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On Toyota: Good for the Washington Post

By | Briefly Legal, Media Relations, Regulations | One Comment

A common and much-justified complaint against mainstream newspapers is how the media can give prominence to even the most speculative charges against a person or company and when those charges are disproved, it’s a fleeting, one-day story buried inside.

Thus, kudos to The Washington Post for so prominently displaying the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s report that cleared Toyota from the accusations their vehicles’ electronics produced incidents of unintended acceleration. Scientific investigation by top NASA engineers disproved the claims: “NASA found no evidence that a malfunction in electronics caused large unintended accelerations,” said Michael Kirsch, Principal Engineer at the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC).

Here’s The Washington Post’s front page. The newspaper also publishes an excellent editorial on the hype and ginned-up attacks against the company, “NHTSA report clears up mystery – and hysteria – on Toyota cars.” Excerpt:

AFTER A 10-MONTH study, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and NASA have concluded that the cause of sudden accelerations of Toyotas last year was not, as widely speculated, a software flaw that the company would not acknowledge. Some of the incidents were caused by “pedal misapplication” – that is, a driver mistakenly slamming on the gas instead of the brake – and some by sticking pedals or floor mat entanglement. And what of the spike in reported malfunctions? The publicity that enveloped the federal investigations – which led to the recall of more than 8.5 million cars and congressional hearings that hauled Toyota President Akio Toyoda to Capitol Hill – “was the major contributor to the timing and volume of complaints.”

In short, human error, mechanical errors that Toyota repaired and a dose of politically induced hysteria were to blame. The congressional hearings often were aimed more at generating headlines than getting to the bottom of a confusing situation. It’s right to ask tough questions of corporate executives and public officials. But the absence of restraint and perspective did not help get at the truth. Company officials were put in an impossible situation, since blaming Toyota customers – though this was true in many cases – would have been a public relations disaster.

The Post’s editorial cites the NHTSA study that concludes that “the most likely cause” of acceleration was “pedal misapplication.” The paper’s good advice to readers — “Remember this when the next crisis hits” — might also be applied to many of the nation’s editors and reporters, too.

P.S. And here’s The New York Times front page coverage. Hardly seems to balance the more than 900 articles and other items on Toyota and acceleration over the past year, does it?