Ed Wallace says a lot of big shots in the mainstream media owe Toyota an apology.
Wallace, a well-known commentator in the United States who writes for BusinessWeek magazine, singles out the CBS Evening News and its well-paid anchor, Katie Couric, as something of the poster child for irresponsible reporting on alleged uncontrollable acceleration of Toyota vehicles.
Some background. Last week a U.S. Government investigation reported that NASA engineers had cleared Toyota of electronic flaws in its throttle control system. The 10-month investigation into causes of unintended acceleration turned up no electronic problems.
The rocket scientists called in by the Department of Transportation said floor mat interference and sticky gas pedals - both subject to recalls in 2010 - caused incidents of runaway vehicles. They also said that in many cases drivers mistook the accelerator for the brake.
Naturally, the Transportation Department study was called inconclusive by safety advocates and plaintiff attorneys suing Toyota over unintended acceleration incidents they say have caused more than 80 deaths and more than 55 injuries since 2000. Naturally. But who do you believe?
Wallace argues that the rocket scientists have pretty much capped the controversy, yet the damage done to Toyota's reputation has been severe. Moreover, it is not being ameliorated by media coverage equal in volume and intensity to the negative and accusatory reports on this issue - the ones which dominated reporting for the past 18 months or so.
For instance, notes Wallace, 11 months ago Couric opened her broadcast with the story of Jim Sikes, a California real estate agent who claimed to have lost control of his Toyota Prius during a high-speed ride during which he told a 911 operator he was standing on the brake pedal. Within days, Sike's contentions were discovered to be fraudulent, yet that story did not receive the same degree of news coverage. It certainly was not the lead item on the CBS Evening News.
Wallace also discusses The Wall Street Journal, now owned by Rupert Murdoch of "fair and balanced" Fox News, which along with the CBS Evening News used so-called "safety crusaders" whose testimony has been lacking at best, and suspect at worst. The quality of the "expert testimony," argues Wallace, has been subpar and journalists have not helped themselves by thoroughly vetting the qualifications and the possible motives of these experts.
"The Toyota case is no different from the Ford Firestone media frenzy of 11 years ago," writes Wallace. "Not once did any of the national journalists covering this story bring even a semblance of balance to the case."
Wallace decries the use of experts often guided by financial gain or some other ulterior motive.
"They craft and sell these stories to the media in pursuit of their own private goals, never wasting a thought for whom or what company their intentional misinformation will damage or how many hard-working people's incomes they'll destroy," he writes.
He goes on to note, "The first job of a journalist is to ask, 'Is this information true?'"
Those journalists, bloggers, commentators and the like who did not ask that very basic question, certainly do owe Toyota an apology. After all, the rocket scientists have spoken.