Posted by: David Kiley on April 13, 2005
A few days ago in this space, I wrote on General Motors and its decision to punish the LA Times by canceling about $10 million in advertising for its harsh coverage of the automaker. I also said in that blog entry that I hadn’t seen anything in the piece that looked, as GM asserted, as a “factual error” used to support author Dan Neil’s bashing of the Pontiac G6 and GM management.
It’s funny how a newspaper story can appear accurate even if its underlying facts are skewed. I didn’t question items in the story drawn, as I often do, from third party data gatherers. Shame on me. [Disclosure: I am acquainted with Neil (though he hasn’t answered e-mails from me since he won the Pulitzer last year)]. But Website editor/blogger Miro Pacic of Automobear.com dissected Neil’s story and seems to have gotten to the bottom of what the LA Times’ ombudsman is surely evaluating this week. Read Pacic’s piece, but in short, the editor shows Neil’s comparison between the sales of the new Pontiac G6 and the car it it replaced, the Grand Am, don’t make sense as evidence that the car is selling poorly. So far, the G6 is just offered in a high end V6 four-door version, while the Grand Am was offered in a full range of four-cylinder and V6s, sedans and coupe. Also, Neil, Pacic’s writes, confused the incentives offered today across all Pontiacs with an incentive offered just on the G6, as tracked by Edmunds.com. The low sales of the G6 and the high incentives reported by Neil are used to paint the car and GM management as failing.
While beat writers frequently criticize GM management and product, it’s always important to have the facts lined up. Double that care when the piece calls for the CEO and product chief to be fired.
Directionally, Neil’s criticisms of GM are defensible. But he may be guilty in this case of shaping certain data to back up a point he decided to make before getting the data. As a journalist, and certainly as a human being, I’m not free of mistakes. And as an editor, I know it’s important not to give our subjects (who, let’s be honest, are sometimes targets) easy ammunition to undercut our reporting, especially in a column. His subjective criticism of the car’s interior and handling are legitimate, as they are based on his opinion as a product evaluator. Where he seems to have erred is in pulling in ill-reported data points to substantiate his opinion.
GM once expertly and impressively undressed NBC’s Dateline for a report on side-saddle gas tanks on pickup trucks prone to catching fire when hit from the side by another vehicle or fixed object. GM found that Dateline had staged, and in fact had created, the explosions without disclosing that the video was a dramatization. The issue of whether GM’s trucks were dangerous or not was mitigated by the wrong reporting.
GM seems to be dug in to prove that some journalists are not reporting on the company accurately. Even if they prove it, I’m not sure it will help their image. But the real point of the exercise, I suspect, is to get writers and bloggers like me to write about GM perhaps making better products than is perceived in the mainstream media. If that’s the case, I guess it’s working.