McAdams On: The Politics of Revenue

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 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 story 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 recalled.

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 to

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. 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 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 off.

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.