Sunday Feature: Media played around with cars that blew up reputations

Illustration: Phil Riske

By Phil Riske | Senior Reporter/Writer 

All the news the Reporter has published about cars this week — the Barrett-Jackson show and Rose Law Group Renewable Energy and Automotive Investment Attorney, Eric Hill’s series on antique cars — reminded me of two fake car stories perpetrated by national media decades ago. 

In the 70s, I had the privilege of working for the Des Moines Register and Tribune, which at the time had more Pulitzer Prizes for journalism than any newspaper. The managing editor was Michael Gartner, considered one of the best newspapermen in the country.

In the 90s, NBC lured Gartner away from Des Moines, making him president of the news division. But for a puff of smoke, it all might have turned out differently.

Fast forward: General Motors Corp. might still be congratulating itself for the $105.2 million jury verdict awarded to an Atlanta couple whose son died when his GM truck exploded in a collision. NBC News might have been touting itself for having exposed the danger of GM’s controversial ”sidesaddle” gas tanks in a riveting “Dateline NBC” video. Instead, the network singed its reputation as GM won in the court of public opinion the safety battle it had lost in the courthouse.

“Dateline’s” report on Nov. 17 featured 14 minutes of balanced debate, capped by 57 seconds of crash footage that explosively showed how the gas tanks of certain old GM trucks could catch fire in a sideways collision.

Following a tip, GM hired detectives, searched 22 junkyards for 18 hours, and found evidence to debunk almost every aspect of the crash sequence. In a devastating press conference, GM showed that the conflagration was rigged, its causes misattributed, its severity overstated and other facts distorted. Two crucial errors: NBC said the truck’s gas tank had ruptured, yet an X-ray showed it hadn’t; NBC consultants set off explosive miniature rockets beneath the truck split seconds before the crash — yet no one told the viewers.

Gartner said he simply goofed by defending the Dateline piece. He apologized, resigned and returned to Iowa to run a small-town newspaper.

Media frenzy begins when a story becomes the soup of the day. Consider Tesla, for example.

CBS’ “60 Minutes” aired a report on Tesla and its amazing electric car. As The Associated Press reported, a CBS editor made what was being called an “audio error” in dubbing the sound of a loud traditional car engine over footage of the much quieter Tesla Model electric car. CBS was in retreat all week.

Tesla, which was the victim of a bogus New York Times report, appears to have stayed on the sidelines for the latest episode with CBS. “[B]ut does the whole matter put a chilling effect on coverage of the company?” asks USA TODAY. “Perhaps.”

News media continue to violate a basic principle: You don’t have to get the story first; be the first to get it right.

Shame, shame, shame.

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February 2020