Frenzied Coverage of Toyota Problems Short on Skepticism and Attribution

We're watching the meltdown of another story that was too good to be true, too vivid and contemporary to challenge: the runaway California Prius. It didn't take long before the California driver's claims were restated as facts: uncontrolled speed, inabil

Mar 29, 2010 at 2:06 pm

We’re watching the meltdown of another story that was too good to be true, too vivid and contemporary to challenge: the runaway California Prius.

Most of us haven't driven a late model Prius, so we're dependent on reporters to tell us what happened and what might have been done to bring the car under control ... if it was out of control. In the media frenzy over Toyota acceleration problems, two key components in reporting too often were lost: skepticism and attribution.

It didn’t take long before the California driver’s claims were restated as facts: uncontrolled speed, inability to slow or stop and heroic cop who played a role in averting disaster. It made sense if you believed the hype about Toyota problems.

We don’t own a Toyota. I haven’t driven one for years. I have no idea if there is a mechanical, electronic or operator problem.

But it wasn’t long before all of the driver’s claims were accepted and reported without attribution. In short, the news media stated as facts that which it didn’t know, hadn’t tested and couldn’t verify. No one seemed exempt. It was too good a story.

I’m not sure who first tickled away the base of this sand castle, but a former student, photojournalist Emily Lang, sent me an online article from Forbes that takes apart the whole edifice, almost minute by minute, using publicly available evidence from the driver, the California cops, the recorded calls to 911, etc. It all but demolishes the driver’s claims and news media coverage.

Meanwhile, others are looking at the facts in other claims of uncontrolled acceleration and finding a high proportion occurring in parking situations with older drivers at the wheel. Those apparently are moments when it's easiest to confuse gas and brake pedals because attention is on the surroundings and researchers say that older drivers are more prone to this confusion.

Moreover, at least one op-ed piece in The New York Times looks at how we react in such situations, and “panic” is the right word. We freeze, unthinkingly keeping our foot on the gas when we should be braking.

I have no idea how the Toyota fiasco will be resolved. There might be mechanical or electronic explanations for unwanted and uncontrollable acceleration.

My point is this: No matter what the claims, reporters should continue to tell their audiences who is the source of their information. This especially will cramp some broadcast reporters’ styles, where unattributed assertions are stated as facts even if they contradicts yesterday’s stated facts.

Curmudgeon Notes

• I faulted The Enquirer’s watch-dog efforts when it came to Cincinnati’s Empowerment Zone over the past decade, saying it was an example of the paper’s willful blindness when it comes to screwed-up public funding of black-run organizations. Mutual friends told me that former colleague Greg Korte demonstrated in his Enquirer blog that I was wrong about Empowerment Zone coverage. Stories he listed began in 1999.

OK, I’m glad I was wrong. But it wasn’t because I didn’t look. I relied on the Enquirer online archive. Korte, a skilled reporter on computer-based data, might have archive access that I don’t. I tried again today. First, few of the stories he cited came up. Most or all were recent. On repeated attempts, either I couldn’t find the server or lots of stories appeared.

New York Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert wrote about GOP and Tea Party backers screaming epithets at Democratic members of Congress walking to historic votes on health insurance reform. He says The Times wouldn’t allow him to tell readers that Barney Frank was called “faggot” and John Lewis was called “nigger.” Frank is gay; Lewis is black. Call me insensitive, but how do you communicate with readers about this level of incivility without saying what was said? Even more curious, other publications used “faggot” but not “nigger.” Or they used “faggot” and “n####r.” Even anti-abortion stalwart Bart Stupak was called “baby killer.” If readers are offended, we should explain why the abusers, not the reporting, is the proper target of their ire.

• Strong, insulting and offensive language is something Canadians are loathe to endure, and it can be prosecuted. However, Canadian civility recently had a wild ride and crash landing.

Francois Houle, academic vice president and provost of Ottawa University, warned wingnut Ann Coulter that she risked prosecution if she delivered her typical speech that host campus conservatives expected. Canada’s National Post published Houle’s memo:

Dear Ms. Coulter,

I understand that you have been invited by University of Ottawa Campus Conservatives to speak at the University of Ottawa this coming Tuesday. We are, of course, always delighted to welcome speakers on our campus and hope that they will contribute positively to the meaningful exchange of ideas that is the hallmark of a great university campus. We have a great respect for freedom of expression in Canada, as well as on our campus, and view it as a fundamental freedom, as recognized by our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

I would, however, like to inform you, or perhaps remind you, that our domestic laws, both provincial and federal, delineate freedom of expression (or "free speech") in a manner that is somewhat different than the approach taken in the United States. I therefore encourage you to educate yourself, if need be, as to what is acceptable in Canada and to do so before your planned visit here.

You will realize that Canadian law puts reasonable limits on the freedom of expression. For example, promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges. Outside of the criminal realm, Canadian defamation laws also limit freedom of expression and may differ somewhat from those to which you are accustomed. I therefore ask you, while you are a guest on our campus, to weigh your words with respect and civility in mind.

There is a strong tradition in Canada, including at this university, of restraint, respect and consideration in expressing even provocative and controversial opinions and urge you to respect that Canadian tradition while on our campus. Hopefully, you will understand and agree that what may, at first glance, seem like unnecessary restrictions to freedom of expression do, in fact, lead not only to a more civilized discussion, but to a more meaningful, reasoned and intelligent one as well.

I hope you will enjoy your stay in our beautiful country, city and campus.

Then civility fled. Coulter did not speak. Her bodyguard said student protesters compromised her safety.

After the cancelled event, The National Post reports, Coulter dismissed her opponents, saying, "The University of Ottawa is really easy to get into, isn't it? I never get any trouble at the Ivy League schools. It's always the bush league schools." In her Post interview, she added, "This has never, ever, ever happened before — even at the stupidest American university. ... I'm pretty sure little Francois A-Houle does not need to travel with a bodyguard. I would like to know when this sort of violence, this sort of protest, has been inflicted upon a Muslim — who appear to be, from what I've read of the human rights complaints, the only protected group in Canada. I think I'll give my speech tomorrow night in a burka. That will protect me.”

The Enquirer’s full-page apology for running an ad showing U.S. Rep. Steve Driehaus and two daughters doesn’t make sense. The paper said Driehaus objected to his daughters’ images. The ad was not pornographic, salacious, suggestive or anything else. I didn’t even remember seeing it when I read the apology the next day. The photo was part of the layout submitted by the properly identified special interest group. No one at the paper decided to insert a photo or select the photo that appeared. The paper was doing what it ought to do all of the time: selling and displaying ads. Will The Enquirer next apologize for Toyota ads?

• The Enquirer apology to Driehaus suggests the potential for wider screening of what is appropriate in the minds of ad reps and execs at the paper. In the past, The Enquirer extended its editorial policies to ads, rejecting those that failed to hew to the paper’s political and social preferences. I don’t like the word “censor” except when it involves government. A daily paper can reject any ad it likes, even if it’s for movies it won’t review or medical procedures whose results it abhors. But political ads? Will the paper now reject a candidate’s political ads showing his/her family, lest some pervert get the hots for the kids?

How about this for a new policy: Third parties’ campaign ads can’t show candidates’ families, and candidates won’t flaunt their marital fidelity and reproductive prowess in their ads?

• Then there is the vendetta against Laketa Cole, a sad sack on Cincinnati City Council who leaves for better pay and even lower expectations in state government. That way, she’ll save the Democrats a bruising primary battle between two politically prominent black women hoping for the same state legislature seat. An editorial bemoaning the fact that the Democratic Party found a place for Cole in Columbus was puzzling. Of course parties take care of their own and try to avoid intra-party conflict. Republicans do it. Think about the progression in elected state offices and not a few county jobs. Democrats do it. It’s politics.

The attack on Cole reminds me of nothing more than the scene in Casablanca — brilliant but now reduced to a cliche — where the complicit French cop is “shocked, shocked” to find gambling in Rick’s Bar. No one at The Enquirer is so naive that they're “shocked, shocked” at what the Democrats did. They weren’t shocked when Republicans played the game because that was statesmanship. But long, detailed news stories about Cole’s move suggest something highly improper is afoot. Not so, unless loathing for Cole is guiding the news judgment as well as the paper’s opinions.

• I’m still chuckling over The Enquirer’s photo of the Scottish flag — the Saltire or St. Andrew’s cross — in the paper’s St. Patrick’s Day parade coverage.

• Woooo hoooo, we’ve got killings on Cincinnati streets. Yes, young black men do it to each other every year. Compare and contrast with last year and whatever year we set a record in homicides-to-date. Once in a while someone else is shot. Police can’t prevent shootings; when gunmen are willing to die, some will be killed. Worse, many witnesses won’t help identify shooters. If anything good is to come out of it, it’ll be from The Enquirer‘s Eileen Kelley, a veteran crime reporter who knows her way past cynicism, euphemism, obfuscation and blarney.

Meanwhile, why do broadcasters call these killings “murder?” That’s up to the courts, as in “guilty of murder.” Could be manslaughter, self-defense, etc. They’re homicides.

Enquirer’s Kelley also is digging into Cincinnati police droppings that trail the former head of the mounted patrol. The chief told everyone to behave. The city manager ordered an investigation. How the city handles the probe — including the original and the edited findings — is of much greater importance to the police department, the integrity of the city manager’s position under our strong mayor form of government and public safety. If you ever doubted (or feared) the impact of Freedom of Information laws, read Kelley’s Sunday page 1 story. Her earlier stories inexplicably still are available in the newspaper's online archive. They suggest the affair — which began with a horse’s rump — involves more than one ass.

Enquirer reporters also are parsing the problems in the city pension system and the local economy. Almost daily, there is a substantive story based on local reporting of public affairs. Critics who say the paper is sadly diminished aren’t reading it.

• What is Channel 19 up to, devoting big chunks of their late news to a Marine Corps promo? Yes, local recruits are going through Parris Island boot camp, and yes, the training is impressive, but that breathless, adoring reporting is over the top.

• W’s former speechwriter, David Frum, is in deep shit with conservatives for calling GOP defeat on health insurance legislation their “Waterloo.” If he is right, Pelosi ought to be echoing Wellington’s comment that his Waterloo victory was a “close run thing.”

• And this from HuffPost: Vice President Joe Biden, perhaps overcome with excitement during his speech congratulating President Obama on the passage of health care reform, dropped an F-bomb on live television when he turned to Obama and said, "This is a big fucking deal." The microphone just barely catches it. The White House must not be too upset about Biden's comment; Press Secretary Robert Gibbs just tweeted: "And yes Mr. Vice President, you're right...”

• Pundits and analysts usually are identified with the military, government agencies, companies or policies for which they speak. That isn’t sufficient, according to Nathan Hodge’s recent article in The Nation. He raises a tougher issue: Which industries bankroll these institutions and the policies that their “fellows” or “scholars” promote? His reporting suggests strongly that neutral-sounding institutions and seemingly detached analyses might be anything but.

• Of its many virtues, none exceeds the weekly Economist’s ability to report and explain science. A recent edition had a special report on climate change: science, disputes, implications. It acknowledges critics of the troubled conventional wisdom and, in some cases, explains why denials or doubts are based on flawed, if not contradictory, science. It would be hard to find a better primer.

• Here’s the latest sortie into the no-win battle over abortion. David Sweeney, NPR managing editor, says that after a recent internal debate some top editors reviewed the 2005 policy and abandoned "pro-choice" or "pro-life." He wants to ensure that “the words we speak and write are as clear, consistent and neutral as possible. ... On the air, we should use ‘abortion rights supporter(s)/advocate(s)’ and ‘abortion rights opponent(s)’ or derivations thereof (for example: ‘advocates of abortion rights’). It is acceptable to use the phrase ‘anti-abortion,’ but do not use the term ‘pro-abortion rights.’" He tells colleagues, “Do not use ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ ... except when used in the name of a group. Of course, when the terms are used in an actuality they should remain. An actuality is a clip of tape of someone talking. So if a source uses those terms, NPR will not edit them out.”

• My favorite quote of the past week came from an op-ed piece in The New York Times by Charles M. Blow. He was talking about populist frustrations: “A woman (Nancy Pelosi) pushed the health care bill through the House. The bill’s most visible and vocal proponents included a gay man (Barney Frank) and a Jew (Anthony Weiner). And the black man in the White House signed the bill into law. It’s enough to make a good old boy go crazy.”

• I hope the news media stay with this story and its implications for public policy: Among Republicans, 24 percent think Obama might be the anti-Christ. Given the awful things people do when they believe they're carrying out their god’s commands or wishes, this is scary. I picked up this Harris Poll of 2,230 Americans from the online Daily Beast. It was taken during the height of the health insurance debate: 67 percent believe Obama’s a Socialist, 57 percent think he’s a Muslim, 45 percent say he’s foreign born and ineligible to occupy the Oval Office and 38 percent claim he’s “doing many of the things that Hitler did” although that probably does not include Hitler’s murder of Socialists and Communists. Harris finds an inverse relationship of education and belief in these anti-Obama myths.

• Darwin Awards honor stupidity that removes individuals from the gene pool. The Internet has video of a Russian wedding guest playing what passes for Russian Roulette with a loaded semiautomatic pistol. Russian Roulette traditionally involves a revolver with one cartridge in the five- or six-shot cylinder. The player spins the cylinder, holds the muzzle to his/her head and pulls the trigger. With four or five empty chambers, the odds are pretty good that the player will hear “click.” In the video, the Darwin Award winner uses a pistol in which there is no cylinder to spin. There was a live cartridge in the single chamber.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]