General Motors Death Watch 2: Dan Neil Takes A Bullet

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
general motors death watch 2 dan neil takes a bullet

Unbelievable. GM’s lost the plot, they’re losing the game and now they want to take their ball and go home. After automotive critic Dan Neil ripped apart the new Pontiac G6 GT and called for an executive putsch, The General pulled its $10M adspend out of the Los Angeles Times. While you can’t begrudge GM’s right to place—or not place—its money where it chooses, the decision to pull the plug on the Times displays an unappealing combination of arrogance and petulance. To wit: GM spokesfolk defended their action by saying that the review (and other GM-related coverage) contained “factual errors and misrepresentations”—without providing any specifics. So there. Nuh.

GM’s version of The Wizard of Oz‘ “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” routine is good for a few laughs. It’s always fun to watch the rich and powerful act like victims. Nevertheless, it’s a worrying situation. The General’s muscle-flexing will certainly have a dampening effect on the already obsequious US automotive press. The ripples will be felt from the biggest buff books to the smallest local supplements. Even the blogosphere and ad-free sites like this one will sense the heat (if nothing else, we depend on manufacturers for access to test models). With the threat of retribution lingering in the air like sulfurous gas, the truth is bound to suffer even greater indignities.

The press’ silence on this story is deafening. Ironically, this lack of coordinated response actually works against the automotive media; leading the public to the not-so-wrong conclusion that lapdoggery towards the big advertisers is the norm. I’ve said it before: the press’ greatest asset, perhaps its only asset, is its credibility. If the car media doesn’t stand up for Neil, if they don’t defend the principles which they claim govern their profession, they risk losing their readers’ respect, and thus, affections.

At the same time, GM’s vindictiveness will hurt GM’s bottom line. The move against the LA Times catapulted Neil’s column out of pistonhead backwaters into the national consciousness. By doing so, it focused yet more attention on the generally piss-poor performance of GM products vis-à-vis their competitors, as well as the likelihood that the General may axe two entire divisions. Buyers who’ve long suspected that domestic automakers try to hide their products’ mediocrity behind a wall of hype and ad spend—consumers who don’t want to buy a car from a brand that might disappear—now have even more reason to shop Toyota.

GM’s assumption that the general public would side with big business in a fight against a lone (not to say rogue) journalist also raises serious doubts about the company’s understanding of PR. The proper response to Neil’s criticisms was obvious: demand that the Times publish a detailed refutation of the charges leveled against the company and the G6 GT. At the very least, when GM pulled their ads, their objections should have been made clear. But no. As far as the public is concerned, GM’s action was designed to punish the Times for doing what newspapers are supposed to do: report the truth. News flash to GM brass: people LIKE newspapers. And they don’t like bullies.

Of course, GM couldn’t really offer a point-by-point reply to Neil’s review because the G6 sucks. Oh wait, Neil didn’t say that. With uncharacteristic reserve, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic called the G6 “uncompetitive.” If GM doesn’t agree with this assessment, if they can’t read their own sales figures and come to the same conclusion, they are in deep, deep denial. At the risk of sounding as obvious as an alcoholic’s friend during an intervention, lashing out at the LA Times doesn’t change anything. The G6 is still mediocre. GM is still in deep shit. The General’s assertion that it’s being unjustly persecuted doesn’t make it so.

Both domestic carmakers and car hacks need to wise-up. Until and unless the automotive press puts their readers’ interests first, advertisers will have them over a barrel. Until and unless GM faces the truth about its products, they will keep making boneheaded, self-defeating and futile attempts to protect their increasingly illusory reputation. Meanwhile, send an email. Let him know that his short-term prospects are a lot better than GM’s.

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  • Ollicat I have a Spyder. The belt will last for many years or 60,000-80,000 miles. Not really a worry.
  • Redapple2 Cadillac and racing. Boy those 2 go together dont they? What a joke. Up there with opening a coffee shop in NYC. EvilGM be clowning. Again.
  • Jbltg Rear bench seat does not match the front buckets. What's up?
  • Theflyersfan The two Louisville truck plants are still operating, but not sure for how much longer. I have a couple of friends who work at a manufacturing company in town that makes cooling systems for the trucks built here. And they are on pins and needles wondering if or when they get the call to not go back to work because there are no trucks being made. That's what drives me up the wall with these strikes. The auto workers still get a minimum amount of pay even while striking, but the massive support staff that builds components, staffs temp workers, runs the logistics, etc, ends up with nothing except the bare hope that the state's crippled unemployment system can help them keep afloat. In a city where shipping (UPS central hub and they almost went on strike on August 1) and heavy manufacturing (GE Appliance Park and the Ford plants) keeps tens of thousands of people employed, plus the support companies, any prolonged shutdown is a total disaster for the city as well. UAW members - you're not getting a 38% raise right away. That just doesn't happen. Start a little lower and end this. And then you can fight the good fight against the corner office staff who make millions for being in meetings all day.
  • Dusterdude The "fire them all" is looking a little less unreasonable the longer the union sticks to the totally ridiculous demands ( or maybe the members should fire theit leadership ! )