Spin Doctors and Lap Dogs

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
spin doctors and lap dogs

OK, so GM's Vice Chairman, Bob Lutz, takes a tour of his fiefdom. His entourage sweeps into the top-secret room where the design department has hidden GM's future models from prying eyes. The Car Czar takes a look at a sleek machine. "What's that?" he demands. "It's the new Corvette," a minion reveals. "No it's not," Lutz snaps. At a stroke, the former Marine fighter pilot has served notice to his new troops: must do better. A legend is born. Nice story. Not true.

In actual fact, it was a simple case of mistaken identity. Lutz was expecting to see an all-new Corvette. He didn't know that the new shape 'Vette is still in development, a year behind schedule. The car he encountered at GM's skunk works was the refreshed version of the current car, the 'Vette that Chevrolet will be selling to commemorate the model's 50th Anniversary. And that's it. In other words, the car guy behind the wheel of General Motors did nothing whatsoever to alter the course of the Corvette's evolution.

This apocryphal "no it's not" story has been repeated ad nauseum by the press—until Lutz decided the tale didn't suit GM's "team" aspirations. The anecdote's popularity may simply reflect an understandable journalistic need for a bit of colour in an otherwise grey industry. But the fact that the story was allowed to circulate unchallenged for so long hints at something less savoury: the extent to which Detroit's spin doctors hold their supposed media watchdogs in their thrall.

You don't have to dig too deep to find other, more sinister examples of media corruption. To wit: a recent "get together" for the automotive media hosted by GM at the Bacara Spa Resort in Santa Barbara, California…

Over four days, a fleet of car journalists heard GM's top execs outline their plans to resuscitate the company's fortunes. Gary Cowger (President of North American operations), Mark Hogan (Director of Advanced Vehicle Development), Larry Burns (Technology Director), Rick Wagoner (CEO) and Mr. Lutz himself were all in attendance. It was, in short, an A-List affair, worlds away from industry-standard corporate charm offensive.

This particular junket had something else to separate it from the usual PowerPointery. The company brought along thirteen new models. It was the ultimate party favour for car hungry hacks: a quarter of all the new machines GM plans to introduce between now and mid-decade.

So what's the future hold for the Big Daddy of the Big Three? Are their new machines cars or trucks? Are they sexy or sensible? Do they have a Boxster beater? A Merc mauler? Wither MPV's? Are there any radical ideas for power plants or drive trains or interiors? Wassup wit da General?

Don't know. Journalists who attended the Baraca bacchanalia were sworn to silence, and then scanned by a metal detector. How many snuck in a digital camera? How many dared break the news embargo? None. How critical was the resulting coverage? Imagine a group of parents after a high school play— with children who all had starring roles. While the coverage of GM's West Coast PR-fest all outlined the company's current weaknesses, the reports simply repeated GM's plans for change. A typical piece summed up the event with the startling revelation that GM was now "on the right track". Really? If so, someone should tell GM's stockholders. The news would certainly help bolster GM's ailing stock price. No wait, job done.

This kind of duplicity should come as no surprise to anyone who attempts to monitor the car business. You don't have to accept millions of dollars of automotive advertising to know that the industry considers itself far too important to tolerate proper scrutiny. As the old saying goes, when Detroit sneezes, America catches a cold. That's where "proper" automotive journalists—critical analysts and hard-nosed reporters—tend to end up: in the cold. Out of the Detroit loop.

While there are notable exceptions to this lap doggery (including The Detroit News), the American automotive press is generally slow to submit the object of its attentions (affections?) to anything resembling investigative journalism. It takes a lot of outside agitation before safety, legislative or environmental stories see the light of day. And when it comes to the business of the business, reviewing actual product, well, I guess I've said it all before. And I'll say it again: there is an unholy alliance between the media and carmakers that stifles genuine criticism of the product.

There is only one way to clear this fug of obfuscation and remove the stench of tainted reportage: the automotive press must clean up its act. Journalists should either refuse to accept free junkets or declare their sponsor's contribution, in plain English, from the outset. They should not allow corporate representatives to speak (or show vehicles) off the record; the practice ties journalist to subject in a bond of collusion. And Editors should wake-up to the fact that hard-hitting automotive journalism is vital to fulfil their obligation to serve the readers'— if not their advertisers'—best interests.

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  • Analoggrotto A human who choses Tesla is telling the world that they are more intelligent than 98.5% of the remaining population. The Homo sapiens genome is evolving to the next species and it is starting with TESLA customers. We are the future, we are the galaxy, we will succeed all of humanity.
  • Alan The Prado shouldn't have the Landcruiser name attached. It isn't a Landcruiser as much as a Tacoma or 4 Runner or a FJ Cruiser. Toyota have used the Landcruiser name as a marketing exercise for years. In Australia the RAV4 even had Landcruiser attached years ago! The Toyota Landcruiser is the Landcruiser, not a tarted up Tacoma wagon.Here a GX Prado cost about $61k before on roads, this is about $41k USD. This is a 2.8 diesel 4x4 with all the off road tricky stuff, plus AC, power windows, etc. I'm wondering if Toyota will perform the Nissan Armada treatment on it and debase the Prado. The Patrol here is actually as capable and possibly more capable than the Landcruiser off road (according to some reviews). The Armada was 'muricanised and the off road ability was reduced a lot. Who ever heard of a 2 wheel drive Patrol.Does the US need the Prado? Why not. Another option to choose from built by Toyota that is overpriced and uses old tech.My sister had a Prado Grande, I didn't think much of it. It was narrow inside and not that comfortable. Her Grand Cherokee was more comfortable and now her Toureg is even more comfortable, but you can still feel the road in the seat of your pants and ears.
  • Jeffrey No tis vehicle doen't need to come to America. The market if flooded in this segment what we need are fun affordable vehicles.
  • Nrd515 I don't really see the point of annual inspections, especially when the car is under 3 years (warranty) old. Inspections should be safety related, ONLY, none of the nonsensical CA ARB rules that end up being something like, "Your air intake doesn't have an ARB sticker on it, so you have to remove it and buy one just like it that does have the ARB sticker on it!". If the car or whatever isn't puking smoke out of it, and it doesn't make your eyes water, like an old Chevy Bel-Air I was behind on Wed did, it's fine. I was stuck in traffic behind that old car, and wow, the gasoline smell was super potent. It was in nice shape, but man, it was choking me. I was amused by the 80 something old guy driving it, he even had a hat with a feather in it, THE sign of someone you don't want to be driving anywhere near you.
  • Lou_BC "15mpg EPA" The 2023 ZR2 Colorado is supposed to be 16 mpg