strong. Consumers would probably not have reacted so strongly to a review from a truly shady and malicious operation. CR’s reputation for sober analysis is very valuable to the magazine, so I suspect its assessment was accurateââ?¬â??plus from the looks of those Samurais, a passing flock of butterflies would probably make them tipsy. This LA Times editorial sums up where the case stands now: The lingering Suzuki lawsuit threatens not just the New York-based organization but the future of all independent product reviews. Suzuki filed the suit in 1996, one year after plummeting sales forced it to withdraw the Samurai from the market. In 2000, U.S. District Judge Alicemarie H. Stotler threw out Suzuki’s suit, ruling that the automaker had not presented convincing evidence that Consumer Reports set out to malign the Samurai. Last year, however, a three-judge U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel overturned Stotler’s decision, allowing Suzuki to proceed to trial. Last week, Consumers Union asked the Supreme Court to reverse the 9th Circuit and dismiss the suit without a hearing. The magazine should be held accountable for its judgments, since it holds companies to a sometimes harsh standard. Stotler, however, did that in the Suzuki case three years ago. After reviewing 7,000 pages of pretrial evidence and depositions, she found nothing to substantiate Suzuki’s claim that Consumers Union had it in for Suzuki and made statements about the Samurai that fit the “actual malice” standard for libel that the Supreme Court set in 1964. The Supreme Court should grant the reversal that Consumers Union seeks. The court should also explicitly recognize that an important, underlying principle is at stake: If disgruntled corporations are able to deter media companies from publishing product reviews merely by alleging bias, the public loss will be immense.

Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.