Dexter Ford was a three-decades-long veteran of Motorcyclist, a motorcycle enthusiast magazine, until he was fired in September. Now, recently-revealed email exchanges indicate he was canned after a motorcycle helmet story he wrote for The New York Times angered advertisers.
A series of email exchanges published yesterday by MC24.no appear to indicate that Motorcyclist fired Dexter Ford, a contributing editor who had been with the magazine for three decades, after a story he wrote for The New York Times angered the magazine's advertisers.
The emails, which Ford confirmed for us are the real thing, include an apparent assertion by Motorcyclist editor-in-chief Brian Catterson that major helmet makers threatened to withdraw advertising in his magazine due to Ford's New York Times piece. That same email then quotes Catterson as saying, "Iʼm getting serious heat over this, to the tune of threatening my job unless I do something about you." (September 30, 2009 at 4:21 PM)
If true, the emails raise troubling questions about a potentially unethical relationship between advertising dollars and editorial content at the popular magazine, one that stretches beyond mere motorcycle reviews and appears to include reporting on the safety of children's helmets.
You can find the complete leaked email exchange on MC24.no.
First, Some Background
Motorcyclist is the second largest printed motorcycle magazine in the US, claiming a circulation of 229,416 copies a month. The main focus of the magazine is reviewing new motorcycles and other products related to them, products like helmets. Brian Catterson became editor-in-chief in 2006 after spending 20 years working as a motorcycle journalist, including a 12-year stint at Cycle World. In the article announcing his appointment, Motorcyclist is described as, "one of the most reliable monthly bike publications in the industry today."
Ford has long been controversial with major helmet makers, authoring "Blowing the Lid Off," the seminal expose of the flawed Snell M2005 helmet safety standard. In it, he proved through objective scientific testing that helmets made to that standard transmitted more forces to riders' heads than some less expensive helmets made to the DOT standard. Ford's article turned conventional wisdom on its head, proving that certain less-expensive DOT helmets were, according to his testing, capable of transmitting lower forces to a rider's head than the typically more expensive Snell M2005 brain buckets. Both Arai and Shoei, as well as many other helmet makers, sell helmets with the Snell certification.
The article, first published in 2005, was particularly damning for very small Snell helmets, which, at the time, the organization certified using the same weight head forms as larger-sized helmets. Ford's article concluded, "If you are a man, woman or child with a lighter head...the difference in stiffness between a Snell helmet and a DOT or ECE helmet will be relatively huge."
Motorcycle helmets are made from a "crumple zone" of styrofoam in varying densities encased in a deformable shell designed to prevent penetration and spread out the force of impacts. By varying the density and amount of the styrofoam, helmet makers are able to precisely tailor the rate at which the head will decelerate on impact. In retrospect, it seems obvious that a child or smaller person's head would weigh less than an extra large adult head, thereby requiring less dense styrofoam to achieve a similar rate of deceleration, but Snell M2005 didn't acknowledge that disparity, an oversight that resulted in the potential for smaller heads to be subjected to higher forces in crashes. Ford's article provided evidence that, "helmet makers should tailor the stiffness of their helmets to suit the head sizes of the wearers to protect everybody's brain equally."
The Snell Memorial Foundation is a not-for-profit American organization, funded by helmet makers, that evaluates helmet safety and awards helmets that pass its tests with a certificate the foundation says is, "our assurance that a helmet has measured up to the highest standards for protective performance time and again." The certification is voluntary, but many consumers believe a Snell helmet is safer than one without the organization's stamp of approval. Ford's testing indicates that's not necessarily the case.
Snell revised its standard in July 2009. Snell M2010, the new standard, closely follows the recommendations made in "Blowing The Lid Off." Unfortunately, while helmets meeting the new Snell M2010 standard went on sale October 1, 2009, Snell M2005-rated helmets will continue production through March 31, 2012 and can be sold with the Snell M2005 certification sticker indefinitely. While Snell M2010 tests do use graduated head weights and reduce the maximum allowable g's across every size, most of the new M2010 helmets wear an identical external sticker to M2005 helmets; you have to peel back the inner lining and search for a small interior sticker to tell the difference.
This potential for consumer confusion is the gist of an article Ford wrote for The New York Times entitled "Sorting Out Differences in Helmet Standards," which was published on September 25, 2009. In that article, Ford writes that buyers who want to avoid confusion over helmet standards and find a helmet that's been tested to work with an appropriate weight head can, "simply choose a non-Snell-rated helmet."
Neither Arai or Shoei are mentioned by name at any point in the article. Ford has been a Times contributor since 2007; the newspaper has no affiliation with Motorcyclist or its current publisher, Source Interlink.
Dexter Ford's Times Piece and Motorcyclist's Advertising
According to the leaked emails, on September 30, 2009 at 3:25 PM, Ford received an email from Brian Catterson entitled "NY Times article." It read: "FYI that bit is likely to cost us Arai and Shoei advertising—again. The wagons are already circling..."
As the emails on MC24.no have it, Ford responded, in part, by asking for clarification. Saying, in an email dated September 30, 2009 at 4:06 PM, "They are going to pull their ads from Motorcyclist because the New York Times wrote a (completely true and important) story? I made it very clear in every communication with both that I was writing strictly for the NYT on this, and not by or for Motorcyclist. They have already silenced Motorcyclist on this issue. I don't know what else I can do."
The next email in that chain, at 4:21 PM, believed to be from Catterson, reads: "None of that matters to the brass when two of our biggest advertisers are threatening to yank their ads over a story a freelancer wrote for another publication when we're down $2 mil from last year!"
In that same email, Catterson appears to continue with, "I know what you wrote for the NY Times is accurate, but I think you greatly downplayed how significant an improvement the Snell 2010 standard is. In my eyes it 'rights all wrongs,' which should have been the thrust of your story, not just a couple sentences in a piece that focused largely on the dangers of Snell 2005 helmets. I'm getting serious heat over this, to the tune of threatening my job unless I do something about you."
We asked Catterson about that email, to which he said, "As for the last quote about 'two of our biggest advertisers,' I wrote that after one of our publishers told me that was the case, but then changed his tune, saying that only one had expressed their disappointment over Dexter's article in the New York Times and that he was worried they and others might pull their ads. And anyway, those two companies were neither Arai nor Shoei."
Dexter Ford is Fired, But Why?
Catterson sent us the termination letter in which Ford's association with Motorcyclist was formally severed on October 7, 2009. In this letter, there's no mention of advertiser pressure. Instead, there's an accusation that Ford is "a journalist whose personal vendettas have come to preclude objective reporting." Nothing like that assertion appears anywhere in the rest of the leaked emails. The letter goes on to call Ford's article in the Times "controversial", criticizing it for focusing on consumer confusion over praising the revised Snell M2010 standard.
"... I fired Dexter for the reasons detailed in my letter, not because of any pressure from advertisers," Catterson said when asked for clarification. "Some of our advertisers were upset by Dexter's article in the New York Times, but none ever threatened to pull their advertising, as they had done over the original helmet test published in Motorcyclist in 2005. My job was never literally threatened, either, though our publishers made it clear they wanted me to 'fire' Dexter as he had become a bigger liability than an asset—a sentiment I fully shared."
The termination notice alleges that Ford allowed personal vendettas to get in the way of doing his job, providing two examples:
"Your Susan Carpenter column was another example of your personal agenda getting in the way of objective reporting. Your first few drafts were character assassinations fueled by your desire to have her job. I only agreed to publish the final version after you re-wrote it to focus on her poorly researched motorcycle emissions story."
"The recent Snell press conference was the final straw. By all accounts, your behavior was entirely unprofessional, embarrassing Motorcyclist magazine and yourself."
The thing is, the emails in the leak appear to refute those claims.
Let's look at Ford's Susan Carpenter column first. No such article appears to be available online and it's unclear if it was ever published, but there is extensive mention of it in the leaked emails.
Carpenter writes a motorcycle column for The Los Angeles Times entitled "Throttle Jockey." She's one of the only women in the country to write about motorcycles for a major publication and she often expresses views divergent from those of the two-wheeled establishment.
In an email entitled "Smog-Spewing Susan" sent on June 25, 2008 at 5:24 PM, Ford appears to file the Susan Carpenter story, to which Catterson is quoted as responding at 5:41 PM: "Awesome! Sensational! Fabulous even!"
An email dated the day prior (June 24, 2008 at 3:57 PM) quotes Catterson as asking Ford, "Any progress on your Susan assassination piece?"
Ford is quoted as responding at 6:37 PM on the same day, "So I respectfully request to do a ﬁrst column on this (current) issue, in which I show that she is wrong, and that bikes come out wonderful in the grand green scheme of things. And then do the subsequent torch job on Susan's lame-oid bike reviews, which is already substantially written."
Catterson is then quoted as replying at 7:45 PM, "I see it as Susan doesn't know jack [expletive deleted] about bikes, has proven it again and again, and now that she's done this expose on how monumentally bad motorcycles are for the environment, she's proven she's not one of us so is fair game. I say one column, feed her to the dogs."
This exchange appears to refute the assertion that Ford's work required a re-write or that his "personal agenda" was the motivating factor for the article. Elsewhere in the leaked emails, Catterson is quoted as using phrases like, "I say F her, she's proven she's one of 'them' now!" (June 18, 2008 at 2:38 PM) and, "So as far as I'm concerned, the gloves are off!" (June 13, 2008 at 12:59 PM), when discussing Susan Carpenter.
"Dexter wrote a number of different versions of his Susan Carpenter editorial, the first few of which were character assassinations fueled, I believe, by his desire to have her job," Catterson said when we asked him about the disparity between the emails and the termination letter. "Dexter has written for the Los Angeles Times before, but not about motorcycling, at least that I'm aware of. I refused to publish those, but agreed to publish a later version he rewrote on the heels of her ill-researched piece on motorcycle emissions. Thus my 'feed her to the dogs' comment, which was obviously intended for his eyes only."
Let's move on to the Snell press conference at which Ford allegedly embarrassed himself and the magazine. Looking at the emails, Catterson appears to assign Ford to the conference on April 22, 2009. On June 22, Ford sends an email to Catterson in which he says, in reference to Snell, "I'm studying to ambush the [expletive deleted]. It will be fun."
According to the next email (June 18, 2009 at 9:54 AM), Catterson doesn't appear to have any problem with "ambush[ing] the [expletive deleted]," responding, "So ambush away, then get writing! Again, this is going to be our lead news story..."
If "ambushing [expletive deleted]" equates to embarrassing behavior, then why didn't Catterson put a stop to it ahead of time, as it appears he had the opportunity to do?
Included in the email chain (August 4, 2009 at 10:11 AM) appears to be a follow up from Motorcyclist's western advertising manager, who spoke to Shoei and Helmet House (both heavily invested in Snell-rated helmets) after Ford's news article about the Snell press conference was published. Nowhere in it is any mention of bad behavior; in fact, the email indicates both companies and everyone else the ad manager spoke to appear to be pleased with the story. The opening paragraph of that email reads: "First of all, I'm pleased to report that the Snell 2010 story has been well received. Shoei, Helmet House, and everyone else I have spoken to since the story broke feels that the article was objective and well written."
If Ford had acted offensively in front of advertisers, wouldn't they have mentioned it the next time Motorcyclist's ad sales guy came calling?
We asked Ford to describe his behavior at the press conference. "I behaved at that press conference like any good reporter should: I asked tough questions," he told us. "And when they didn't give me real answers, I refused to let them off the hook until they did."
"Motorcyclist fired me—because Arai and Shoei didn't like a helmet-standards piece I wrote for the New York Times," Ford told us.
Advertiser Pressure and Ford's Motorcyclist Articles
In an email thread dated August 18, 2009, Catterson appears to respond to a further Snell story pitch from Ford by saying (3:53 PM), "[Expletive deleted] it. I'm done with Snell and the controversy. It's a no-win situation." Catterson goes on to elaborate on that point after Ford asserts the story's importance (August 18, 2009 at 5:16 PM): "I know, I know. But Arai is already pissed off that you wrote anything about Snell again, and we can't afford to lose them like we did last time. We only just got them back! And given the state of advertising right now, we can't afford to lose another major advertiser. There's already talk of going back to saddlestitch and dropping below our 100-page minimum book size. And more importantly, I fear for my job! Sorry."
That's the last email thread included in the leak before Catterson appears to approach Ford about the writer's Times piece, that email asserts not only that the newspaper article will cost Motorcyclist advertising at a time when the magazine can't afford to lose it, but also that his own job is threatened unless he "[does] something about [Ford]."
At one point in the leaked emails Catterson appears to put a dollar amount on some of the advertising that's been lost due to Ford's articles. In an email dated January 19, 2008, at 11:33 AM, Catterson is quoted as writing, "Also FYI your last column cost us Arai's and Shoei's ads again—approximately $100K."
What Does All This Mean?
In these leaked emails, the alleged connection between Dexter's helmet articles and lost advertising dollars is documented as far back as March 2007, expressed multiple times throughout the emails, then culminates with the alleged assertion that the September 25, 2009, Times article "is likely to cost [Motorcyclist] Arai and Shoei advertising — again." (September 30, 2009 at 3:25 PM) A fine point is put on the connection between the will of advertisers and Dexter's termination when Catterson allegedly says it's his job or Ford's.
"Motorcyclist clearly lets their advertisers dictate not just what they run, and the opinions expressed on their products, but also who their writers are," says Ford. "And even what their writers write for real, world-class papers like the New York Times."
"As a professional moto-journalist since 1986, I firmly believe in separation of 'church and state,' and have always told it like it is, never mind the repercussions," Catterson told us.
Throughout the leaked emails Catterson appears to be enthusiastic, even excited about Ford's articles and writing. The tone reflects that right up until August 2009 when assertions like, "I fear for my job!" begin to appear. (August 18, 2009 at 5:16 PM) Catterson actually sounds like a great editor, working hard to ensure his writer has assignments he's enthusiastic about and working with Ford to get the best out of his writing. Sadly, it appears that Catterson could have been placed in the unenviable position, after supporting his writer through previous instances of lost advertising, of choosing between his own job and that of Ford's due to advertiser pressure.
There's no link made in the emails between unethical practices at Motorcyclist and Source Interlink Media (the magazine's publisher) other than Catterson's apparent assertion that "None of that matters to the brass when two of our biggest advertisers are threatening to yank their ads" (September 30, 2009 at 4:21 PM) and the connection that can logically be drawn between the editor-in-chief's job allegedly being threatened and that alleged threat coming from Source Interlink Media staff senior to the editor-in-chief at one of the titles they own. Source Interlink Media also publishes motorcycle titles like Sport Rider, Dirt Rider, ATV Rider, Hot Bike and Super Streetbike, as well as popular titles outside the motorcycle world such as Motor Trend and Automobile Magazine.
Unfortunately, looking at the big picture, these leaked emails have severe implications for Motorcyclist's credibility, suggesting an editorial environment where profit is put before ethical behavior.
Ford asks, "If you were a Motorcyclist staffer, and you understood what happened to me, would you make sure your next road test took full account of who advertises, how much, and how cranky they might be?"
This article originally appeared on Hell For Leather on July 7th, 2010.