Covering Crimtorts: The Law And Politics Of Responsibility

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Conference Papers -- Law & Society


Politics and Government


In "Criminalizing Big Tobacco: Legal Mobilization and the Politics of Responsibility for Health Risks in the United States," winner of the Pi Sigma Alpha Award for the best paper presented at the 2009 meeting of the Western Political Science Association, Michael W. McCann and I presented and interpreted data regarding mass-media coverage and constructions of tobacco litigation between 1984 and 2005. Content analyses of pejorative and meliora¬tive frames, of characterizations of actors, and of pursuit of reforms by litigative and non-litigative means yielded fascinating insights about how litigants against "Big Tobacco" won in mass media while, usually, losing in court¬rooms. We documented a "creeping criminalization" of tobacco companies in frames in the New York Times and demon¬strated how plaintiffs' lawyers and states' attorneys general had transformed corporations and their decision-makers into defendants in quasi-criminal civil suits. We found that coverage of crimtorts - use of civil procedures to achieve regulatory and punitive results that greatly resemble criminal verdicts - in the New York Times tended to shift responsi¬bility from consumers who elected to use tobacco to those who profited from nicotine delivery. In the proposed paper, I shall compare and contrast mass media coverage of lawsuits and other reform efforts concerning guns, silicone breast im¬plants, and fatty, fast foods with findings regarding tobacco to see to what degree earlier results are general. Has litigation or agitation outside courts shifted the individual responsibility from purchasers of handguns or patients with silicone im¬plants or habitués of fast food restaurants to those who made or marketed those products? Each sort of suit offers an intriguing contrast to tobacco suits. Gun suits may involve the Second Amendment and state legislation to fend off gun suits. Did those matter to assignment of responsibility or to the reputation of buyers or sellers? In contrast to tobacco reformers who consistently benefited from developments in medical and scientific research, reformers who sued manufacturers and marketers of silicone breast implants had to adapt their lawsuits to scientific and medical develop¬ments that undermined or obstructed their theories of liability and of recovery. Did corporate responsibility or corporate deception frames, overwhelming in coverage of tobacco suits, peak in silicone suits and decline as epidemiological studies belied claims and claimants? Were corporations and their leaders and spokespeople maligned despite the ebbing of evidence against them? Litigation and other agitation over fast or fatty foods has been routinely ridiculed. Have such suits nonetheless diminished corporate or individual reputations? Through analyses of reports in newspapers not just the New York Times], news¬magazines, and popular media, I expect to establish how coverage of crimtorts varied over the last three decades. ..PAT.-Unpublished Manuscript



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