ABC News' American IdiocyS

Last week, ABC News set out to show how buyers should care how much of their vehicles were "Made in America." It even set up a website showing how "American" certain models were. Here's how badly they got it wrong.

The problem for ABC News and anyone else who tries to run such exercises — aside from massive indifference — is that the numbers they have to rely on can't show how "American" a given vehicle is. The only source of data comes from a federal law called the American Automobile Labeling Act, requiring automakers to report what percent of the parts by value in any given model hail from both the United States and Canada. As one combined number. Yes, even the federal government occasionally considers Canada America's hat.

That's how vehicles like the Canadian-built Chrysler Town & Country end up with a 80% "domestic parts" figure, while the Detroit-built Dodge Durango scores a 69% (thanks to the Durango's Hemi engines which are hecho en Mexico). The law was written for the United Auto Workers in the 1980s, which wanted to highlight how parts production and jobs were being exported outside the National Hockey League.

It's a point ABC News — which staged a "runaway" Toyota to overhype unintended acceleration — whiffs completely, in a whole series of "Made in America" reports following a family choosing between a Ford Escape and a Toyota Camry. ABC News then tries to perform some data gymnastics involving parts content, all the while touting the Americanism of their choice:

The U.S. brand that creates the most American jobs? The Ford Escape, which creates 13 assembly line jobs for every 100 cars sold, based on 2010 sales figures and company supplied information on how many workers actually man the assembly lines.

That is good, but doesn't top the Kentucky-built Toyota, which creates almost 20 U.S.-based manufacturing jobs for every 100 cars sold.

But since when are assembly line jobs considered the metric for economic impact? One would think a better choice would be the number of high-paying automaker command and control jobs. Those have a spin-off job multiplier — the measure of expenditure-induced employment resulting from spending by direct and intermediate employees who earn an income as a result of the automaker — of about ten per job. That's versus four to five for lower-paid line workers.

But the acrobatics to prove their contrarian-sounding notion were in vain as the family eventually picked a new Ford Explorer.

And when ABC invites people to "find out what percentage of your car was made in America" it hands out the blended figure labeled as "Made in U.S." — even as the tiny print from one lone soul in graphics department notes the numbers combine U.S. and Canada figures.

The truth is automakers are global businesses, and untangling who builds what and where takes far more sleuthing for an outcome that's often muddled. Take the Chevy Cruze: The small-car "savior" of General Motors is built in Lordstown, Ohio, but was engineered in South Korea, designed in Warren, Mich., and has some of its engines built in Austria. Foreign automakers employ a small fraction of the white-collar that a U.S. company does, but is a Kentucky-built Camry less "domestic" than the Ford Transit imported from Turkey?

But this is what happens when you're ordered to talk about the economy and there's no penalty for getting things wrong. Like those ABC News' Toyota reports we just mentioned, which just this past week won the 2011 National Edward R. Murrow Award for broadcast excellence. At least the award's all American.

Although we'll bet the trophy itself was likely made in China.