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Friday, September 4, 2009

No Wonder Newspapers Are On the Verge of Extinction

Every week seems to bring more bad news for the newspaper industry. And as the stories pile up, we can't help but think that newspapers are their own worst enemy.

The latest comes from The Hartford Courant in Connecticut, a paper that once enjoyed a stellar reputation. According to an article in The New York Times, The Courant recently fired veteran consumer reporter George Gombossy for--get this--wanting to practice . . . journalism.

The move comes at a time when newspapers should be hiring more hard-hitting consumer reporters like Gombossy, instead of letting them go. We've reported on consumer issues here at Legal Schnauzer, particularly in the debt-collection industry. We've had firsthand experience with sleazy national outfits like NCO, CACH LLC, and the National Arbitration Forum, plus Birmingham law firm Ingram & Associates.

Heck, a gutsy metropolitan newspaper could keep a reporter like Gombossy busy just writing about the third-party debt collection industry, which is one of the nation's most insidious scams. Instead, Gombossy finds himself out of a job.

Gombossy says The Courant, in tight economic times, wanted him to stop writing less-than-flattering articles about advertisers. When Gombossy refused, he says, the newspaper fired him. The newspaper claims Gombossy's job simply was "eliminated." Reports The Times:

Courant executives say that their reporters are welcome to write about advertisers, and that the separation between advertising and editorial content still stands. Mr. Gombossy’s complaints are just those of a “disgruntled employee,” Richard Graziano, the paper’s publisher, said on a voicemail message.

After Gombossy wrote critical pieces about a Connecticut contracting company, new executives at The Courant called him in and asked him "to be nice to them."

Never mind that the very definition of a consumer reporter is someone who is not nice to businesses that act against the best interests of consumers. Reports The Times:

“At that point, I told them I’m refusing and I said, ‘You’ve got to fire me if you insist on me doing that,’ ” Mr. Gombossy said. According to him, Mr. Levine then backpedaled on the demand to meet with the advertiser, but said that he could not write about a major advertiser unless it was cleared by Mr. Levine.

Gombossy requested a list of major advertisers. And then came the final straw. He wrote an article about a bedding company that allegedly was selling used mattresses as new:

One of the advertisers on the list, Mr. Gombossy said, was the mattress company Sleepy’s. Mr. Gombossy had been looking into consumer complaints about the company, and had prepared a column to be printed on Aug. 2. That column said that the Connecticut attorney general was investigating the company, a fact the attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, confirmed in an interview last week.

Gombossy said he had the piece approved by the editor, but it never ran. A few days later, he was out of a job.

His readers still have access to his hard-hitting investigative reports:

Mr. Gombossy said he plans to file a lawsuit against The Courant. He has started a Web site, ctwatchdog.com, where he has posted the column about Sleepy’s.

Gombossy was a guest recently on the mytechnologylawyer.com radio show, hosted by Andrew Kreig and Scott Draughon. You can hear the interview by clicking here and going to the 8/27/09 download. The Gombossy interview begins at about the 34:00 mark. It is a fascinating conversation, starting with Gombossy's memories of his family fleeing communism in Eastern Europe in the 1950s.

You can see the irony in someone with that kind of personal story being canned at a newspaper for writing honestly about corporate wrongdoing. It sounds like an "iron curtain" has fallen over The Hartford Courant--and the mainstream media in general.

You can check out Gombossy's new Web site at ctwatchdog.com.

Gombossy might enjoy sinking his watchdog teeth into the National Arbitration Forum (NAF), a sham outfit that recently was sued by the attorney general of Minnesota and promptly went out of the consumer-debt business amid allegations of rampant fraud.

Here is how Sylvia Hsieh, of Dolan Media Newswire, described the allegations in the Minnesota lawsuit that pulled the mask off the NAF:

The complaint mapped out a “complex web” that boiled down to a cozy financial relationship: The arbitration services of NAF and sister organizations, as well as the debt collection services of the law firm Mann Bracken and other companies, have all been owned by the same New York hedge fund since 2007.

The complaint alleged that the NAF violated state consumer fraud, deceptive trade practices and false advertising statutes through “complex and opaque corporate structuring” that concealed its financial ties and represented itself as a neutral party.

“Consumers also do not know that--despite representing to the public that it has ‘no relationship with any party’ and does not ‘counsel our users’--(NAF) works closely with creditors behind the scenes,” the complaint said.

It further alleged that the NAF encouraged creditors to file arbitration claims, helped creditors draft arbitration clauses and sometimes collection claims against consumers, and referred creditors to debt collection law firms, including Mann Bracken, which then filed arbitration claims before the NAF.

The NAF story is just getting started. A number of class-action suits have been filed and more apparently are in the works. (Full disclosure: I am a plaintiff in a case that was filed last week in federal court in Minnesota. Evidence indicates that I am just one of many Alabamians who have been defrauded by NAF.) We will be following that story.


Robby Scott Hill said...

Yeah, NCO can suck it.

Anonymous said...

Here's a little video for Jill Simpson....