By on January 26, 2011

There’s a new show on cable called “Shameless”. Supposedly it has Emily Rossum in a topless kitchen sex scene. Actually, I’m going to go watch it right now, come to think of it.

…And we’re back. Hmm. That was shameless, alright, but you know what’s even more shameless? Writing a story that exposes you as a hack, a dupe, and what the Communists used to call a “useful idiot”. Yesterday’s opinion piece on Autoblog, entitled How Bob Lutz Made Four Journalists His Secret Weapons, is just such a story. Let’s dig in.

What’s wrong with this story? In a word, everything. Let’s perform a little close reading:

When Bob Lutz ran General Motors’ product development efforts, he did something that no other car company has done in the history of making cars. He hired four automotive journalists to assess all of GM’s new vehicles before they were OK’d for production. And their word was law. Everything had to be developed to their satisfaction.

Strictly speaking, this is true: Although the incestuous relationship between the auto industry and the auto media has been in existence as long as said entities — even the well-respected Patrick Bedard started his career working for the Big 3 — never before had someone explicitly hired precisely four autojournos.

But were they even autojournos? Nick Twork, the fourth guy mentioned, was only briefly a writer before entering PR. That would be like characterizing TTAC’s hiring of yours truly as “the first auto blog to hire a Wendy’s cashier” just because I did that job for three months in my teens.

Rich Ceppos, whom McElory ignorantly claims “could have raced professionally had he chosen to”, has been bouncing around the supply side of the industry for a long time. Yeah, he used to write for C/D. When he was writing for C/D, I think I was in elementary school.

The other two guys are consummate press-event veterans, so they probably count, but I doubt any of their readers can remember anything they’ve written. They are the utility infielders of the business, and those guys bounce in and out of PR all the time.

…Today Mary Barra is running PD. She’s tasked with developing new cars faster and at lower cost. That’s got me wondering if Lutz’s secret weapons can survive GM’s latest management changes.

Nobody gives a shit about that but you, dude. We know the deal. Your old bar pals might need some work in the future, so you’re puff-piecing them. Classy.

But the former journalists are known to force the development people to take their time to get things right… One of the areas where the journos played a critical role was in the development of the Chevrolet Volt.

Wait, what? Is that something GM’s gotten right? A $42,000 car that gets worse mileage than an Elantra on the freeway? I’d hate to see what GM’s gotten wrong. Oh, I remember: pretty much everything else except the Corvette Z06.

I’ve known about Lutz’s secret weapons for several years. But he personally asked me not to write anything about them.

McElroy, who normally ascends into squeakily breathless rapture on-air about every crappy car that’s ever been released, is reaching a new high here. He sounds like a teenaged girl who just met a Jonas Brother.

That’s how much of a competitive advantage he felt they brought to GM. He didn’t want to see any other car company copying this approach. Since these guys are friends and colleagues whom I’ve known for years, I also didn’t want to jeopardize their jobs. So I didn’t write about them. Until now. And now I think it’s important that I do.

Because they need new jobs, right?

Product development requires a gut feel. It requires a passion for excellence. Above all it requires an in-depth knowledge of product, and what will convert customers into true believers. Lutz’s secret weapons gave that to GM. Let’s hope it keeps them.

What utter, sycophantic garbage… but you can see why this article was endlessly reTweeted by every journo in the business yesterday. McElroy is being smart here. He’s using our own journalistic misconceptions against us, hoping that we will help his pals as a result.

Journalists would love to think that they know more about product development than engineers. That’s ridiculous. Product development isn’t seat-of-the-pants moonbat speculation. It’s hard work, requiring endless iterations of design and countless hours of testing. McElroy’s Magnificent Four could no more design a Corvette than McElroy himself could write The Great Gatsby. Criticism and creation are vastly different tasks, and the former is far, far easier than the latter.

Dan Neil once wrote that Lutz’s job is to work the refs. He is a physically imposing man, a tremendously charismatic one. Men like that tend to trample on the beta males, wannabes, and barflies who make up the bulk of auto journalism. Even I was impressed by the guy at the CTS-V Challenge two years. I was there to beat him, (and I did) but I felt somehow privileged to be in his presence.

McElroy, as anyone who has seen his videos can attest, is precisely the kind of chap who would be saddling up Lutz’s horse and cleaning his toilet in an earlier era. If Maximum Bob asked him not to write something… well of course he wouldn’t write about it! Until now, when the man is gone and his friends require a boost.

This wasn’t journalism in any sense of the word. It’s an insider’s attempt to work the system on behalf of his (admittedly very nice) people. McElroy should be ashamed to have written it, and Autoblog should be ashamed of publishing it. Are they? Don’t count on it. In this business, “shameless” is the mantra.

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45 Comments on “This Is The Feel-Good Article Of The Year… If You’re An Autojourno...”


  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    That picture shows what would have been an appropriate challenge for Jack and Bob.  WWII fighters over the beaches of Normandy, a duel to the death!
     
    So if these journos got to go over every car… was the Aveo relapsed during Bob’s watch?  ;)

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    This.
     
    Normally I’m not a fan of Mr. Baruth’s style (though, from the intro paragraph, I have to admit I share his taste in at least one realm) but this is the kind of media metacriticism that this site is/was known for.

  • avatar
    Alexdi

    Love this writing. Love Neil’s writing. This is turning into a very good day.

  • avatar
    faygo

    +1 on your thoughts.
     
    however, the biggest issue I see is that Lutz felt the need to bring in outsiders to work for him to taste test the product while in development and force changes.  that’s what f*cking vehicle evaluation and (skilled) management and is for in the first place.  if you don’t have people with the stones/stripes and skills to do an honest vehicle evaluation to speak up when something is crap, and a system in place which allows people to be heard, you end up with crap.
     
    I don’t know how it works at other car companies, but at the one where I work, there are people who’s opinions matter.  when they don’t like something, it’s fixed.  and there’s a whole function responsible for overall vehicle feel/integration/etc.  it sounds like Lutz felt that this system was so lacking in credibility within GM that he had to bring in “impartial” judges to do the work.  having no actual responsibility for solving problems nor any political allegiance or career to protect is probably particularly freeing, but it’s shouldn’t be necessary to get honest opinions expressed and acted on.
     
    this sort of situation along with the indications of widespread resistance to Akerson’s plans as noted in the AutoEx piece don’t bode well for how things turn out at GM as the market continues to expand and they (don’t) react to changes in the marketplace.

  • avatar

    “Journalists would love to think that they know more about product development than engineers. That’s ridiculous. Product development isn’t seat-of-the-pants moonbat speculation. It’s hard work, requiring endless iterations of design and countless hours of testing. McElroy’s Magnificent Four could no more design a Corvette than McElroy himself could write The Great Gatsby. Criticism and creation are vastly different tasks, and the former is far, far easier than the latter.”
    This. A thousand times, this.
    That auto writers secretly lust after OEM jobs is baffling to me… especially beacuse the desire seems largely a product of the condescending manner with which Lutz (and auto executives in general) treat journalists. Because executives try so hard to actively “manage” the media, I think a lot of auto writers believe that working in the industry is the only way to enjoy credibility in writing about it… when in fact the industry is so massively complex (and intellectually incestuous) that the best view really is from the outside. Lutz et al happily play up this insecurity to their advantage (see the linked Dan Neil piece)… and now McElroy works it from the other angle, telling autowriters to play nice and the industry could rescue you from your own ignorance by giving you a job as a Bob Lutz lieutenant!
    What autowriters need from their elder statesmen is not a good-cop to Lutz’s bad cop, but someone who actually stands up for the inherent value of quality automotive journalism/writing. Advocating a revolving-door between the media and the industry it covers is not responsible journalism… and as far as I know, McElroy still describes himself using the “J Word.” For shame.

    • 0 avatar
      faygo

      unless you felt you could actually do good and make product better by being inside, I don’t know why anyone with a reasonably good auto writing gig would want to switch sides.  the skills and connections developed in the media would serve well in PR/Public Affairs, but unless one had an engineering background, working in actual product development wouldn’t be a very good fit IMHO.
       
      having said that, I’ve interacted directly with a reasonable number of writers – there are some who are thoughtful and have quality insights, as well as being able to write decently.  tho “some” should not be construed as anything close to “most”.  however, their opinions are no more valid (or well informed) than those of the people who’s job it is to evaluate vehicles.  and even though we have codified all sorts of parameters to define the undefinable “it” that makes a vehicle right, there are still go/no-go evaluations which come down to the right people’s opinions on a given product.  get the right people into those jobs (or make sure the people in those jobs trust their good people who work for them) and good product is the result.

    • 0 avatar

      Hear, hear.
       
      Just as there is a difference between vehicle operators and drivers, there is a difference between autowriters and journalists. Sadly, in both cases, it would seem the former are reproducing at far greater rates.
       
      The King is dead. Long live the King.

    • 0 avatar
      ComfortablyNumb

      So why don’t journalists ever talk to engineers?  You (not TTAC specifically, but journalists in general) constantly post and repost quotes from execs, marketing people, and finance people.  But if you want to know about product – and nobody knows the product better than an engineer – why don’t you journalist types ever ask us?

    • 0 avatar
      faygo

      @ComfortablyNumb :
      because media are generally not given access to engineers.  other than at press events, media don’t usually get direct interaction with engineering, so the message is filtered by PR/PA and can get lost.  or communicated at a less than working level.
       
      however, a well-run media event should include engineers and allow for real conversations about engineering decisions, functional attributes and the like.  we even have media in to some of our facilities at times for advanced stories on new product or to manage our (small) budgets for press events and still provide as much of the engineering story behind a vehicle as possible.

    • 0 avatar
      tech98

      So why don’t journalists ever talk to engineers?

      Talking to a journalist without explicit approval from your organization is a rocket ship to a pink slip in corporate America.

      Corporations want canned and tightly-controlled PR pablum dished out to the media by staffers who make a career of such tripe. The object is to sell a particular ‘story’, not convey maximum useful or interesting information. An engineer might blurt out an unvarnished truth, so media access to them is very limited.

    • 0 avatar
      faygo

      Talking to a journalist without explicit approval from your organization is a rocket ship to a pink slip in corporate America.
      Corporations want canned and tightly-controlled PR pablum dished out to the media by staffers who make a career of such tripe. The object is to sell a particular ‘story’, not convey maximum useful or interesting information. An engineer might blurt out an unvarnished truth, so media access to them is very limited.
       
      nothing wrong with controlling access to engineers, you just have to let some of their engineer-ness out in the form of cool facts about the product or a compelling story of it’s development.  one of the organizations I work with provides this sort of access all the time.  I happened to meet the author of this piece during one such interaction in fact.

    • 0 avatar
      ComfortablyNumb

      At press events, sure, I get that.  What about blogs, where the real journalists reside?  I read a lot of automotive blogs beyond TTAC, and they all do a decent job of reporting the news.  But nobody ever asks the experts for comment.  In an industry as complex as this one, it’s not possible to be an expert on everything, and blogs have a great tool at their disposal: people who know what they’re talking about and will talk about it for free.  Just ask, and odds are you’ll find someone who will spare you the rhetoric and give you the facts.  A lot of articles are heavy on the former, light on the latter: http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/the-full-sized-future/

      As for getting canned, they all know what they can and can’t say.  There are details that can be provided that will clarify the picture without violating intellectual property.  Hey, this is the interwebs…maybe some intrepid soul, or at least one whose 401k is doing well, will provide some dirty little secrets.

    • 0 avatar

      Some journalists might lust after an OEM job because they want a more direct hand in shaping a car, rather than just writing about them. I know that this was my dream in the past. Not that, even today, I think of myself as a journalist or a writer. I just happen to write.
      After seeing the inside of GM while performing the research for my Ph.D., I can also see the value of these people. Insiders often lose touch with what car buyers want, or what is necessary to make a car great, and so forth. There’s a strong tendency among insiders to perceive whatever is easily possible as good enough.
      Creating and critiquing are also different sets of skills. While creating is certainly harder, it does not follow that a great creator is also a good critic.
      You don’t even have to be a great driver to be a great evaluator, at least I hope not because I’m not a great driver :) Some of the best drivers might be too good to evaluate a car for the typical buyer–they’re able to make just about anything drive well.

    • 0 avatar

      Forgot to mention: I’ve been pushing first RF and more recently Ed to attract content from real insiders for years. I wholeheartedly that not nearly enough based on real inside sources appears in the auto press.
      It is certainly not true that more accurate perceptions of what’s going on inside these companies are possible outside them. What’s going on inside these companies and what is portrayed in the press are so very different that I haven’t pretended to know what’s actually going on inside them for years.

    • 0 avatar

      It seems to me that the big car companies do make some engineers and designers available to the media. At the big auto shows there are usually designers and high level engineers. I know that I’ve personally spoken to scores of designers and more than a couple of engineers. Whenever there’s significant news about the Corvette, Harlan Charles will be there, and when Ford had the new Boss Mustang at the Woodward Dream Cruise, I spoke with Dave Pericak, who’s head engineer for the Mustang. Sure, guys at that level are doing more managing than engineering but I’ve spoken to lower level engineers as well. Most of the time the engineers and designers have been pretty forthcoming, certainly not as close to the vest as the executives. I think the trick with any interviewee is to ask them a question that forces them into a thoughtful answer, not just a prerehearsed sound bite. To be honest, at a GM press conference, it’s a lot easier to talk at length with the chief designer or head engineer on a project than a CEO or President.
      FWIW, Toyota always introduces the chief engineer on any new car introduction.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    There’s something bugging me about this whole article. It reminds me of when most people in the 1930′s and 1940′s knew that FDR was crippled by polio, but no one ever saw a picture of him in his wheelchair. People just knew. So, what’s the point, other than most of us know that corporate honks puff up the company – that’s what they’re paid to do. Thinking, thinking…what am I missing here? Maybe it’s been a slow news week.

  • avatar

    I love AB, but man am I ever sick of John McElroy’s face.

  • avatar
    James2

    While I agree with Baruth in general, wasn’t it a ‘journo’ turned insider who helped create the Mazda Miata? Just sayin’…

    • 0 avatar
      faygo

      correct :
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mazda_MX-5#From_idea_to_production
      however, one situation does not prove the rule.
       
      if the former journalists had been inserted into functional roles at GM (or anywhere else) and been involved in direct product creation, they would have been laudable in their work.  as it is, they acted as captive expert focus group members.  my earlier point that there should not need to be special people with no accountability to anyone other than Lutz in place in order for there to be honest, effective evaluation of new products.  the lack of such a system internally is the indictment of GM’s culture which I find the most alarming, knowing that it doesn’t have to be that way.

    • 0 avatar

      A very valid point. But then hiring Lutz was itself an indictment of GM’s culture. If the organization were working well, there’d be no need for a powerful car guy at the top to call the shots.

    • 0 avatar

      Michael, I’m not so sure about that. Think of Colin Chapman, Walter Chrysler, Ferdinand Porsche, Enzo Ferrari, Henry Ford and others who started car companies that were pretty strong willed leaders. Even below the level of CEO I can think of people like Harley Earl, Bill Mitchell, Ed Cole who led teams of talented people. I will say that if the organization is working well, the people at the top have good designs to choose from. it’s a two way street.

  • avatar
    mtr2car1

    I saw this yesterday and was just stunned at the circle of stupidity this article and the entire situation around it represented. Jack did a masterful job of bringing the right context to the this.
    What I cannot understand is why so many (McElroy, Jean Jennings, Sweet Pete and more) fall all over Lutz like no good car existed before he landed on this earth.  I get that he helped move the dial from crappy to competitive, but if you look at all the extra time and money wasted on his pet projects (none of which are alive today) you have to ask – at what cost?
    last question..
    Can you imagine what the Malibu would have been like w/o Ceppos input??
     

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      What I cannot understand is why so many (McElroy, Jean Jennings, Sweet Pete and more) fall all over Lutz like no good car existed before he landed on this earth

      Because Bob Lutz speaks to their inner eight-year-old.  He says, exactly, what they want to hear and what they know to be true, and says it frequently, loudly and strongly enough to make it ring all the more true, all the while seeming “one of them”.

      In short, he’s a demagogue, and they’re suckers.

    • 0 avatar
      MikeAR

      Psar, Lutz in a nutshell. Except after he’s done stroking their egos, he laughs at them because they are so gullible.

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      ” …. but if you look at all the extra time and money wasted on his pet projects (none of which are alive today) you have to ask – at what cost?”
       
      BINGO! Ten points for today’s winner!

    • 0 avatar

      First off, Lutz is a car guy who knows cars so you can relate to him on that level. He’s also got natural charisma, and he’s a gas bag so he’s always good for a quote. The fact that he’s a world class artist whose media is bovine excrement only adds to his persona. The thing is, though, that most of the people who criticize Lutz have never met the man. I’m no fanboy, but Lutz is a great interview. He’s earnest and I really think he believes what he’s slinging at that moment in time. I’ve never seen him duck a question.

  • avatar

    This is so great, all around.
    Having read car magazines since I had the ability to read, I was very disappointed to learn that most of these guys do not in fact have an engineering degree. Some don’t even have a degree in journalism.
    It wasn’t until I went through college, while working as a mechanic, got my engineering degree, work as an automotive engineer… that I realized that so much of what I have been reading for years was complete bull shit. That’s when I started writing…

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      Many, if not most, of the masthead of Car and Driver were engineers.  I didn’t stop them from becoming, well, irrelevant.  Sure, they understood the issues, but they also lobbed way, way too many puff-pieces at the industry.
       
      It’s a bad business, but it’s not unique in it’s malfeasance: if you want good copy, you have to play nice with the companies you cover.  That means not being too critical, or, in many cases, not being critical at all.  Once you lose your critical edge, you’re stuck resorting either to your ability as a writer/speaker/journalist, or you start down the rat-hole of populism.  Sometimes, if you watch the same person for a while, you can actually watch the slide from critic to sycophant to crazy-old-man demagoguery.
       
      It’s a disease that’s spreading throughout the media, outside of industry-specific coverage.  I’d hazard it’s actually worse in the blogosphere because you can be much less accountable.

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      In reading Psar’s comment, it struck me: tossing “softballs” ensures advertiser’s loyalty and pays the bills. Kind of like what was stated in the movie “Good Night and Good Luck” that hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners journalism turns off advertisers, thus turns off the money spigot. Go figure. It is definitley like walking a tightrope, too much this way – no money. Too much that way – no credibility. Where’s the “correct” middle? I’m not a journo, so I can’t answer that. This has been a very good thread on a very interesting subject. I still don’t understand it all – but I’m trying!

  • avatar
    powermatic

    Nice article. But I’m a bit disappointed that it wasn’t about ‘Secret Weapons Over Normandy’. Maybe next time?
     
    /watches Hitler Channel before work instead of Good Morning America.

  • avatar
    Some Guy

    One journalist bashing another fellow journalist. It seems as though Robert Farago is a ghost writer for Jack Baruth.

  • avatar
    itsgotvtakyo

    I’m being censored over there so I couldn’t explain exactly how embarrassed I was for the author. I bet he shuffle steers.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    Jack makes some good points, but if you read the original article, so does McElroy.  GM has a history of making bland boxes that might meet some engineer’s checklist but were terribly uninspired.  Give Lutz a little credit for finding an effective way to combat GM’s layers of ass-covering bureaucracy and turf guarding.  But as Jack points out, it probably won’t survive Lutz’ departure.  He didn’t change GM’s culture or processes so much as circumvent them.
     
    As for the Volt, who really expects four pseudo autojournos to fix all its issues, especially pricing?  Even Niedermeyer admits that the car actually drives pretty nicely, and given that it’s a revolutionary (and, yeah, too expensive) GM product, that’s a minor miracle, these guys seem to deserve some of the credit for pushing the engineers to get it right.

    • 0 avatar

      The Volt drives far better than I expected it to. I don’t doubt these insider journalists played a role. The only problem I see with this is that they shouldn’t be necessary. But, if you can’t change the culture, having them is better than not having them.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    “Product development requires a gut feel. It requires a passion for excellence. Above all it requires an in-depth knowledge of product, and what will convert customers into true believers. Lutz’s secret weapons gave that to GM. Let’s hope it keeps them.”
    Yeah, that must be how Hyundai has made such great strides. A secret cadre of journalists!
     

  • avatar
    kaelepulu

    nice piece but dated.  the group has been larger than 4 for several months/years and the other oem’s have known of the group and their function for years.  those involved with press events develop friendships within the overall group.
    but you only have to look at the corvette seat to known their total input into the gm’s product decisions.

  • avatar

    I think McElroy overstates his case a bit. I’ve known that Rich Ceppos was working in some capacity at GM advanced product for a couple of years now. He wouldn’t say exactly what he was doing but he said he was working on future product. So it’s not quite the scoop John thinks it is. It’s kind of hard to hide it when someone’s wearing GM credentials at an auto show.
    I don’t have as much of a problem with the revolving door as Jack does. If a car company offered me a nice salary and benefits to work in their communications department? Hell yeah I’d probably take the job.
    Why should selling my ability as a writer to GM, Ford, Chrysler or some other car company be morally distinguishable from selling my ability as a writer to VerticalScope, the folks who own TTAC? True, here I can speak my mind and if I did PR for a company I’d be spouting the company line, but then that would be my job, wouldn’t it? I think the key is remembering who your boss/customer is.
    BTW, did you know that Harley Earl couldn’t draw very well? Edsel Ford wasn’t an artist either but he was able to give Bob Gregoire a clear enough vision of what he wanted to create the 1940 Continental. Likewise Earl had a talent for guiding talent. I’m quite sure that George Martin has written some forgettable songs, but he’s arranged and produced some rather memorable ones. Leonard Chess couldn’t play the blues but if it wasn’t for him you’d never have heard of Howlin’ Wolf or Willie Dixon.
    So you don’t necessarily have to have a degree in engineering or design to be a visionary about cars.

  • avatar

    BTW, I think it’s appropriate  to note that one of TTAC’s editors used to write advertising for a major automobile manufacturer.

  • avatar
    Detroit-X

    John McElroy, how funny.  I can just imagine his manic voice saying:
     
    “While I was impressed with the new Chevy Vega, I couldn’t help but thinking the acceleration wasn’t enough. Then, I realized, I had been pushing on the brake instead of the accelerator pedal!!  Sha-zaam! Now, I’m getting where I need to go faster! Way to go GM!!  And boy, is that paint shiny!!
     


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