How The Detroit News Sold Its SoulS

Scott Burgess resigned today as The Detroit News auto critic after his editors bowed to a request by an advertiser to water down his negative review of the Chrysler 200. This is why we can't have nice reviews anymore. UPDATE

The Chrysler 200 is the car that sits at the center of a multi-million-dollar, Eminem-starring "Imported from Detroit" campaign meant to symbolize the rebirth of not only the automaker, but of Detroit. Unfortunately, as we've experienced first hand, the car's just not competitive with current models — only competing well with the older version of itself, the Chrysler Sebring.

Scott Burgess, who up until today was the auto critic at The Detroit News, called it out for what it was in a review that ran in this past Thursday's paper. We agreed so much with his assessment, we linked to it Thursday morning in our "Morning Shift."

Apparently not everyone enjoyed it. Two sources at The Detroit News tell us that after receiving a phone call from an advertiser, changes were made to the online version of Burgess' review. We still don't know which Chrysler dealer was the advertiser in question or Chrysler itself. What we do know is that although the changes don't go so far as to turn a negative review into a positive one, it was certainly enough to water it down. We called Sue Carney, the business editor for The Detroit News, but have not received a call back yet. Burgess, for his part, is unwilling to talk about why he left the newspaper but our assumption is this was it. Other editors at the 138-year-old newspaper only agreed to speak with us off the record.

Let's take a look at the full article below which we compiled from the paper copy we kept and Lexis/Nexis — and how it compares to the current online version. We've struck out the deleted lines of the review and emphasized the text that's been added. As you can see, they took out his criticism of the 200's styling altogether and made it far softer than it was.

2011 Chrysler 200 falls short of the competition

Chrysler had its hands full when it took on redesigning the midsize Sebring and creating the 200. It was a marvelous effort - one of monumental proportions.

Through years of abuse, the Sebring had become the rented punch line for a brand considered a joke.

But then came the Super Bowl, the ad, and a shift in consumer thinking about luxury, Detroit and Chrysler. The hardest steel, the hottest fire. What? That's the 200?

There's still hope. The all-new 300 shows how Auburn Hills can reinvent itself with modern design, edgy performance and vision. The 200 shows how Band-Aids on sheet metal never really stick.

Chrysler, of course, had to do something with the Sebring, and every change on this car is a marked improvement. It rides better, looks better and just feels better than the outgoing rib-hooded Sebring.

But the problem the 200 faces is that the competition has moved well past it in design and performance. Chrysler wants to eventually drive its luxury heritage home again, but this 200 won't help the brand sputter out of the parking lot. If this is the best vehicle Detroit exports, then Glenn Beck is right.

Too harsh? Far from it. In fact, the Chrysler 200 makes me angry. No one is prouder of the Motor City, and I want every carmaker, foreign and domestic, to produce world-class cars and trucks. When that happens, consumers win. Regrettably, the 200 is still a dog. And I get mad as hell when anyone pumps out a car that forces me to recommend the Toyota Camry over it.

If you compare the 200 to any of the mainstream midsize competition - not the luxury brands it is purported to go up against - all of them outshine the 200.

The only head-to-head match the 200 wins is against the Sebring. So if you're a Sebring owner, eligible for some sort of friends or family discount - or more likely, rented a Sebring and are considering buying one - here are all of the improvements you'll find in the 200.

Short a few gears

First, the 200 features the engine that will power Chrysler's recovery: the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6. This 283-horsepower engine provides oomph to this car's performance. It has lots of power and can pull this car all over the place while hitting 19 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. This is the premium engine, however.

The base model comes with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 173 horsepower but only improves mileage to 20 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway.

Car buyers in the midsize category prefer a good four-cylinder engine. The 200 doesn't have one.

Worse yet, this car is equipped with a four-speed automatic transmission. Even subcompact cars now come with more gears spinning than this. There is an optional six-speed transmission that can help the acceleration, but it feels ill-calibrated with quick up-shifts.

Then there is the new look of the 200. While it's much improved, it's still the same. The front end has been redone and the straked hood is gone - thankfully.

The new face of Chrysler isn't a bad mug. The expansive seven-bladed grille and stretched logo above have a touch of class. The LED trim in the headlights sparkle like chrome. It's no secret that the very best pieces of the 200's exterior were taken right from the 300, which had undergone years of reworking. It's a smart move.

But no number of LEDs can hide a profile that looks like a loggerhead turtle. If this car came in tortoise shell, the EPA would have to put it on the endangered sedan list to prevent trappers and automotive enthusiasts from rightfully shooting it into extinction.

Inside improvements

Of course, tortoise shell would look nice in the much improved interior. Chrysler overhauled this area the interior, changing out the dash and refining most touch points, which are much softer now. The seats are upgraded, the instrument panel looks much nicer and the craftsmanship is noticeably improved - none of the pieces snapped off or cut me.

But Chrysler couldn't swap out the first-generation UConnect system, which still is awkward to use and just a poor infotainment system. (The system Chrysler is moving into vehicles right now is much better, but the 200 wasn't ready for it.)

Perhaps the biggest interior improvement is the car's ride. Chrysler overhauled the suspension to smooth out the ride and provide better handling at every level of driving. Even the steering feels less numb. And with so many upgrades inside, a lot less noise seeps inside the cabin, so the ride is much quieter.

The changes to the 200 are significant, but this car lacks inspiration or soul.

It performs better when compared to itself, but doesn't perform as well as any of its competition. That's a losing proposition.

It's vastly improved, but that's only because it was so horrendous before. Hopefully, this car is a placeholder until the real redesigned 200 arrives - eventually.

The only thing this 200 proves is that good enough is never going to be good enough.

Burgess won't comment on what we've been told — only telling us

"Yes, I resigned from The Detroit News as of today and I have been sending notes to carmakers announcing such. It's the best job I ever held. The resignation was not planned. I choose not to answer the reasons for the resignation."

Burgess's review wasn't just for any vehicle, but the Chrysler 200 — a car Chrysler has spent several million dollars trying to turn into a symbol of Detroit's rebirth. And that's likely his point — he's angry that the 200 isn't nearly good enough to carry that heavy of a mantle — was completely eliminated from the review.

The cardinal sin of product reviews — whether of gadgets, games or cars — is a loss of the reviewer's credibility. In this case, if they bowed to pressure from an as-yet-unknown automotive advertiser, The Detroit News reveals that after 138 years in business, they're now willing to trade reviews for advertiser dollars. If true, how can we believe anything they say? If the News is willing to do this, how much farther are they willing to slide down that slippery slope?

One thing's for certain if what we've been told is accurate — The Detroit News may have sold its soul, but Scott Burgess has retained his.

UPDATE: I received the following response from Sue Carney, Business Editor of The Detroit News:

"We made several changes to the online version of Scott's review because we were uncomfortable with some of the language in the original. it should have been addressed during the editing process but wasn't. While it was too late to edit the print version, we were able to make changes online. The changes did not fundamentally change the thrust of Scott's piece.

A car dealer raised a complaint and we took a look at the review, as we would do whenever a reader raises a flag. The changes were made to address the journalism of the piece, not the angst of a car dealer. We left the print version alone, but the the online environment offered the flexibility to rework language that should have been caught in the editing process."

UPDATE 2: I received the following response from Jonathan Wolman, the publisher of The Detroit News last night and missed it in my email:

Our intent was to make an editing improvement and we obviously handled it poorly. We should have let the online version of his review stand as written, as we did the print version.

UPDATE 3: Jonathan Wolman, the publisher of the Detroit News, ran the following letter from the publisher on the front page of the News' website. I don't know if it ran in the paper edition. My mom doesn't get a Saturday paper anymore and wasn't able to check for me:

To our readers:

I want to share with you an episode that occurred last week which has sparked a vigorous discussion in our newsroom about the need to ensure the independence of our reviewers. Indeed, I owe our readers an explanation and an apology for the lapse that raised questions about our credibility.

Detroit News reviews run the gamut from cultural performances to restaurant dining, from computer gaming to auto introductions. Our writers are expert in their areas of interest, allowing them to write freely with authority and flair - and their well-informed perspective contributes much to our pages and to our online sites. We give our reviewers broad latitude to establish their personal "voice," even as we edit their drafts for clarity and readability and accuracy and fundamental fairness.

A few days ago, our auto reviewer, Scott Burgess, resigned in frustration after he was asked to change several passages of his review of the new Chrysler 200. This occurred after an advertiser complained that some material in the review was acerbic and disrespectful. The review had already appeared in our newspaper "Drive" section but we asked Scott to soften a few passages in the online version. The review was sharply critical of the 200 and there was no effort to change Scott's verdict or his reasoning.

While our intent was to improve the piece by making these passages less grating, our decision to make these changes after fielding an advertiser's complaint was a humbling mistake. As publisher and editor, I want to apologize to our readers and of course to Scott. Once the review was published we should have maintained the wording in all our formats and avoided any sense that we were acting at the influence of any interest aside from our readers' interest.

Why is that so important? The credibility of our journalism is our calling card to your doorstep and your digital screen. We simply cannot act at any behest but yours and we must avoid any appearance to the contrary.

It is a fact of life that our reviews will sometimes ruffle commercial feathers. For example, in our On Screen section Friday, one of our movie reviews appeared under the headline, "'Kaboom' is incompetent, absurd." Whether we are reviewing a movie or a new Thai restaurant or a $90,000 sportster, our readers must be certain they have the author's unvarnished opinion, free of any commercial or outside consideration. That's our ongoing commitment.

Jonathan Wolman, Editor and Publisher

(Hat tip to Jesse Ma, Gawker's legal eagle, and my mother for their help on this story!)

More on this story (from Jalopnik):

Detroit News Publisher says Burgess edit "poorly handled"
Morning Shift: Friday, March 18th, 2011
Ask Me Anything: Scott Burgess Edition

More on this story (from others):

The Detroit News apologizes [Autoblog]
Dustup Over Car Review Threatens Detroit Paper's Image [Wall Street Journal]
Detroit News Auto Critic Resigns After Dealer Complaint Results in Changes to Review [New York Times]
Dealer's Call Leads To Critic's Resignation [MediaPost]
Detroit News critic who panned Chrysler 200 quits after online version of review is changed [AP via Washington Post]
DetNews Auto Critic Resigns Over Chrysler 200 Review Edits [The Truth About Cars]
Detroit News alters Chrysler 200 review after local auto dealer complains [MLive]
Detroit News calls decision to water down Chrysler 200 review a mistake [Automotive News]
The Detroit News Auto Critic Steps Down Amid Review Revision Kerfuffle [Mediaite]
Just In: 2011 Chrysler 200 [Consumer Reports]