The Truth Be Told
Last Tuesday, a man named John E Packowski sent me an email: 'Effective immediately, The San Francisco Chronicle will no longer be using your automotive columns.' I'd never heard of the Chronicle's Creative Director. But I was hardly mystified by Mr. Packowski's motivation. The week previous, the paper ran my review of the Subaru B9 Tribeca.
I'm not sure if the Chronicle removed my description of the SUV's front end as a 'flying vagina' (the editors ignore my request for a copy of the published review), but even without it my analysis of the B9 was not bound to please its manufacturer. The section's editor, Mike Berry, refused to clarify the exact cause of my summary dismissal. But a colleague let it be known that a Subaru-scented shit storm had hit the department responsible for my employment. The paper caved.
Initially, I wasn't bothered by the Chronicle's lack of editorial backbone. I'd had a terrific run. For three-and-a-half years, the Chronicle printed my work without significant alteration. Sure, Berry had spiked a few of the more 'extreme' reviews. But I thought it the price of doing business. Considering the no-holds-barred nature of my output, I admired the paper's courage. No other US newspaper will agree to publish my car reviews. Not one. So I was thankful for the opportunity to find an audience, for however long it lasted.
And then I remembered that Mr. Berry had spiked the Subaru B9 review before he left for vacation. During his absence, fellow editor Mike Ansaldo had decided to run it. Then I got fired. This did not strike me as fair, honorable or just. The paper had decided to expose their readers to a negative review, and I, not them, had paid the price. Even worse, no one at the paper is willing to discuss what had happened, or why. Perhaps the Chronicle doesn't wish itself revealed as willing to jettison its editorial independence in the face of advertisers' ire. Perhaps there are legal reasons. In any case, all I want is the truth. This they can not– will not– provide.
Of course, the truth is relative. Or so automotive manufacturers and their minions would have us believe. In fact, the Subaru B9 Tribeca is both subjectively (to the best of my knowledge and experience) and empirically a dreadful machine that besmirches the reputation of its manufacturer. Sure, the B9 handles well. The review pointed this out. But to suggest that it's an SUV worthy of its manufacturer's hype ('The end of the SUV as we know it' and 'The ideal balance of power and refinement') is to become a co-conspirator in Subaru's attempts to mislead the public.
And here's the thing: I believe the media in general, and newspapers in particular, have an obligation to tell the truth about cars. You know all those puff pieces that fill up the odd blank spot in every single automotive section in this great country of ours? Does it ever occur to the propagators of these gutless 'reviews' that a car is the average consumer's second most expensive purchase? To operate under the principle that all cars are wonderful in their own special way is to sacrifice readers' direct financial interests for the paper's short term monetary gain. Chicken and egg though it might be– readers attract advertisers who pay for copy to attract readers– Bob Dylan was right. You gotta serve somebody. Clearly, the mainstream automotive media has made its choice.
And that's why so many car enthusiasts have turned to the web. Other than Dan Neil at the Los Angeles Times, there are no print journalists ready, willing and able to directly challenge the auto manufacturers' influence with the plain, unvarnished truth (including the writers found in the happy clappy buff books). Car lovers yearn for the truth about cars. Sites like www.jalopnik.com are dedicated to providing it. And that's why the mainstream press' cozy little Boys' Club is doomed.
But we are keenly aware that the pursuit of the truth is becoming increasingly difficult. I've been personally blacklisted by three major manufacturers, denied access to their press cars. Invitations to product previews and launches are notable by their absence. On the revenue side, potential advertisers have flat out stated that they are unwilling to accept our editorial independence.
Never mind. I will continue to publish the truth about cars as long as I can afford to do so. If test vehicles disappear completely, I'll write editorials. To those of you who support this website's ambitions, I can't thank you enough. To those of you who would punish us for our zeal, a word of warning. Whether we stand or fall, the truth will out.
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