Bad News: A Brief History Of Media Controversies And The Auto Industry

“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” That ages-old slur against the news media was used quite a bit this week after the New York Times’ failed drive of the Tesla Model S, and Tesla’s subsequent response to it. People have a right to be skeptical of the Times’ drive: after all, media coverage of scandals in the auto industry has a history of being ill-advised, misinformed, and at worst, manufactured.

Where do you begin when talking about journalistic failures at covering cars and the auto industry? There are almost too many to count. At least one two major ones seem to happen every decade. (I don’t think there’s enough evidence to make the Tesla story fall into this category quite yet, though. More on that later.)

As a journalist and a car enthusiast myself — and someone whose current job marries both of those things — I have often wondered how these stories happened.

Maybe it’s because like much of the general population, reporters, editors and producers don’t really understand how cars work in a mechanical sense. Maybe it’s because they’re too willing to go to press or air with the facts at hand instead of digging deeper. And in the most egregious cases, maybe it’s because they’re willing to totally disregard facts to go with a salacious story.

Whatever the reasons these journalists have for doing the stories they do, the impact of bad journalism on the auto industry is palpable. Bad stories have resulted in cars getting axed, brands falling apart, unnecessary regulations getting passed, and jobs being lost.

Conventional wisdom is that traditional outlets like newspapers and TV stations have lost much of their power in a world where the Internet allows for such diverse information sources, but if they are able to harness the power of car buyers’ fears, they can still make heads roll.

I’ll delve into some of my favorite examples of journalistic malpractice where cars are concerned. Many of these are taught in J-schools across the country as examples of what not to do.

Before I do, I need to say that I don’t want this to come off as a screed about how poor, innocent car companies are always getting screwed over by evil, greedy reporters. I fervently believe journalists have a duty to the public, to look out for consumers and taxpayers, and to hold the powerful accountable. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it, just like anything else, and it has to be done right. That means getting your facts straight and telling the truth. For all of these bad examples, there have been many more where journalists have done their jobs right when they’re covering cars.

Let’s get started, shall we?

Graphic credit Jason Torchinsky

Bad News: A Brief History Of Media Controversies And The Auto Industry

Chevrolet Corvair: Unsafe at any speed?

I feel bad for the Corvair. It was one of most unique and interesting American cars ever made, but no one remembers it for that. No one remembers its air-cooled, rear-engine architecture or how it was made to do battle with the Volkswagen Beetle. People only remember it as being an oversteering deathtrap that jump-started modern automotive safety.

The Corvair is now remembered for being one of the primary targets in Ralph Nader's 1965 book Unsafe At Any Speed. Nader, then a young lawyer and consumer safety advocate, singled out the Corvair's swing-arm suspension as being the cause of scores of crashes and more than 100 lawsuits, which were what spurred him to write the book in the first place.

Nader may not have been a journalist, but the media jumped on his report with gusto, and the Corvair's sales never recovered, even though GM made tweaks to its suspension (and made weird attempts to discredit Nader, including hiring people to follow him and tempting him with prostitutes).

Was it bad journalism? Fifty years later, the jury is still out on whether the Corvair was really unsafe. Texas A&M University did a study in the 1970s that concluded the car was no more dangerous than many of its contemporaries. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reached that same conclusion too. And the buff books opined that many drivers failed to account for the handling differences created by its rear weight bias. Still, the book — and the media coverage of it — doomed the Corvair for good.

Photo credit emarschn

Bad News: A Brief History Of Media Controversies And The Auto Industry

60 Minutes and the Audi 5000

Compared to Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs from the same era, you don't see many 1980s Audis on the road anymore. There's a reason for that, and it's a reason that nearly killed Audi in the U.S.: 60 Minutes. In 1986, the venerable CBS news program ran a special report on the Audi 5000 sedan, accusing it of suffering from unintended acceleration. They interviewed multiple people who had filed lawsuits against Audi, claiming the cars raced off on their own and crashed. The story featured one woman who claimed that she ran over her six-year-old son while her foot was on the brake, though that contradicted what she told police when it happened.

60 Minutes even supplemented their report with footage of the 5000's gas pedal moving downward on its own and the car blasting off like a rocket. Audi fired back with a PR campaign featuring racing driver Bobby Unser explaining how safe the car is, but the company's sales tanked hard. (On a side note, hearing Unser explain the technology behind a German luxury sedan in that accent of his is kind of hilarious.)

Was it bad journalism? Unquestionably, yes. The scene with the runaway 5000 was manufactured by drilling a hole in the transmission and pumping in high-pressure air. It was a good visual for TV, but it wasn't true. The real reason for the unintended acceleration incidents? Driver error and pedal misapplication. Unfortunately, Audi was hammered with lawsuits, and it would be another 15 years before their sales fully recovered.

Bad News: A Brief History Of Media Controversies And The Auto Industry

Suzuki Samurai and Consumer Reports

Now-dead-in-America manufacturer Suzuki and Consumer Reports waged a war against one another in the magazine pages and the courtroom for years. In 1988, CR issued a report on the Suzuki Samurai that claimed the mini-SUV was prone to rollovers during evasive maneuvers and therefore "not acceptable" for buyers. As with the Audi and the Corvair, sales plummeted thanks to the fear instilled in consumers by the magazine's report.

Suzuki stopped bringing the Samurai to the U.S. in 1995. The next year, they filed a now-famous lawsuit against Consumer Reports, dubbed Suzuki v. Consumers Union, that accused the publication of libel. Suzuki said the tests were fraudulently done, which resulted in a significant financial loss for them. The suit was finally settled out of court in 2004, but no money changed hands — the two essentially agreed to disagree.

Was it bad journalism? CR wrote that the Samurai "easily rolls over in turns," something they meant to attribute to the evasion test. During the settlement, CR issued a clarification of the article that said they never meant to imply that it rolls over easily in normal driving. It was more a poor choice of words on the magazine's part than anything else, rather than a staged test, but words matter.

Bad News: A Brief History Of Media Controversies And The Auto Industry

Chevrolet Trucks and Dateline's "Waiting to Explode" story

Don't expect too much fairness and nuance in a story called "Waiting to Explode." NBC's Dateline ran this controversial story in 1993 where they attempted to question the safety of certain General Motors trucks. In particular, they implied that some of the trucks' fuel tanks would explode if they were involved in a side collision. To help "prove" their point, Dateline strapped incendiary devices onto a 1977 Chevy truck which gave them the nice, big explosion they wanted.

Was it bad journalism? Heck yes. Dateline was caught in the act, and anchors Stone Phillips and Jane Pauley were both forced to read apologies and retractions on air. (Pauley even had nothing to do with the original story, which really sucks for her.) GM still lost a bunch of money on customer lawsuits, though. Actual data as to how unsafe these trucks supposedly are is inconclusive.

Bad News: A Brief History Of Media Controversies And The Auto Industry

ABC News' Runaway Toyota Investigation

Remember a few years ago when all the Toyotas were racing off on their own, killing people left and right? Except not because it was mostly just driver error? ABC News jumped at the chance to take part in this pseudo-crisis by doing a story in 2010 that wasn't far off from what 60 Minutes did two decades earlier.

ABC News reporter Brian Ross met a professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale who claimed to have duplicated the problem that was supposedly affecting the runaway Toyotas. The problem is, that car was rigged in a way that is extremely unlikely to happen in the real world, and elements of the video were faked as well. Seriously, guys — telling the truth is not that hard.

Was it bad journalism? Certainly. The ABC News story was just one part of a scandal that Toyota is just now beginning to recover from, one that cost them $1.3 billion. That's a hell of a lot of money for incidents that were mostly just people getting their pedals mixed up.

Photo credit JLaw45

Bad News: A Brief History Of Media Controversies And The Auto Industry

The New York Times' Failed Tesla Model S Drive

You know the story by now, or at least you should. Tesla asks the NYT's John Broder to drive the Model S from D.C. to Boston, charging the electric sedan at their Supercharger stations along the way. He ends the trip on a flatbed after running out of power. Tesla's Elon Musk called the story a "fake." Both parties jump in to defend themselves and present their sides. Who's right here? Did Broder pull a 60 Minutes or did he legitimately run out of power, even after following Tesla employees' instructions?

Was it bad journalism? I can only speak for myself, but I don't think this has been decided. As I have said before, I don't feel like a veteran reporter of Broder's caliber fits the profile of someone who would fake a story. But I wasn't on that drive with him, and I haven't done it myself. Musk has presented compelling data of his own, but some third parties have poked holes in that as well.

I do have a feeling that many years from now — whether Tesla is a long-shuttered failed experiment or the world's largest maker of EVs who has since bought out GM and Ford — that this incident will be a notable event in their history, in part because of the story itself and also because of Musk's response to it. It's probably not going away any time soon.

Photo credit Tesla