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.