By on November 8, 2009

At the session on "The Auto Industry in Asia: An Open Road?" The speakers are Hu Maoyuan, President, Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp.; Helmut Panke, Chairman of the Board of Management, BMW AG; G. Richard Wagoner, President and CEO, General Motors; and the moderator is Alex Taylor III, Senior Editor, FORTUNE. [newsphoto.com.cn]

Inside baseball alert. If you’re more interested in Metamucil than meta memes, this post’s not for you (I recommend any of the 1,345,483 website dedicated to bowel health). Otherwise, check out Alex Taylor III’s “Readers revolt over Ford.Fortune‘s carmudgeon apologizes for the grievous sin of suggesting that Ford’s product quality may be middling. “As I should have explained more fully in the [previous] column, the 2010 rankings averaged reports from CR readers on all the cars in a given company’s lineup. Ford’s results were pulled down by the poor performance of the F-250 pickup truck and the troubled all-wheel-drive systems on Ford passenger cars.” And that information should be excluded because . . . ? “While my column was technically accurate, it didn’t pass the smell test with readers who thought I showed bias against American cars.” Question: what the hell is going on here?

I reckon Taylor’s apologizing for doing his job properly. You might speculate that a rebuke from the Boys in Blue triggered this mea culpa, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

I promise to pay more attention to the appearance that my columns create as well as the content. Journalists shouldn’t be cheerleaders, but they shouldn’t be so consistently negative that they lose their audience, either.

Taylor’s summation—indeed, the existence of this column—suggests that Three Sticks believes the need for “balance” (and/or audience retention) relieves him of his obligation to serve as an industry watchdog. Wrong answer. Meanwhile, Taylor’s sword-falling routine reflects a wider trend: the digital deification of Alan Mulally and Ford.

While Ford is Detroit’s Last Man Standing, they’ve got a long way to go (cough Lincoln cough). Just as positive press did nothing for GM or Chrysler, showering Ford with hosannas is not going to help them repay their $10 billion Department of Energy loan. No matter what its camp followers want to believe. The press job is not to do or die; it’s to question why.

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21 Comments on “Fortune’s Alex Taylor’s Mea Culpa; Ford as Sacred Cow...”


  • avatar
    pleiter

    I think people in the U.S. WANT to believe an identifiable American can company can build a reliable, fuel-efficient car. Even the kids want an American company that is competitive and that they can be proud of. In some ways, Ford is like the Last of the Mohicans. Never mind Lincoln and 4WD, those are options not mainstays.

  • avatar

    I doubt Ford said anything to him. Conducting TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey, I fear upset owners far more than I do any reaction from the OEMs. We’ve got a basic conflict here:

    1. Everyone wants their car (like their child) to be above average.

    2. All cars cannot be above average.

    3. When the facts aren’t attractive, shoot the messenger.

    I’ve been banned from a Cadillac forum and had the thread about TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey buried at a Jaguar forum because those groups of owners did not like the results–which were based on data they themselves provided. In both cases the threads were officially okayed and even endorsed by the forum owner. Counterproductive, really, as it has delayed results for the likely better second-year cars.

    Quite sad to see Mr. Taylor caving like this. If you become overly sensitive to what readers want to be true, you might as well give up writing.

    What STILL isn’t coming up in Alex Taylor’s account: CR does not release the actual repair frequencies, so it’s not possible to tell how much worse these subpar Fords really are. Quite likely we’re talking about an extra repair or two for every ten cars.

    The solution:

    http://www.truedelta.com/car-reliability.php

  • avatar

    BTW, AT III is working on a book about the recent history of GM. He’s done some fine writing in the past, and I hope this book resembles that past writing and not this recent mea culpa.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    Weird. Taylor is usually very, very good at what he does. Sounds like somebody “got to him”.

  • avatar
    ohsnapback

    Praising all things FoMoCo is definitely the “agenda du jour.”

    Ford can seemingly do nothing wrong, even with a half-baked plethora of models, some good, some ehh, and some just bad.

    I’ve seen the Blue Oval cheerleading squad at work; whether they’re paid or pro bono, they make themselves appear to be quite well organized and very, very vocal (and blindly defensive).

  • avatar
    Telegraph Road

    Consumer Reports, standing by its “world class” designation of Ford reliability, issued a clarification on where Ford’s quality stands. http://blogs.consumerreports.org/cars/2009/10/2009-annual-car-reliability-survey-how-ford-lincoln-mercury-rank.html
    Quoting: “On one hand, I’ve seen a headline that said Ford is number one. (It’s not.) And I’ve seen writers wondering aloud if we’re shilling for the company—casting it in an overly rosy light. (We’re not.)”
    I can’t imagine who CR is complaining about.

  • avatar
    JT

    “Question: what the hell is going on here?”

    The conservative right.

  • avatar
    ajla

    -The Ford Motor Company counted to infinity. Twice.

    -The Ford Motor Company’s tears cure cancer. Too bad it never cries.

    -When the Boogeyman goes to sleep every night, he checks his closet for the Ford Motor Company.

  • avatar
    Richard Chen

    @ajla:

    “Ford: We build our best cars right here in Mexico and Canada. Look, Consumer Reports says so.”

    “Ford Motor Company. Number one in US-based carmakers for long-term debt.” Or something like that…

  • avatar
    Ion

    I think a better question is how Lincoln’s line-up rates lower than their Ford counterparts in CR’s surveys?

    is it because more of CR’s demograph has Lincolns so they have a better range of data? Or is that the elderly complain more?

  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    Quality may be job number one, but if you own an F150 with cruise control, it would be best to park it as far away from the house as possible. Some of them have been known to spontaneously ignite.

  • avatar
    lahru

    Is Ford working on correcting the problems mentioned? Probably they are.

    Do many readers of Fortune own Ford stock? Probably they do.

    Does creating a kerfuffle about an article in Fortune sell magazines? Probably does.

  • avatar
    NulloModo

    I agree that overall reliability statistics should matter, but they should also be weighted for models that sell more or less units. The 6.0 liter diesel in the F250 was horrible from a reliability standpoint, and while the current 6.4 liter is much better, it still has a few hiccups. I haven’t heard of any reliability issues with the AWD system in the passenger cars, but we don’t sell many AWD vehicles in my area. In either case, the portion of sales that AWD sedans and diesel F250s make up vs the rest of the lineup is relatively small, so it should be weighted accordingly in any reliability stats for the company.

    Ion – Yes, elderly people definitely complain a hell of a lot more. They also tend to blame problems that they created themselves from not understanding how something on a vehicle works to a design flaw.

    OldandSlow – So I suppose if you own a Toyota product you’d better throw away your floormats because your vehicle might just run out of control into the one in front of it. The cruise control fire issue has been fixed for several years now, and any of the cases that occasionally pop up are due to owners having ignored the multiple recall notices that they have received. Yes, there was a design flaw, but Ford stepped up and is fixing it free of charge through one of the largest recalls ever, but while you can lead a horse to water…

  • avatar
    PeteMoran

    The USofA has the worst media in the world. The closest thing you have to critical thinking is The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

    I can’t remember the last time I read a Washington Post (for example) article and found myself asking questions. The writer explained the problem and then provided the counter argument themselves! This is not journalism. Have an opinion and argue it.

    There is scope for “right” and “wrong” to be explained. People want it. The USA would be a better place for it.

  • avatar
    ohsnapback

    I forgot to add:

    I’m at least somewhat glad CR put the Lincoln MKS near the very bottom of its rankings, because it definitely belongs there.

    The MKS is a case of divergence between hype/spin and actual quality and driving dynamics like nothing I’ve ever seen.

  • avatar
    cpmanx

    You might speculate that a rebuke from the Boys in Blue triggered this mea culpa, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

    Well, yes you might speculate that. Or that this is the result of right-wing agitators. Or that this is the result of media-duped, pro-Ford zombies (either Fortune’s readers or one of its editors). My best guess is that what we are seeing here is pro-American backlash from a lot of recent media coverage that seemed positively gleeful at the possibility of the demise of the American auto industry (cough TTAC cough).

    But of course it’s all speculation. Not much of an issue, anyway, since the CR ratings are there for all to see: Ford has some very bright spots (Fusion) but still is second-tier overall in both reliability and quality. One Alex Taylor piece has practically no audience or influence by comparison.

  • avatar
    Durwood

    “I’m at least somewhat glad CR put the Lincoln MKS near the very bottom of its rankings, because it definitely belongs there.

    The MKS is a case of divergence between hype/spin and actual quality and driving dynamics like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

    So you own one? Or you have several friends who own one then? Or you just hate Lincoln? I know what answer my money is on. Maybe Lincoln does belong at the bottom …but it seems to me you are an expert on them and i would just like to know how is all. You have talked to all the owners and collected data maybe?

  • avatar
    Pch101

    My best guess is that what we are seeing here is pro-American backlash from a lot of recent media coverage that seemed positively gleeful at the possibility of the demise of the American auto industry (cough TTAC cough).

    No, this is nothing new. It’s the same old pattern — any time someone in the media criticizes Detroit even mildly, the Detroit Defenders come rushing in to spew invective. Whenever there is a readers comments section, the drivel is sure to follow.

    If the Michigan militia invested even half the effort improving their products instead of attacking their critics, then they would undoubtedly build the best cars in the world. Unfortunately, most of the effort goes toward playing defense, instead of giving the critics less to complain about.

    It’s a shame that Mr. Taylor proved to be so gutless. He’s supposed to be an industry analyst, which involves saying stuff that will offend the hypersensitive. Just so long as he can support his assessments, he should make them and have the intestinal fortitude to ignore the whiners.

    The writer explained the problem and then provided the counter argument themselves! This is not journalism. Have an opinion and argue it.

    That is journalism. A news reporter is supposed to report news, not just pitch his own opinion. Otherwise, you end up with the likes of Fox News, which does a poor job of separating news from opinion and ends up propagandizing the audience instead of educating it.

    In the US, the tendency is to separate news from news-analysis from opinion-editorial. All three are generally available, and it is up to the reader to choose what they prefer.

    If you don’t see that, then you weren’t looking for it. There is no shortage of opinion media in the US. You may not be familiar with it, and opinion may not permeate every article, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

  • avatar
    ppellico

    Just a thought….but shouldn’t new car runs be compared with each other?
    I think cars with several years into the model should have better repair data than the MKS, still in its first year.
    I can’t tell how this is put together.

  • avatar
    PeteMoran

    @ Pch101

    A news reporter is supposed to report news, not just pitch his own opinion.

    A news reporter is not a journalist. I don’t think you’re arguing that, BTW. I wasn’t referring to such a person.

    When I think of news-analysis, opinion-editorial and journalism I think of Woodward/Bernstein, Christopher Hitchens, Clifford Levy, Paul Foot etc…

    Nick Davies has an excellent book about the deterioration of journalism into “news” of no valve, arguing no case.

    Roy Greenslade is an interesting thinker on the topic too.

    … opinion may not permeate every article, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

    Agreed, but what I was meaning is that you get too many columns/shows on extremely important issues that work to this formula;

    Byline here. Some say that position/fact/theory ‘A’ is important, yet others say position/fact/theory ‘B’ is important. Balanced sign-off.

    It’s garbage. There is no provocation to critical thought.

  • avatar
    jamie1

    All,

    While I appreciate that many may chose to be cynical about this, I can only give you the truth from this end.

    We did not lean on/attack/’get to’ or otherwise attempt to jump on Alex Taylor’s remarks. In fact, we got an e-mail from an astonished colleague with his letter attached which was the first we knew about it.

    Anyone who knows Alex Taylor will know that he cannot be lent on by anyone – he is very much his own man as his previous articles on Ford, GM and others will attest.

    As I say, you may chose to not believe us, but this is the Truth About Cars so take that at face value.

    Kind regards,

    Jay Ward
    Ford Communications

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