By on August 17, 2010

With Sixty to Zero, leading auto industry journalist Alex Taylor III claims to provide “an inside look at the collapse of General Motors – and the Detroit auto industry.” The book is well worth reading, but not because it actually provides this inside look. Instead, this book, atypically as much personal memoir as history, lets us peer inside the life and mind of a top auto journalist. A close read suggests why such journalists provide little insight into what really goes on inside the auto companies.

Taylor’s coverage of the auto industry for the past three decades (like much of business journalism) has been based heavily on interviews with senior executives, and especially with CEOs. In his book, he describes how journalists seek to build close relationships with executives, and avoid jeopardizing these relationships. Admiring articles written to build relationships with executives even have an insider label: “beat sweeteners.” Smart executives work this desire to build relationships to their advantage. As Taylor notes, “There’s nothing like a little personal attention from a top executive to win over a journalist.”

These relationships between journalists and executives come across as intensely personal. In describing each executive, Taylor focuses on their mannerisms, how they dressed, and whether he personally liked them. Roger Smith had a “high, squeaky voice and jittery mannerisms.” Lee Iacocca: “an insecure man who wore his neuroses on his sleeve.” Bob Stempel: “a big, beefy man [who] would become visibly angry, his face turning red, when he became irked” and “the classroom grind who gets ahead not by virtue of his smarts or quick wit but because he works harder than everyone else.” Lloyd Reuss: “dressed like a riverboat gambler…but underneath he was another GM suit who always saw good times just around the corner.” Bob Eaton: “a peculiar personality that put some people off…his usual expression was of vague stomach upset.” Jürgen Schrempp: “Iacocca’s ego and ambition and none of his insecurity…an imposing man with enormous energy and an irresistible personality.” Dieter Zetsche: “an intense intelligence with an instinctive flair for personal relations…[I] never failed to be charmed by his candor, wit, and the literal twinkle in his eye…he said all the right things.” Rick Wagoner: “smart, personable, and thoughtful.” Mulally: “the personality of an Eagle Scout who had memorized How to Win Friends and Influence People and dressed like a scoutmaster.”

Bob Lutz is a special case. The lusty personal description, too lengthy to reproduce here, includes “the body of a gymnast,” “übermale,” and Savile Row suits “to show off his physique.” Summing up: “Favored with exceptional physical equipment and a psyche that allowed him to give it full expression, Lutz became the center of attention wherever he went in automotive circles. It was a role that he enjoyed and played to the hilt.”

With Iacocca and Lutz in particular these relationships formed “a special club in which [the executive] controlled the membership.” Taylor further describes the relationship between the press and Lutz as “a longtime romance that Lutz cleverly exploited…he pretended we were equal partners in his five-star world of fast cars and international travel.” Taylor guarded a special relationship with Iacocca but ultimately opted not to join “the Lutz club.” As he candidly explains, “I was intimidated by his überness,” “I found his need for attention to be exhausting,” and “hordes of other writers were enamored of Lutz; I didn’t want to get in line.”

These relationships were not always smooth ones. Those times when Taylor did write a critical article he often received a vigorous response from the covered executive. In the most colorful example, Taylor described how Stempel “once forced me to sit and listen while he read one of my articles aloud, correcting me on every point he disputed.” He then notes that this performance in conjunction with Stempel’s physical size and CEO position “created the unmistakable impression that he was bullying me.” Later on, GM’s status as a major advertiser led the magazine to arrange a “sit-down” among Taylor, two other editors, and six of the auto makers’ top executives. In another case, Ford CEO Trotman first tried to use personal connections to kill a story, and when this failed began a “great witch hunt” in search of the leak. Taylor does not acknowledge any way in which these responses shaped his writing, but could they have had no effect?

Most unusually, Taylor acknowledges how often he has been wrong. With both Jack Smith and Rick Wagoner he was acutely embarrassed by incorrectly reporting that GM had turned a corner; another Fortune contributor had to write that the company might go bankrupt. He was sold on Zetsche’s plans for Chrysler. Though he was usually unduly optimistic, this wasn’t always the case. Taylor thought Mulally would fail at Ford because he was an outsider who didn’t dress or talk the way a CEO ought to (in Taylor’s personal view).

Taylor attempts to explain these errors. Blame generally goes to personal attachment to the CEO in question—getting too close—and a desire to write a positive story. He acknowledges “gulping” the “GM Kool-Aid” and allowing his personal feelings for a CEO to influence his opinions about the company. With hindsight he realizes that “executives almost always look relaxed and confident; that’s part of their job,” and so he should not have read much into GM’s CEO appearing relaxed and confident. He recognizes that executives like Lutz are acting out roles—but still seems to have accepted much of what they said at face value.

In the end, we are left wondering how much of the mainstream media’s coverage has been distorted by personal relationships and personal feelings. It seems to be a very small, tight club, where people cannot help but become friends with many of the executives they are reporting on. Does anyone who gets close enough to gather inside information necessarily end up too close? Can people write appropriately critical stories about their friends? To his credit, Taylor seems quite aware how these factors have affected his coverage, and assigns them much of the blame for his missteps.

But this isn’t the whole story. The second part of this review explores other, perhaps more serious limitations inherent in Taylor’s methods—which he doesn’t seem to recognize.

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34 Comments on “Book Review: Sixty To Zero...”


  • avatar

    You get far more useful info and perspective from talking to engineering and product types on background than you’ll ever get from an on-the-record interview with anyone whose name the public would recognize. Why more “top journalists” don’t realize this, I don’t know.

    • 0 avatar
      tech98

      Companies have PR departments and designated spokespeople for this very reason – to control information. They don’t want journalists wandering around talking to random engineers who might reveal uncomfortable facts. There’s probably also an element of egotistical executives not wanting lowly employees diverting attention that belongs to them and their center-of-the-universe importance.

      Real journalists would seek out such sources for the better information they provide, but they’d antagonize the corporation and risk being cut off (for whatever that’s worth) and both the employees (for talking to the media) and the journalist (for angering an advertiser) would be risking their jobs. So much easier to go along with the dog and pony show.

      Mainstream journalism is recycled corporate PR in too many cases, and Fortune has always been one of the worst examples of cheerleader-journalism. I quit reading them when they had a gushing cover story on the phenomenon of executives’ trophy wives.

    • 0 avatar

      As you’ll see, I agree. I’ve been complaining for some time that we see such an article only once every five to ten years. I encourged RF to seek out such insiders, and we did seem to have some posting here for a little while.

    • 0 avatar
      Advance_92

      That’s partly why I enjoyed Mary Walton’s book about the design and launch of the 1995 Taurus. It was a bit light in some areas of technology and petrol-headedness, but it did show a lot more about the work people below the executives are doing.

    • 0 avatar

      The best of such books, by quite a margin, was actually the late Jim Schefter’s “All Corvette’s are Red.” He spent six years off and on inside GM to report on the development of the C5 Corvette.

      Walton entered the process mid-way and wasn’t as insightful. Though her book was still far better than the typical magazine article

      Other such books include one Brock Yates wrote on the development of the 1996 or 2001 Chrysler minivans and one on the development of the GM EV1.

      A similar, very insightful in different ways book was written about the development of the 1995 Lincoln Continental, though the project was disguised. I cannot recall the title off-hand, but it has “Learning” or “Learn” in it.

    • 0 avatar
      Daanii2

      As a car industry book, I liked The Car That Could: The Inside Story of GM’s Revolutionary Electric Vehicle, by Michael Shnayerson.

      Also, The Machine That Changed the World : The Story of Lean Production, by James P. Womack, Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos.

      Unfortunately, both books are old enough now to be past history, unconnected to current events. Still, interesting views on the more timeless characteristics of the industry.

  • avatar
    rnc

    “In the end, we are left wondering how much of the (add anything) has been distorted by personal relationships and personal feelings.” It’s human nature, atleast Taylor admits it (I quit reading his articles long ago).

    • 0 avatar

      There is no single human nature. The Myers-Brigs Type Indicator (MBTI) is interesting in that, among other things, it distinguishes between people who act based on their feelings and those who act based on reasoning.

      The problem is, people who act based on reasoning are unlikely to develop the connections necessary to get inside information.

  • avatar
    philadlj

    Slapping an Aztek on the cover was a nice touch.

  • avatar
    carguy

    Journalists love the whole “inside baseball” approach to the auto industry and the resulting work often reads much more like a Hollywood celebrity magazine than critical analysis. If you want to see how effective a car company is, look at their product lineup and balance sheet.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    IMHO, no one has more RIGHT to write a book on this topic than our own inestimable Robert Farago, he who forecast GM’s crash in 2005 or so, when everyone else was breathing the paint fumes and saying GM was back….In fact, I am completely surprised that RF hasn’t taken the GM Death Watch series of articles and edited that amazing body of work and published it….

  • avatar
    Telegraph Road

    Here is a link to Taylor’s 2007 favorable comparison of GM and Wagoner to Ford and Mulally, where he says Wagoner will be the last man standing.

    “GM: Winning the turnaround race.” http://money.cnn.com/2007/11/13/autos/gm_ford.fortune/?postversion=2007111312

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    The striking thing isn’t that auto industry ‘journalism’ is hamstrung by social climbing journalists and advertising influenced editorial policy. It is that Alex Taylor III is just as creepy and off-putting as Dan Neil. How do these people wind up covering the auto industry in the first place?

    • 0 avatar

      Way to blame the victim CJ!
      Seriously, as strange as most auto writers are, I don’t think they’re necessarily any more preening or self-indulgent than any other mainstream media “personality”… let alone the top-level executives they cover. The problems with auto writing stem from the characteristics of the industry… it’s secretive, speculative, hype-driven, and profit-oriented… and the only sources who know what they’re talking about (executives) are obviously biased. True journalism is almost impossible under these circumstances.
      Here’s another way of looking at it: TTAC would never have been able get the kinds of quotes Alex Taylor III (and many, many others) got over the years. Toothless reporters put execs at their ease… which allows them to say naive or revealing things that toothy bloggers can then rip into. In a weird way, the worse the reporter, the better the reporting (as long as the quotes are then duly digested). As time goes on, I find myself more and more at peace with this evolving media food chain… and TTAC’s place in it.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      Edward Niedermeyer,

      When Chris Matthews calls Saul Alinsky one of his heros, or talks about Obama making him go weak in the knees, reasonable people conclude that he is not much of a journalist. The same applies when Alex Taylor III professes his crush on Bob Lutz or when Dan Neil says that the Model T was a piece of wormy tin that was guilty of mobilizing the proletarians. Maybe jock sniffers get quotes that can be analyzed by thinking people, but they sure won’t ask any important questions, or report on any real trends. Taylor isn’t the victim. His ignorant readers are the victim. He is complicit. The execs’ job is to put a positive spin on whatever is going on in the industry. A journalist’s job is to seek the truth. There is no excuse for reporting a convenient lie as if it were actually the news.

  • avatar
    geeber

    Very interesting review that sums up why I rarely read any of the mainstream business magazines – Fortune, Forbes or Business Week.

    I’ve learned a great deal more about the auto industry by reading the articles on this site and others, along with posts from industry insiders.

    Interestingly, magazines about classic and special interest cars have become boring to me, too. All too often, the articles are either rose-colored views of old cars, or mere recitations of trim levels that were available in specific years.

    With the “Curbside Classic” series, Mr. Niedermeyer isn’t afraid to offer his opinion of various old cars – and it’s an opinion based on experience with various cars and knowledge about the industry. He doesn’t look at the past with rose-colored glasses. I may not always agree with his views – the 1959 Ford comes to mind – but I find myself looking forward to each installment and coming away with a new perspective on a particular model.

    What has happened to writing and what we used to call journalism? Both sloppiness and laziness have infected all types of periodicals, and at both ends of the ideological spectrum.

    • 0 avatar
      jpcavanaugh

      Geeber, like you, I used to read a lot of old car publications that contained some first-rate historical journalism. Not much like them is available now. Too many of these articles read like the sales brochure. Boring.

  • avatar
    Daanii2

    Taylor should not feel too bad that his attempts to predict the future did not always hit the mark. No one does. Those who seem to just got lucky.

    It’s like trying to predict who is going to win the Super Bowl this year. Anyone who thinks they know that is fooling themselves. They don’t.

    The easiest way to tell that is by going back ten or twenty years and reading some of the things that were predicted. It’s always hilarious to do that.

  • avatar
    newfdawg

    Personally I hope Micheline Maynard (who wrote “The End of Detroit”
    in 2003) writes a book about the crash of General Motors. Her insights might be interesting.

  • avatar
    V572625694

    Years ago I met an advertising man who said automobile buff book writers just redo press releases from auto manufacturers. I was still in love with C+D and R&T and didn’t believe it. Now every time I read something like, “torsional rigidity has been increased 25 percent over the previous model,” I realize there’s no way the magazine writer could possibly know such a thing unless he or his editors had a very expansive materials testing lab at their disposal.

  • avatar
    Jack Baruth

    Speaking as someone who attends 6-10 press reveals every year… the business of “auto journalism” is regurgitated PR, plain and simple. Most of the journalists drive the cars as little as possible — about half the time, my “drive partner” will obliquely suggest that I drive the whole route so they can make calls — and simply rewrite the press release on the way home.

    In fact, I think I’ll rip out an article on what these events are like, right now.

    • 0 avatar

      Jack,

      You can say that about journalism in general, not just automotive stuff. Non-profits, NGOs, activist groups and politicians all issue press releases with their talking points. Hell, when I worked for a non-profit (non-paid) I wrote press releases. At least the car writers don’t harmonize their views to promote particular agendas like the folks on Journolist.

      Still, it’s the car writers that are treated like copy rewriters. Many “regular” journalists don’t consider car writers to be real journalists.

      During the 2006 war between Hezb’allah and Israel I was on a photojournalists’ site, debating that guild’s members about some fairly obvious doctoring and staging of photos that were manipulated to paint Israel in a negative light. When the guild members said that I had no standing to debate since I wasn’t a journalist, I pointed out that indeed I was a credentialed automotive journalist.

      They reacted by disparaging all automotive writers, saying that in most newspapers the automotive news was covered by the advertising department. Automotive writers, they said, were not real journalists. I tried to counter with the example of Dan Neil and his Pulitzer Prize, and they said he didn’t get it for automotive writing but rather for criticism (ignoring that what he was critiquing was cars). Now the opinions of “journalists” who defend photographers who doctor and stage “news” photos isn’t worth much, but it does show how many in the business feel about the automotive beat.

      Of course what they say in public might be different from how they act in regard to their own careers. A friend of mine has written for a major daily. She told me that the beats in highest demand were autos, entertainment and travel, because of all the freebies and comped travel. So much for real journalists.

      Still, there’s a clear difference between a press release and a regurgitated press release. A while back I was publishing a couple of news aggregator sites, Auto Report India and Auto Report China. India has a free press, so in the various major Indian news publications, you’d see the same press release rewritten different ways. This or that writer would stress this or that aspect of the story.

      No such free press exists in China. If you see a story in one Chinese news organ, it will be word-for-word identical to what’s published in Xinhua/People’s Daily, and unlike the Indian rewrites that show individual interests and styles, the stories indeed read like press releases.

  • avatar
    CamaroKid

    Rick Wagoner: “smart, personable, and thoughtful

    I might have bought this book if not for that quote.

    Rick Wagoner proved himself to be 1 out of 3 on that list.
    He might have been personable, but he proved incapable of making smart decisions in a thoughtful way.

    He will go down as the worst CEO in history*

    *that wasn’t indited (and not much better then some of those).

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    In the end, we are left wondering how much of the mainstream media’s coverage has been distorted by personal relationships and personal feelings.

    And that the industry would cut you off in 2 seconds if you wrote negatively about them.

    In my mind, some ‘recent’ milestones in “The Truth”:

    1999 – Peter DeLorenzo starts “Autoextremist”, essentially urging Detroit (especially GM) to wake up. A lone voice in the dark.

    2003 – Car and Driver decries the Saturn Ion!

    2005 – Dan Neil and the LA Times get in trouble for slamming the new Pontiac G6.

    2006 – TTAC starts the GM Death Watch.

    Twenty years ago, none of this would have been possible.

    • 0 avatar
      porschespeed

      @Dave M,

      The cognoscenti knew GM was toast in 1973. We railed that they needed to pull their shite together way back then.

      If you didn’t know GM was doomed in the 70s, I don’t know what to tell you.

  • avatar
    segfault

    When Lutz became product czar at GM and the media began sucking his… ego, I pointed out that he came across as a desperate has-been. Why else would someone who was supposed to make GM’s products world-class embark on a cost-cutting, decontenting rampage (as happened between 2001 and 2004)?

  • avatar
    porschespeed

    All one needs to know about the domestics was in On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors.

    Nothing of any substance has changed at GM over 40 years. Nothing.

    I’m gonna laugh my ass off at the chumps who buy that IPO and don’t flip out in a week.

    Yes, F has a chance. But, they are not GM.

  • avatar

    As a novice writer I’ve learned access is important, whether it’s access to engineers and executives or access to test vehicles. Without access you’re just another guy with an opinion about cars.

    Farago pissed off a lot of people. It helped build TTAC’s brand and credibility with readers, but it impaired TTAC’s access with the car companies. Remember the Lutz press event for automotive bloggers where GM’s communications guy didn’t even want to let Robert in the room? Hell, when I get credentialed to the Detroit show I usually get them issued for another site that I write for. If I say that I write for TTAC, I’ll get a smirk and have to end up describing myself as the site’s “unofficial Detroit defender”.

    There’s a saying that family therapists use, “Is this the hill you want to die fighting for?” You want to get the truth, and ask sincere, probing questions. At the same time, if you get known for negativity, you’re not going to get many interview opportunities. So you try to balance fair criticism with sucking up.

    My approach is to not be openly confrontational, and to work hard at coming up with questions that the interviewee hasn’t heard a million times. I’ve found that a unique question isn’t usually answered with a sound bite. If that unique question is thoughtful, that goes a long way towards establishing credibility.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      It is painful to read that Detroit can still control ‘access’ when their jobs are dependent on public money. The travesty done to the taxpayers by the current regime is bad enough, but the idea that these incompetents kept their arrogance while shareholder values were destroyed and Obama stole from the creditors to reward his UAW cretins is really grating.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    CJinSD – you are SOOO right!


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