By on April 24, 2015

Renaissance Center

Once upon a time, The Wall Street Journal faced off against General Motors over editorial independence, and won.

According to ProPublica president Richard Tofel, who wrote an entire chapter about the story for his book, “Restless Genius: Barney Kilgore, The Wall Street Journal, and the Invention of Modern Journalism,” the conflict between the two giants began over 60 years ago this May.

The story goes that GM CEO Harlow “Red” Curtice happened upon a report in the WSJ about the tactic of selling excess inventory through smaller independent dealers at cut-rate prices – bootlegging – a tactic used by his company and his competitors in Detroit. The report also covered the editorial policies of the newspaper’s local competitors – which had banned advertising of non-franchise dealers involved in bootlegging – citing the Detroit Three’s influence in advertising departments had begun to creep into the newsroom.

As a result, Ward’s Automotive Reports had cut the WSJ off from its weekly newsletter subscription. However, an exclusive published in late May – styling renders of the 1955 models from the Detroit Three – was the straw that broke Curtice’s back.

Fearing that sales of 1954 models would crash as a result of the exclusive, GM cancelled all of its advertising with the newspaper that day and barred access to its weekly production figures; the Associated Press was also barred when GM learned the Journal had tried to go through the media organization to get the figures. Editor Barney Kilgore later told Time magazine his paper declined to attend the “off-the-record” new-model briefing that year, citing the Detroit Three’s tendency to go “off the record” nearly all the time as the reason for not playing the game.

What followed was two months of editorials defending its stance on the two stories, letters to the editor from readers who either weren’t happy with Kilgore’s decision or stood behind the newspaper, and a number of other publications, such as Ad Age and Tide magazine (an advertising trade journal, not to be confused with Time), calling out GM and Curtice’s behavior in the matter.

Speaking of the letters, Kilgore chose one from a reader to pass along with one of his own – calling for a way to settle the issue reasonably – to Curtice. The letter, by Roy Brenholts of Columbus, Ohio, stated that Brenholts would trade one of his two Cadillacs for a Ford instead of trading the Ford he owned for a Chevrolet, adding that he would avoid Cadillac until GM stopped their “Hitlerite attitude” toward the newspaper.

The meeting between Curtice and Kilgore led to two letters being published back-to-back in early July. Curtice wrote that breaking off relations with the WSJ was better than suing – though he wouldn’t hesitate to consider the latter next time – but that he never intended to interfere with editorial. Kilgore, in return, noted that the flow of information – weekly sales figures, news releases et al – had come back to normal, his paper had the right to publish news from authorized and unauthorized sources, and he, not the advertisers, would be the final arbiter in what was published in the first place. This established the WSJ as a newspaper with unflappable independence and integrity before the public in so doing.

[Photo credit: Robert Emperley/Flickr]

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39 Comments on “Wall Street Journal v. GM: A Public Battle For Editorial Independence...”


  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Hmmmmmmmm a little known chapter in GMs history.

  • avatar
    highdesertcat

    Let it be known that I am a fan of The WSJ and have subscribed since 1980, though now only a digital subscription.

    As such, any comments I made in the past, make now, and will make in the future, are heavily influenced by the content I read within those (digital) pages.

    Much of the time of the conflict between the WSJ and GM I was a rabid GM fan and drove GM products, several bought new.

    I think with age and maturity I have begun to see the wisdom that is the WSJ and the calamity that was/is/continues to be GM.

    Now 60 years later, and with millions upon millions of GM recalls behind us, I think the WSJ has gone soft on GM. In the past, I thought the WSJ had it in for GM.

    Turns out, the WSJ was right all along, and I was wrong to believe in GM.

    You live and you learn.

    • 0 avatar

      I once looked upon GM as the One True Car Company

      https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/beating-the-one-brand-blues-circa-1960/

    • 0 avatar
      LectroByte

      > Let it be known that I am a fan of The WSJ and have subscribed since 1980, though now only a digital subscription.

      > As such, any comments I made in the past, make now, and will make in the future, are heavily influenced by the content I read within those (digital) pages.

      So, that explains it. You do realize that the WSJ was bought out by Rupert Murdoch around ten years ago? The WSJ is not what it once was once was.

      • 0 avatar
        highdesertcat

        Yup, I know. And I don’t care. I was born into a democrat union-household, became a conservative after joining the military, and registered as an Independent when I retired from the military in 1985.

        I am still a fan of the WSJ.

        FYI, I also read the NYT but that rag is nowhere near the WSJ, the LAT or any of McClatchy’s papers.

  • avatar
    ihatetrees

    GM’s statist culture continued to clash with the WSJ’s liberty focused editorial page (and probably does to this day). Editor Bob Bartley’s famous ‘Down with Big Business’ classically details late 1970’s GM degeneracy.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    The Wall Street Journal was not a big deal in the early 50s. Ironically, GM helped it with this.

    Five decades later, Dan Neil’s review of the Pontiac G6 led to GM pulling its advertising from the LA Times. (Guess who wrote about it? https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2005/04/general-motors-death-watch-2-dan-neil-takes-a-bullet/) Oddly enough, Neil eventually left the Times for the WSJ.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      Reading that is sort of depressing. Robert was talking about automotive journalists balancing their integrity with serving their advertisers. A decade later, we’ve seen lean times at the magazines leading to survival of the fittest sycophants. Integrity in automotive journalism is now probably measured in how well you write up your praise of whatever was being promoted at the last junket. Journalists that lack ‘integrity’ are now the ones that go for the party and don’t bother to file a report.

  • avatar
    PonchoIndian

    Pch

    Yes because Dan Neil is the source for completely unbiased and superior auto reviews as written here https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/07/enough-about-the-tesla-model-s-and-the-manufactured-controversy-over-reviews/#more-451797

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      Even a bankruptcy and a shuttering of brands don’t discourage the GM faithful, I guess.

      You totally don’t get the point of this bit of history, do you? (Here’s a hint: Big corporations trying to use their advertising budgets to control what you get to see in the media.)

      • 0 avatar
        PonchoIndian

        Pch
        I’m not the GM faithful (that Is Ponchoman49)

        I completely get the point of this article, and my reply had nothing to do with GM.

        • 0 avatar
          Pch101

          So your point is that Jalopnik doesn’t like Dan Neil, therefore Pontiac!

          • 0 avatar
            PonchoIndian

            never mind Pch…you’re ego negates your ability to have a normal conversation.. You brought up Neil, not me. Have nice weekend, don’t change a bit buddy, it would ruin the entertainment factor around here.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            You really don’t get it. The point of the example was to show a modern example of GM trying to use its advertising spending in order to censor the media. That it involved Dan Neil or any other individual was tangential to the point.

          • 0 avatar
            PonchoIndian

            PCH

            Once again..I get it, chill out there big guy. Shall we move on to how all the other big companies do the same thing?

            You happened to pull up an obscure Neil reference that made him seem like a good journalist, I just happened to pull up an obscure Neil reference that made him look like the hack he typically is. Lets be real, he writes auto reviews for a newspaper.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            This is hilarious. I didn’t say that Dan Neil was an oarsome journalist. I pointed out that General Motors attacked his employer because of what he had said.

      • 0 avatar
        jimbob457

        OMG. What a news flash!

        “Rick, I hear rumors that there has been gambling going on at Café Americain”

    • 0 avatar
      VCplayer

      I’m not really sure how that article you bring up discredits anything that Pch said, or anything about Dan Neil for that matter. If anything, hasn’t time proven him largely correct about the Model S?

      Whatever personal failings he might have, Neil mostly writes what he feels to be correct. I don’t get the impression he’s in anyone’s back pocket.

      • 0 avatar
        PonchoIndian

        VC,
        It just happened to work out in Neil’s favor that time. He got lucky.

        I don’t necessarily think he’s in anyone’s back pocket, but I also don’t think he is much of a unbiased source.

  • avatar
    Speed3

    The WSJ used to be a good business paper until News Corp bought it and it’s since turned to shit. Only the Financial Times is left as a decent economics-driven paper.

    • 0 avatar
      tonycd

      Agreed. WSJ always had a conservative pro-business tilt editorially, but that was its identity and served its natural constituency. Under the current ownership, however, the ownership’s editorial stance has infiltrated the publication’s hard news coverage, and it has diminished WSJ in both reportorial depth and factual credibility. See:

      http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2010/06/times-versus-wall-street-journal-201006

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Agree before Rupert Murdock the WSJ was one of the best sources of news but after it was acquired by News Corp it parroted Mr. Murdock’s philosophy (Fox News). GM has had its share of bad press much of it well deserved but GM is no longer the force to be reckoned with in that it no longer has over 50 percent of the market. GM is just a shadow of its former self.

    • 0 avatar
      highdesertcat

      “GM is just a shadow of its former self.” It should have remained dead but for the UAW’s man in the White House.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        Complicated situation, I don’t think its fair to only blame Dear Leader for what happened – blame him for everything he in which he has direct culpability.

        • 0 avatar
          highdesertcat

          I’m amazed he hasn’t blamed Shrub for the bailouts of 2009.

          Culpability in THIS administration? Haven’t you heard? It’s all Shrub’s fault!

          What complicated matters were the other 25-million workers in America thrown out of their jobs who lost everything while the UAW continued to live high on the hog.

          Is there any way for those people not to harbor ill feelings toward their government or for them to buy GM cars again?

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            People are fickle, and mostly uneducated. The die was cast in the late 80s and early 90s when the economy was sold piecemeal to the third world. Those who spoke out about it were ridiculed (Perot) or outright assassinated (Sen John Heinz, James Goldsmith).

            The real question is what are “they” going to do as the population grows but the jobs don’t keep pace? Every society is three means from a revolution.

          • 0 avatar
            highdesertcat

            28-Cars-Later, you are truly one of the best and well-read commenters, with the greatest insight, on ttac.

            It may be trite to say that America is changing or has changed, but this is what America voted for!

            When Americans go to the polls they choose in which direction they want our country to go.

            We, the people, are responsible for what we have wrought unto ourselves.

            Our US population will keep on growing because we have to import better-educated people from other countries to do the work for us.

            I don’t see any relief for the remainder of my lifetime. It will take at least one generation to turn things around in America, and that is 20 years.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            Thank you but that’s quite an assertion given the commentariat. I’m part of a dying breed as I read *and* think for myself. Personally I believe voting no longer determines the course of the nation and that US society is simply devolving. I’d like to think its by design but then I ask myself what will “they” do with surplus devolved citizens in years hence? (unless the plan is ethnic cleansing coupled with an internal conflict). I’ve dealt with the so called “Gen Y” demographic to know they don’t have the gumption to turn it around, maybe the kids after that will but I wouldn’t hold my breath because I don’t think they will have a chance to do much. I’d like to find a nice corner of the world which will survive the coming global changes and ride it out.

          • 0 avatar
            highdesertcat

            28-Cars-Later, I meant it sincerely.

            “I’d like to find a nice corner of the world which will survive the coming global changes and ride it out.”

            A lot of Americans (who can) are doing just that, riding it out in another place inside or outside of the US, and taking their wealth with them.

            Among the ones I know who left, are my wife’s parents and one sister (and her husband) moving back to Germany and Holland in Jan 2015, my grandson’s in-laws moving to Old Mexico in Oct 2013, and a slew of out-of-staters moving to New Mexico, where the sky is blue, the air is clean, and the cost of living is low (as long as you stay away from Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Las Cruces).

            The ones stuck footing the bill for the new social-welfare America will be illegal aliens given Obamesty, and the people with their nose to the grind stone.

            Hey, I’m cool with that, as long as I don’t have to pay for it.

            From the various money boards I read, it appears to me that many Americans are making their financial distribution in cash to their heirs before they kick the bucket.

            Smart, very smart.

  • avatar
    RideHeight

    Why do those polygonal office towers in the Ren Cen look like enormous clogged air filters? Effectively icons of industrial disease.

  • avatar
    Matt

    There was a situation a few years back where the car reviewer from the Detroit Free Press wrote a scathing review about the Chrysler 200, which the Italians had just overhauled from the deeply flawed Dodge Avenger.
    Chrysler (a big ad buyer) complained and the author was forced to resign. Later they had to ask him to come back after it became a national controversy. These situations still happen.

    http://www.autonews.com/article/20110324/BLOG06/110329928/detroit-auto-critic-will-return-to-job-after-chrysler-200-controversy

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    @highdesertcat–The original agreement to bailout was started under President Bush. It might have been more expensive for the taxpayers if the bailout would not have occurred if you include unemployment benefits and the loss of jobs from suppliers who would have been effected. I don’t endorse any government bailouts but we as taxpayers would still have to pay. I don’t think that there is public support for another bailout.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      It’s just fear mongering propaganda. 1st it assumes displaced car buyers by a dead Chrysler (group) or GM would not buy the from the others, making those OEMs substantially stronger/bigger.

      The auto workers/assemblers and supplier’s assemblers were and are a tiny, inconsequential part of the entire USA employed demo. There’s no proof most affected workers wouldn’t be quickly hired by remaining/surviving OEMs and suppliers, most of which are in Mexico, and other low rent places.

      • 0 avatar
        el scotto

        It ain’t what’s being driven off the line; it’s what coming in at the loading dock. 1. By 2007 the Big 3 had made their suppliers cut profits to the bone. 2. When the economy bellied-u, there wasn’t money to found/loaned anywhere. 3. The Chinese/Russians/Sychellians weren’t going to come in and buy GM, Chrysler,or Ford intact. Bits and pieces of one of he Big 3 maybe. IF I was Dear Benign and Most Beloved leader; I’d have written GM a check for Bowling Green Assembly and Ford a check for Louisville Truck Plant and let the rest go. Lets circle back to the suppliers. A bankruptcy/ failure of any of the Big 3 would have probably caused failure of a great many automotive suppliers. The suppliers customers run the gamut from exclusive to one company to all 3 of the big 3. The suppliers employ/employed way more than the big 3 ever did/will. Imagine Midwest states/counties/cities/towns become bankrupt. Imagine a diaspora that would put the Okies to shame. So in the end the bailout probably prevented a much worse economic meltdown. No, it wasn’t all about the UAW. Think of the domino effect of all the supplier factories going under.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Exactly el scotto. Parts don’t have to come from the US they can be unloaded off of a boat as can less expensive vehicles from Asia. I prefer lending the money to GM and Chrysler than paying for additional unemployment benefits and disability payments.

  • avatar
    bd2

    The WSJ characterized as being “editorial independent” – gave me a good chuckle.


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