When bearded flip-flop enthusiast and serial-ruiner Jonny Lieberman recently wrote about his new long-term-tester fantasy ride – a stick-shifted, murda’d-out Caddy CTS-V wagon – he facebooked a prediction, “Cue the Baruth-venom in 3…2…1…” Quoth JB in response, “No venom here. In the best liberal fashion I have censured you for the ethics of it and moved on.”
Those of us in the peanut gallery goggled at the collegiality of the kaijus of contrarianism; thank goodness they weren’t going to start throwing buildings at each other again. Now Frank Greve’s AJR piece on auto-journo shillsterism has shown up, basically lauding Mr. Baruth as the Last Honest Man In Auto Journalism™ and intimating that Motor Trend is, by comparison, the painted whore of Babylon. Jeez, hasn’t Tokyo suffered enough?
Now, while I was happy to see TTAC receiving the laurels it so richly deserves, particularly as I am privileged enough to be allowed to write for them from time to time, I must confess that Mr. Greve’s article got up my nose a little. On one hand, he’s correct: there is a tremendous amount of manufacturer manipulation of reviewers either by a heavy hand on the tap controlling the free-car pipeline, or by stuffing them so full of foie gras that it leaks out onto the page in the form of talking points. On the other hand, the subtext of Mr. Greve’s expose seems to chart something of an annoyance with the pesky “automotive enthusiast.” To wit:
John Pearley Huffman, a prominent freelance reviewer, goes even further, suggesting that he and his colleagues have distinctive perspectives when it comes to guiding consumers.
“Car writers are, first and foremost, automotive enthusiasts,” Huffman says. “We love cars more than maybe even the manufacturers do.”
Egad! Those bounders actually enjoy piloting these ‘orrible bellowin’, pollutin’ machines! Why, they could be driving something nice and safe like a Hyundai Elantra. Or, alternatively, another Hyundai Elantra.
Thing is, upon reflection, Mr. Greve’s criticism hits a little too close to home. The chances of me subverting an accurate criticism of a vehicle based on the offer of a free jar of Grey Poupon or two are slimmer than the chances of me getting lent a hi-po Caddy-wagon for an entire year. On the other hand, does the fact that I love nearly everything about the automobile hamstring my objectivity right from the get-go?
It would seem, dear reader, there are not one, but two great crimes perpetuated upon the public by the Automotive Journalism community as a whole. The first is caving to the pressure to pander, something which you will not find here at TTAC.
The second though is perhaps more insidious. How does one leave an a priori affinity for the automobile curbside, particularly in an era where there are supposedly no bad cars? Complain about the numb steering in a Fiat 500? Well, you might as well kick a puppy.
Mr. Greve offers no concrete solution to the problem of either over-fed parroting and/or froth-mouthed enthusiasm when it comes to automotive journalism’s shaky state. On the other hand, he mentions Consumer Reports more than a few times. The question seems to be, should we turn away from over-wrought prose and hi-res shots of curving flanks and towards a system of shaded dots and empirical data? Well, not to put to fine a point on it, “No.”
On one hand, I would no more turn to a Baruth column as a piece of pure consumer advice than I would turn to Commando as a how-to on home security. When I see the Baruthian byline you just know it’s going to be a wild ride of brutal and occasionally scandalous honesty. Also, he is the only person I have ever seen bother to make a small grammatical correction in a Facebook posting.
But consider this for a moment: would a non-bi-Phaeton-owning, non-Porsche-collecting Jack Baruth have made a different call on that fateful Panamera. ‘Twere he merely a clipboard jockey, would panel gaps and impressive numbers have swayed him towards a more positive verdict?
Like anything else, it’s how you use it. Automotive enthusiasm can be either a whetstone for your quill, or a set of rose-tinted spectacles. The character of the writer is what guides that particular choice.
I keep in my office a sign to hang above my keyboard. Inspired by an excellent article from the Guardian’s long-term science writer, it trumpets the following sage advice, “Nobody has to read this crap.”
In a world where the VW Jetta can sell like pretzels at Oktoberfest, despite being universally panned as a cheap, plasticky sell-out, every automotive journalist should take this phrase to heart. People don’t have to read regurgitated press releases, vomited onto the page as a sticky mess of bland positivity.
But nor do they need to, nor necessarily want, two slices of dry white toast: there are more Jakes than Elwoods out there. Good automotive writing needs meat and flair. There’s a place for folks who make their living reviewing toasters and dishwashers, but you don’t walk into a dealership and fall in love with a Cuisinart.
Cars are an emotional choice, every time. They are part of our culture, an expression of our personal style, and as such, they deserve to be written about by people who are passionate about them. And by the way, that’s guys and gals too, Mr. Greve, with your baby-hoisting Mothercare quip: I know plenty of women in the auto-chronicling business who are both bigger gearheads and better writers than I.
As for myself, a 9-5 day-jobbing freelance who takes the bus to pick up my press-cars and has to fill them with my own fuel (despite what the Editor keeps slipping into the disclaimer), know that I’ll never intentionally pull my punches. More than that though, I’ll strive to never write anything that puts you to sleep.