Carly Simon was right: When it comes to automobiles, these are the good old days. Don’t know which car to buy? No problem. Simply throw a dart at the listing of mass-market new cars for sale in the United States, purchase that car, and you can be more or less assured that you will experience 100,000 miles — or more! — of low-hassle, low-cost operation. The consumer expects that every car on the market is reliable, reasonably comfortable, and extremely safe by historical standards, and those expectations are met by everyone from Kia to Rolls-Royce. It’s a great time to be a new-car buyer, but there’s never been a worse time to be an automotive “journalist”.
Fifty years ago, a chummy cadre of insiders with million-strong captive print audiences lined up at an invitation-only perpetual buffet of manufacturer-paid perks and privileges. Today there are hundreds of media outlets, major blogs, and video producers all fighting for an ever-declining number of eyeballs, press cars, and wheel time. The journos of the Nixon era faced a delicious choice: either recommend 50,000-mile-life-expectancy garbage to the American driver and reap the considerable financial rewards for doing so, or fill up the poison pen and textually molest a lineup of sitting ducks like the Pinto, Vega, and Renault Le Car — while still making that bank. Their successors have a tougher job: explain the ever-shrinking differences between a vast array of perfectly competent automobiles in a manner which will generate “unique clicks” and repeat readership without burning too many personal and professional bridges. Get it wrong, and you’re history.
Scott Burgess got it wrong, but his mistake wasn’t an excess of ethics.
Strictly speaking, this website should contain “the truth about cars”, but I believe it should contain “the truth about car writing” as well. Here’s some bona-fide truth for every aspiring writer out there: Money is made in the wobble. What’s the wobble? Why, it’s the measurable gap between the biggest puff piece you’ve ever written and the most hilarious example of automotive character assassination you’ve managed to sneak into print. I’ll explain.
He who praises every car praises no car. High Gear Media, Hachiwhatever Fillimypatchy print mags, in-flight magazines, fashion writers, Cigar/Guitar/Wine/CBT Aficionado, mommybloggers everywhere, I’m talking about you. Nobody’s confusing that stuff with automotive “journalism”. It’s simply kneepad fluffing combined with some occasionally gorgeous photography or amusing personal storytelling. Don’t we all understand this? Don’t we all fundamentally understand that calling the Chevrolet Volt the “Car Of The Year” is a big joke if you’ve spent fifty years giving that award to cars which disappointed, cheated, or even killed their drivers? Don’t we all realize that gushing over a Cadillac CTS’s “upscale interior” in a story which shares a magazine Table Of Contents with airport concourse diagrams is just plain silly? Of course we do.
The second side of the wobble is tougher to accept. He who slams every car, slams no car. Our august founder, Robert Farago, may God watch over him, was known for writing articles which were simply exercises of his considerable vocabulary and wit at the expense of perfectly decent products. He wasn’t alone. There are plenty of people out there who are so disappointed by the lack of modern-day Chevrolet Citations on the market that they are determined to view some car, any car, through that lens. The actual virtues of the car are as irrevelant to them as they are to the puff-piece crowd. The goal is to write something which impresses the reader rather than informing him. After that reader consumes five or ten of those oh-so-witty excursions, he gets the idea: This guy doesn’t really like cars very much, period.
A successful automotive journalist doesn’t fall into either of the above traps. He wobbles. He creates what Jimmy Page called “light and shade” in the body of his written work. Jeremy Clarkson is the modern example. The Boofong KXi is THE BEST CAR… IN THE WORLD! The Foobong iXK is UTTER RUBBISH! The exuberance of each opinion reinforces and lends credbility to its opposite number. How can you call Clarkson a shill for rating the Boofong, when he was so nasty in slating the Foobong? How can you peg Clarkson as a malcontent and dismiss his Foobong review, when he was clearly such a fan of the Boofong? Every autowriter with ambitions to be something more than a low-paid PR agent needs the wobble. Credibility, success, a fan base, a recognized name. The wobble giveth, and it taketh away.
Wobbling was easy back when your press-car parking lot contained a BMW 533i, a Chevrolet Celebrity, a Honda Accord hatchback, and a Ford Tempo. The wobbles virtually wrote themselves. An entire generation of third-rate douchebags who couldn’t steer their way into the top two-thirds of a regional autocross made names riding the easy oscillation generated by that kind of product diversity. The best part: Even after you, the Ann Arbor auto hack, wrote your hit job on the Celebrity calling it “a horrifyingly shitty chariot of a particularly despicable type not seen since primary photography for ‘Ben-Hur’ closed”, Chevrolet would still buy ten pages of ads! They had no choice! You had the audience! HAHAHA!!! I’M USING THE PRINTERNET!!!
Fast-forward to 2011, and that same parking lot has a 530i, a Malibu, a modern Accord, and a Ford Fusion. Where’s your wobble now, Mr. Auto Writer? It isn’t in the product, that’s for sure.. but you still need it. You need it more than ever, because your audience isn’t forced to read you any more. They have options, and they are exercising them. I remember being thrilled by scoring a discount subscription to Car and Driver for $10.99 a year… in 1980. What’s a C/D subscription worth now? $3.99 a year, tops, unless you count yourself among the vast majority of “car people” who consider it to be completely worthless. Where are you gonna get your wobble?
Scott Burgess (ah, yes, we’re finally returning to him) is a nice guy, always smiling and laughing at the press events, always quick with a joke, or a light of your smoke, and so on. He’s also bright enough to know that everyone, even the guy who writes for the hometown Detroit paper, needs the wobble. A truly inventive writer — a Jonny Lieberman, a Derek Kreindler, a Sam Smith — would find the wobble somewhere unexpected. The Bristol Blenheim? GENIUS! The Aston Vantage! RUBBISH! Yes! Give me more! Mr. Burgess, however, is kind of a conventional fellow, so he’s typically found his wobble the way the print guys do it nowadays: by picking on a vehicle which barely trails a close competitive set.
Let’s get this out of the way: The Chrysler 200 is a good car. I’m serious. If you are currently driving a 2001 Lexus ES300, a car which ruled its particular roost at the time, you can drive it to a Chrysler dealership and find that the 200 beats it in everything from seat comfort to quarter-mile time, all while costing far less in 2011 dollars than the Lexus did a decade ago in 2001 bucks. No kidding. It’s a nice car. The sound system is nice, the engine is really nice, the handling is just fine, and with the exception of an upper door molding which was flimsily mounted in the examples I drove, the interior beats what you’ll find elswehere for the same money. There’s nothing revolutionary about it, but if you approach it with an open mind you will see that it’s pretty much as good as the other $23,000 family sedans out there. That’s the truth.
Here on The Truth About Cars, it’s okay to tell the truth about a car, and my personal experience is that you, the reader, tend to be fairly accepting of what we find, even if it doesn’t match your preconceptions. Mr. Burgess has, or had, a tougher job than I do. Had he written the plain truth about the car, many people would have denounced him as a shill, an accusation given greater weight by Scott’s tendency to occasionally puff-up a domestic entry in previous articles. Worse yet, from the respect-and-career perspective, it would have reduced the amplitude of his wobble. What to do?
My reading of the DetNews 200 piece is this: Scott felt needed some wobble and he decided the safest place to do it would be with a car that:
- is based on a car with a long history of being attacked by the press;
- has very low sales expectations;
- will be replaced soon in any event;
- doesn’t seem to be particularly critical to the success of Chrysler.
It reminds me of one of my dorm-mates in school who, whenever he was in a bad mood, always “busted some shit up” — but not before looking around carefully to make sure he didn’t bust any valuable shit up. The 200 had to look like a safe target. By calling the car a “dog” (which it isn’t, really) and exercising his venom on it for a while, Scott would regain some of his credibility and self-respect at the expense of a loser. He could safely kick someone when they were down. Forget the fact that the 200 is a decent car, that it’s built by people who could really use some good news in their lives, and that the men and women who worked to re-design the 200 deserve better than a series of cheap shots in return for their honest and mostly successful efforts. Journalism is like playing God. Ripping on a car is easy, cheap, fun. You stand in judgment of others without consequence.
Except, of course, when there is a consequence. In this case, a series of events which are unlikely to ever really come to light resulted in a parting of the ways between Scott and his employer. Ray Wert, without whom this story would have disappeared into obscurity, sees it as an ethical conflict. I’m inclined to see it more as a case of bullying a kid who is prepared to fight dirty in return. Either way, it’s a lousy deal. When I see my assembled fellow writers at an event, I tend to think of another Carly Simon lyric:
Their children hate them for the things they’re not;
They hate themselves for what they are-
And yet they drink, they laugh,
Close the wound, hide the scar.
Wobbles, advertisers, pressure, dismissal, resignation — all scars in this business that can no longer be successfully hidden.