By on September 6, 2011

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.

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21 Comments on “In Defense Of: Enthusiasm In Automotive Journalism...”


  • avatar
    snoproblem

    “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.”

    Ouch. I don’t resemble that remark, but know a few who do, and confess uttering a loud snorting guffaw at their expense. I’ll likely do so again in the near future.

    Thanks, Brendan, I needed that.

  • avatar
    L'avventura

    I’m not really sure why such offense was taken here to justify this incoherent rant. Greves isn’t really attacking auto enthusiasts in his article.

    And it would be helpful to put that quote that this article is based off of in context. Greves is clearly stating that auto journalists, as car enthusiasts, have a disparity in how they review high-end exotics versus best-sellers that the general public actually purchases. After all, its easier to temp journalists with a Porsche than an Elantra.

    Secondly, he says that traditional expert reviews, like Consumer Reports (which he goes in length to criticize for their questionable relationship with Zag.com), are waning in the digital environment, and says that aggregate reviews and yelp-like user generated reviews are on the rise. Basically, that consumers are changing the way they research for automotive purchases from traditional review sources to wider aggregate of independent online resources- like TTAC.

    • 0 avatar

      I am incapable of writing a birthday card without it degenerating into an incoherent rant. Having said such, I agree with Mr. Greves, and don’t think he’s “attacking” enthusiasts per se, just rightly pointing out that gearheads don’t always make dispassionate critics. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes not so much.

      • 0 avatar
        L'avventura

        Let’s keep in mind, Greve’s entire article is about conflicts of interest that are present in auto journalism. There is a lot of criticism reserved for the New York times, for their poor distinction between editorial and advertising in their articles, and Consumer Reports for their questionable internet advertising practices. The sole praise given out in that article was to Jack Baruth, a gearhead, because he didn’t allow Porsche to sway what he wrote.

        I think you’ve chosen a poor article to base your argument off of. You’re trying to set this article up as if auto enthusiasts are suddenly under attack. Nothing could be further from the truth. Greve’s treats the fact that auto journalists are also enthusiasts as a matter-of-fact, not as a criticism. To the contrary, there seems to be some level of reverence.

      • 0 avatar

        Well, Ed and I got out of it the valid criticism that enthusiasm is not necessarily good consumer advocacy. My point was to agree with this (perhaps implied) statement, define the “not necessarily”, make amjoke about Commando, and conclude that it’s good to have Jack around. I mean, as long as he stays on his side of the border.

      • 0 avatar
        L'avventura

        Don’t get me wrong, overall I agree with what you’ve said in this article, though I take issue with how your argument was formed relative to the Greve’s article. And honestly, I’m sorry- don’t take offense- it does read like a rant.

        On the subject of gearheads, reviews, and consumer advocacy. Its contextual. I think we all want to see Jack Baruth review enthusiast vehicles like the Porsche Panamera, but I personally don’t want to read his review of a Toyota Camry or some minivan.

        While I’m sure it’ll be entertaining, but that’s not what the target market for those vehicles are looking for. A consumer looks to reviews to get information and perspective on a large purchase they are going to make. A person looking at a review of a F150, Sienna, or Elantra is looking for very specific information, and is a different audience than someone reading a review of a Lotus Exige. The mainstream audience isn’t looking for entertainment in car reviews, they can get entertainment from many other venues.

        So entertainment and enthusiasm can be poor consumer advocacy. But its context, we still want ‘meat and flair’, but as you said, the enthusiast side sometimes does need to stay on their side of the border.

      • 0 avatar
        Educator(of teachers)Dan

        Jack’s review of the Chrysler Town & Country Minivan was pretty damn entertaining.

        http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/review-2011-chrysler-town-country/

        I’m not gonna lie, I read it twice.

      • 0 avatar
        L'avventura

        I think Town & Country(T&C) review is the perfect example. Yes, its definitely interesting, its entertaining, its also a great read. But even the Baruth admits that “Price, reliability, resale value, and capability are the true benchmarks in this segment”, and that “ninety-nine percent of Chrysler’s customers won’t care how fast this minivan can chew up a back road”. Which was what the review was about.

        So if an enthusiast was looking to buy a minivan, that would be a great read. These anecdotal story telling, jokes, and quips and references are great fun, but for the “99 percent” of T&C buyers it wouldn’t be. The average T&C buyer already has Jeff Foxworthy for entertainment, they don’t need Baruth, and most of those references, to the 528e and the E-type, would be completely lost on most of them.

        It fine for TTAC, every review doesn’t need to be the same, but if a review is a form of consumer advocacy, then it comes up short. The dull boring stuff, the dry statistics, is what’s important for that segment, and is really whats gong to help serious purchasers of the T&C out. Which is why he passes the baton to Karesh at the end of the review.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    “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.”

    Yup. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking to the guys over at GrandMarq.net or Auto Crossers or a bunch of soccer moms down at the city sports complex. Every one of those choices was emotional on some level. My 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme purchased in the late 90s during my college years? Emotional – loving V8s and lots of chrome. 1997 Ford Escort wagon purchased when the Oldsmobile was stolen in 2000? Emotional – I love station wagons and the price was right. 2004 F150 Heritage purchased in 2006? Emotional – love “basic” trucks. It had me at “standard cab, bench seat, crank windows, vinyl floor covering.” My next car purchase, whatever it may be? Emotional.

    At some primal level car purchases are as much a ballance of emotion and rationality as choosing a mate. The round booty, alabaster skin, and long raven hair kept me interested long enough to figure out the personality and that she was a keeper. At our core we are animals. (Ones capable of advanced thought but none the less…)

  • avatar
    kars

    cars are not an emotional choice every time which is why some people buy toyotas and read CR – for the rest of us there is jack

  • avatar

    Brendan is a talented writer, and more than worthy of TTAC’s commitment to honest, open debate. That, and not the fact that I agree with everything in this article, explains why it’s running here. I am no auto enthusiast in the traditional sense… in fact, if I weren’t so overloaded with content commitments, I might write a piece to the effect that my lack of enthusiasm has helped make this site what it is today. But ultimately I wouldn’t have the content commitments I have if my enthusiasm hadn’t got the better of me.

    I hope that anyone who reads this site realizes that enthusiasm for autos is worthwhile… and more importantly, enthusiasm for autos need not be narrowly defined. My problem with publications like MT is not that they’re 100% sold-out whores, but that they don’t take their job as seriously as folks on the internet because they feel like they don’t have too. It’s not a question of enthusiasm vs. credibility, it’s a question of taking your work seriously and working hard at it because you have readers and commenters whose opinion you read and take seriously. I actually think Greves sums the situation up well when he writes

    Web sites like Jalopnik and The Truth About Cars deliver more independent, aggressive and timely coverage for car enthusiasts than traditional car magazines like Motor Trend.

    It’s not about integrity, it’s about quality. Enthusiasm is as potentially good for quality as it is potentially bad for it. I wish I had a more morally definitive judgement than that, but I don’t…

    • 0 avatar
      highdesertcat

      “My problem with publications like MT is not that they’re 100% sold-out whores, but that they don’t take their job as seriously as folks on the internet because they feel like they don’t have too.”

      That’s why they have so little impact on anything automotive, anywhere of consequence.

  • avatar

    Brendan,

    You asked if an enthusiast can leave his enthusiasm at the curb when reviewing a car. I faced a similar challenge when Jaguar loaned me a XF Supercharged for a week. I don’t typically drive $70,000 cars with 470HP. There aren’t many cars in that price range that most of us would pass up for a week. To be honest, the car would have had to have had serious flaws for me to notice or comment on them. Also, I like Jaguars and have owned an XJ. I tried to be as objective as I could but I told the readers that it was hard maintaining a fair perspective. The following week (and it’s rare that I get two cars in a row) I happened to get a Kia Sportage. Then I was faced with how to be fair to the Kia after stepping out of a much more refined car.

    Like the Robert Hunter lyric says, you clank your chains and count your change and try to walk the line. I say what I think. It may be bull$hit but it’s what I think. Ultimately my goal is writing something that’s interesting to me that I think will be interesting to others and hope that Ed will buy. When you’re dealing with the public, you have to understand that your general sense of taste has to go beyond your own preferences. Just because I’m an enthusiast doesn’t mean that I can ignore the fact that many, probably most, people buy a car as an appliance. Those appliances, the Camcordatas, are a huge chunk of the car industry and as writers on cars and the industry we damn well better understand that part of the car world.

  • avatar
    joe_thousandaire

    Excellent article, BrendanMac. These echo my thoughts exactly regarding Mr. Greeve’s article (that is if I was capable of taking my thoughts and turning them into perfectly written sentences – which I’m not). Particularity the part where he was bemoaning Dan Neil’s hilarious hyperbole (something about cocaine and catapults), Greeve’s at that point seemed to change the tone of the article from an excellent investigation into auto-journalist ethics to instead question whether car journalists should have the right enjoy the cars they are driving and the job they are doing. I think clearly they should, I’ve said on this forum before that I read TTAC (and other car blogs) primarily for entertainment, secondarily for information. Writers who are enthusiastic about cars make for more entertaining articles, and more enjoyable reading.

  • avatar
    thesal

    At the end of the day, I think what guys like Greeves and Baruth are looking for is honesty. Sure, it’s hard not to be excited when Porsche gives you a twin turbo 500hp sedan to flog around a track. But as a professional, it’s still important to call a spade, a spade. Especially if said spade blows up in your face (Panamera @ Shannonville). If the outcome of an article is based on anything other than the author’s opinion of that car, there’s something wrong.

    The problem is that there is a status-quo cycle in place. Good review = more perks = more cars. It takes many journalists with integrity to break that cycle. For now C&D & MT still make money. It’s only when enough of the reading public decides they no longer want such reviews will we see a change. TTAC has brought to light a lot of this, a lot that I’m sure many of us never knew before.

    So far it’s working. 4 years ago, I had no clue the big print rags were spending that much time in bed with the manufacturers. I know better now and approach their material far more skeptically.

    With enough readers taking this approach, that business model will slowly deteriorate. Less readers = less Ad revenue. It’s up to the reading public to ask for the truth, only then will we get it.

  • avatar
    TrailerTrash

    WHO NEEDS CAR enthusiast anywho!?

    I think the whole reviewer thing is a bit dumb…at least to rely on for purchases.
    I like reading all the reviews about cars I very likely will never drive and very likely never buy. I these cases it is sort of cool to hear about them.

    BUT to actually listen to anybody here or at MotorTrend, or any car sight when making a decision of what to buy is very, very stupid.
    They ain’t paying for it.
    They ain’t gonna have to live with the decision…so don’t let them have any input into the purchase decision.
    And when enthusiast talks about the designs or looks of a car…this is especially maddening to me. Art and beauty is in the eye of the buyer…not the knucklehead behind a typewriter with a journalism degree.

    YOU get out and test drive over and over again until YOU know what car YOU want to make 36 to 60 months of payments on and still feel good.
    Buyer’s remorse is what YOU will have to live with.

    • 0 avatar
      slance66

      I agree, with one caveat. Most of us don’t have the time to take multiple, repeat tests of the various cars we’re considering. So reviews can both help suggest a car that you might not have considerd and provide observations. If someone says that the narrow tunnel on car bothered them on long trips, you might not notice on a short drive. Or they may notice a bad blind spot. You can look for these things. In short, they can fill in the gaps and make your test drive more meaningful.

  • avatar
    tedward

    I don’t know if I agree with this self-criticism. I go to enthusiasts if I want to see whether a car is lovable, or to put it another way, to see if the designers approached their task with an eye to the art of car engineering (not looking for a philosophy argument art vs. craft just saying). Basically the only thing that could defensibly be left out of such a review would be projected reliability or dealer experience, but that’s not necessarily the case either, as I’ve seen plenty of enthusiast writers ding VW and BMW on this account in their reviews.

    A non enthusiast car journalist is simply an underqualified employee whose opinion I have no reason to credit, unless that is, they are simply slapping together a bullet point collection of coldly objective facts. The problem is, then they need to be working for a dry publication like the SAE newsletter, and in those cases they couldn’t possibly have the knowledge base to be competent without already being an enthusiast in the first place. So no, there is no place for the non-enthusiast car reviewer.


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