Consumer reporting, when combined with investigative journalism, can issue vital public warnings and can even save lives. This is why, writes Cecil Rosner, reports about a seasoned consumer reporter who lost his job over a column that was critical of one of his newspaper’s major advertisers are especially troubling.

In my History of Investigative Journalism in Canada, I showed how modern consumer reporting has played an important role in investigative work for at least 50 years.

Ralph Nader’s famous inquiries into automobile safety began as early as 1959, when he wrote an article for The Nation called “The Safe Car You Can’t Buy.”  Jessica Mitford exposed the funeral industry in her renowned work of 1963, “The American Way of Death.” Newspaper columnists in both the U.S. and Canada began writing action columns and responding directly to consumer concerns. Some outstanding early work was done by the CBC’s public affairs programs in the 1960s, and this became institutionalized when the public broadcaster created a program called Marketplace in 1972.

Over the years, many newspapers and broadcast outlets appointed consumer reporters and columnists. But the relationship was often an uneasy one, since consumer reporting can quickly confront the very same people who are funding the media institution where the reporter works.

At journalism conferences and in discussions with journalists, I have heard countless stories about how advertising departments at media outlets have exercised influence over what the consumer reporter can do. This is especially true when the advertiser is a car dealership or a major retail chain, which can typically be a large source of income for a station or paper.

The latest controversy on this front has erupted at the Hartford Courant, where reporter George Gombossy maintains he was fired for doing his job. Gombossy’s credentials are impressive. He has been with the paper for 40 years, and has led teams of reporters that have won dozens of awards. He spent 12 years as business editor when the paper asked him to work on the consumer beat three years ago.

Gombossy says his Watchdog column resulted in more than a dozen state investigations. But it was his last column that ended his career at the Courant. The newspaper refused to publish it, and the two decided to part ways.

The column reported that the state attorney general had launched an investigation into a mattress company called Sleepy’s. It was alleged that the company sold old mattresses but billed them as new. In one case, a mattress was allegedly infested with bedbugs.

While the newspaper hasn’t commented on Gombossy’s claims, the reporter was quick to set up a website called Connecticut Watch with the slogan: “Never give up, never give in.” He reprinted the column that was supposed to run Aug. 2 in Hartford, but never did.

It is a well-researched and balanced piece of journalism. He quotes a spokesperson for Sleepy’s challenging the allegations, and insisting that the company has never represented old mattresses as new ones. Gombossy supplements the story with a detailed letter from Sleepy’s rebutting the allegations. The letter was copied to the newspaper’s publisher.

Gombossy maintains it was his first time in 40 years at the Courant that an investigation by the state attorney general was withheld from the public.

It is difficult to know the full details about this story or of Gombossy’s relationship with the newspaper, since the Courant hasn’t issued any comments about the matter. But if his new website is any indication, Gombossy is a meticulous and ethical reporter who could serve as an example to other consumer journalists.

In a statement of personal disclosure on the site, Gombossy lists the stocks he owns and discloses his land holdings. He even reveals that his son works for an automobile group. In an answer to those who think consumer reporting only exists to find problems with businesses, he provides a list of consumer-friendly businesses and invites readers to submit other examples.

Finally, he calls on companies to advertise on his site, proclaiming: “You will be treated just as fairly as non-advertisers.”

Gombossy’s website is at ctwatchdog.com

Addendum: Soon after I posted this, Gombossy posted an internal memo from Courant management giving the newspaper’s side of the story.

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