McAdams On: The Politics of Revenue
2/12/2010 4:21:27 PM
Toyota this week punished ABC for saving lives.
That may be an overstatement; certainly it is to the carmaker. Toyota dealers
beat down ABC affiliates in the Southeast for the network’s ongoing coverage of
the carmaker’s recalls by shifting ad dollars to competing stations. Toyota’s message
to the news media: You report what we like or we pull our money.
And so ABC responded. The continuing Toyota story, possibly one of the most
nefarious of corporate misbehavior, is no longer front and center on ABCNews.com. It’s now buried down in the
Blotter section, where a former attorney with the company said it
systematically destroyed and subverted evidence of safety problems. Toyota says
the guy’s crazy; the usual recourse on whistle-blowers.
In the meantime, the L.A. Times has a
from one of many drivers suing the automaker; he’s pictured glaring at the
camera from the confines of a neck brace he earned rolling over a suddenly
accelerating Corolla. The Christian
Science Monitor, which doesn’t own TV stations, notes that questions
remain about the car company’s explanation for what has been revealed as
endemic sudden acceleration. The Monitor found
reports of Prius complaints as far back as 2005 models; only 2010s were
The ball started rolling last September with a Lexus and Toyota recall
affecting around 4 million vehicles over floor mats that were said to get stuck
under gas pedals, causing unintended acceleration. ABC News investigated,
running a story
in November with drivers who challenged the floor-mat explanation. They were going
faster when the brake pedal was pressed.
Another 2.3 million Toyotas were recalled in January, about one-third of them
for an acceleration-related mechanical malfunction. Around that time, ABC’s
Brian Ross did a story
on a guy who had the same experience and credited the news outlet for saving
his life when he shifted the car into neutral and nursed it to a dealership
where it sat revving for no explicable reason.
Then production was stopped on eight of the company’s most popular vehicles,
and further recalls continue worldwide. Around 60 lawsuits have been filed,
including more than a dozen for wrongful death and personal injury, according
Defenders are speaking forth, including governors of four states with big
non-union Toyota plants representing manufacturing jobs that are now nigh-on
impossible to replace. Edmonds.com
released a complaint
report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration listing
Toyota as 17th among carmakers with the most complaints per vehicle sold.
“No one should overlook the issues raised by the Toyota recalls, but it is
important to keep things in perspective,” said Edmonds.com CEO Jeremy Anwyl. “A broader view shows that consumer
complaints reflect an industry issue, not just a Toyota issue. As Toyota’s
experience in recent months clearly demonstrates, it is no longer an option for
car companies to dismiss consumer complaints, even if the event is difficult to
replicate or diagnose.”
Anwyl may have a point, but there’s no telling about how Toyota would have
handled the current situation without the bright, shining light shown on it by
Ross and his ilk. The company could very well have continued blaming drivers,
as it did in the case
of a couple who’s car dragged itself over a cliff, killing the driver’s wife.
Here’s the deal; Toyota certainly doesn’t owe ABC affiliates any allegiance or
advertising dollars, but its tactic reeks of evading culpability. What it
should have done is come clean months ago rather than blame drivers for driving
its cars. Corporate heads should have rolled. Executives should have issued authentic, sincere apologies, and
outlined the rectification strategy immediately. Ross likely would have backed
But Toyota equivocated, much as any corporation doing business in the world
today for fear of being sued, even when denial doesn’t prevent legal action.
It’s about the size of the settlement.
The unfortunate fall-out is the further endangerment of news. News that presses
for accountability from business, bankers, politicians and people in general.
Gathering news is not free. Opinion, such as this and that which dominates most of
what’s published on the Internet, is not news. News is a research and
fact-checking process that takes time and resources, as well as a culture of
integrity from the society it serves.
When business no longer supports a true and viable news media, we’d all better
start riding bikes. Slowly.