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Why CBS and the American media owe Toyota an apology


By The Drum Team, Editorial

February 12, 2011 | 4 min read

One of the odd things about the big story a year ago about "uncontrollable acceleration" in Toyota cars was that while it might be happening in America, it didn't seem to be happening in Britain . Turns out, it wasn't happening in America either.

Now the US media is taking a beating for its reporting . In a trenchant piece in Business Week - headlined Toyota : The media owe you an apology - Ed Wallace writes:

"Sometimes it's no fun being right. Last February I wrote that the concern about Toyota cars was just so much humbug. As the findings on the government investigation into these allegations proved, I was proven correct. What I would prefer, however, is that the media would take the time to report a story accurately rather than just stir up a public frenzy in pursuit of ratings."

Eleven months ago, said Wallace, CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric led on the story of Jim Sikes, a real estate agent whose Toyota Prius supposedly shot up to 94 miles an hour while he was standing on the brake .

Within days, according to Wallace, Mr. Sike's claims were discovered to be fraudulent. He was later reported to be facing serious financial difficulties.

Fast forward 11 months . Last week , CBS reported that the 11-month investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration—working with NASA—ruled out electronic defects as a cause of "Toyota Deaths."

Floor mats incorrectly installed were to blame - and some vehicles had sticky accelerators. The majority of cases were "pedal misapplication" - driver error, to you and me.

Yet CBS still wasn't willing to let the Toyota story go totally, said Wallace. Reporter Sandra Hughes played part of the 911 call just before a California policeman and three members of his family were killed in a borrowed Lexus going at 100 mph.

"Hughes withheld from the audience the fact that that case was now closed. The loaner was found to have had floor mats for a Lexus RX SUV installed instead," said Wallace.

Unintended acceleration has been complained about and studied for decades, and the conclusions are always the same. This is why: Some people freeze up mentally instead of physically when they panic; they honestly believe they are slamming on the brakes when in fact it is the accelerator they're flooring.

Wallace said he didn't mean to single out CBS for criticism. "Plenty of other media outlets share the blame.The first job of a journalist is to ask, "Is this information true?" It's obvious that when it comes to automobiles, that's the last question the broadcast media want answered."

In the Harvard Business Review, blogger Jeffrey Liker was also on the attack. He wrote that NHTSA knew all along that the only problems were floor mats and sticky pedals, but they had to go ahead with the NASA study to convince members of Congress who believed electronics were the cause of sudden acceleration despite a total lack of evidence to support that belief.

He said,"Toyota's name was dragged through the mud for over a year, $1.5 million in taxpayer money was spent, and some of the brightest minds in American engineering were occupied for 10 months — just so that NHTSA could prove they were right all along."

So who won in this debacle? Liker answered: "Journalists who wrote speculative and poorly researched sensational articles got a lot of internet hits. NHTSA got a lot of attention, a larger budget, and a reputation for toughness.

American drivers got a paranoid auto industry that will recall vehicles at the drop of a hat. And Toyota got a crisis that drove it to reflect intensively and to make dramatic changes to improve its responsiveness to customer concerns, so likely will emerge stronger — but lost billions of dollars of value in the process."

It remained to be seen whether the lawyers suing Toyota will get anything, said Liker.

He concluded, "It's hard to believe that our roads are any safer at the end of this extended saga."

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