Gone are the lavish vehicle launches at idyllic resorts. Today, the media must wade through the halls of Congress, hold their own with an auto czar, or read the White House tea leaves to gauge the direction of the domestic auto industry.
Illustration by Gary Hvovland

It was all about “rubbish.”

In May 2006, New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman raised blood pressures in Detroit when he wrote: “Is there a company more dangerous to America’s future than General Motors? Surely, the sooner this company gets taken over by Toyota, the better off our country will be.” Friedman likened GM to a crack dealer intent on keeping its addicts (customers) hooked on SUVs with an incentive that offered a temporary cap on gas prices. “Guzzle away,” he taunted. Two days later, Steve Harris, GM’s vice president of global communications at the time, fired off a letter to the Times’ op-ed page editor, David Shipley.

In his correspondence, Harris characterized Friedman’s statements about GM as “irresponsible” and “rubbish.” An e-mail exchange ensued, in which GM PR staffer Brian Akre and various editors at the Times attempted to negotiate the length, tone, and language of Harris’ letter, including replacing the word “rubbish” with “We beg to differ.”

“Sorry, it’s not the tone we use in letters,” wrote Mary Drohan of the Times’ editorial page staff.

Not willing to submit to the changes The New York Times demanded, GM withdrew its letter and took the “coverage” of the issue into its own hands. Harris, Akre, and others laid out the entire Friedman saga — including links to his original story, copies of the letters that were rejected by the Times, and the e-mail exchange between GM and the newspaper — on the company’s blog. One of Akre’s posts resulted in 172 replies.

While this tactic didn’t have the reach of a letter to the editor, Harris was still pleased. “That ended up getting way more attention than if they’d let us run the letter the way we wanted to run it in the New York Times,” he says.

The auto industry has always been a lightning rod for media attention, and the upheaval of the past year has only increased its visibility.

Coverage of the industry’s struggle to survive recently reached No. 4 on the list of the biggest news stories — 3.3 percent of total coverage — as compiled by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. From July 2008 to June 2009, the economy topped the list with an average of 21 percent of the total available space and airtime. This was followed by the 2008 presidential campaign, at 14 percent, and the incoming Obama administration at 7 percent. Autos edged out terrorism, which garnered only 3 percent of the coverage. Pew says attention to the automotive soap opera spiked at 18.2 percent in mid-December 2008, when the Chrysler and GM loan guarantee packages went before Congress.

At press time, the auto industry’s share of national news coverage is mercifully lower than it was last winter, but it’s clear that all things automotive are claiming an ever-louder voice in the national dialogue. At the same time, the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the industry’s coverage looks very different than it did just five years ago. Journalists who have traditionally covered the close-knit auto industry now find themselves monitoring bankruptcy hearings, attending White House briefings led by an auto czar, or estimating the value of a Gulfstream IV put on the block by such-and-such domestic automaker to appease Congressional leaders (never mind that the House went on to approve more jets for themselves).

Not content to wait for press conferences, journalists must choose between substance and sensationalism when interviewing pundits. And the use of the Web by corporations, media, and bloggers is now commonplace, in part because it’s much cheaper for all parties involved.

“We’re able to do a lot of things online that we wouldn’t have done in the magazine, largely because of timeliness,” says Todd Lassa, Detroit editor of Motor Trend magazine. Lassa wrote about GM’s emergence from bankruptcy on the Motor Trend blog less than two hours after it was officially announced in July.

Eschewing complex programs in exotic locations, GM chose Web-based presentations to introduce the 2010 Cadillac SRX and Buick LaCrosse to journalists last summer. “The days of flying a couple hundred media across the country to a resort, putting them up in a hotel, feeding them, the logistics of shipping everything out there, those are going to be few and far between,” Harris says.

Contrast the ebb in frills with the flow of politicians eager to lecture auto executives about finance, design, development, and production. “The broader question about government involvement is that we’re in terra incognita here,” says author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Ingrassia, who frequently opines on the auto industry for The Wall Street Journal.

“This is all very new, because we’ve never had the government funding these companies before. The consequences of that remain to be seen. Ideally, the U.S. government will say to Chrysler and its new controlling shareholder, Fiat, and to General Motors: ‘You have one mission: Repay the money. We don’t care about green cars or blue cars or red cars — you repay the money.’ That doesn’t seem to be what’s happening.”

Cable channels and late-night comedians thrive on the auto industry’s distress, and the last year has provided more than enough news to feed these ever-hungry beasts. But in the rush to book “experts” to appear on these programs, journalists and producers must carefully consider whether their guests can truly make meaningful contributions to the dialogue. How seriously should Ashton Kutcher be taken when he discusses bailouts with Bill Maher? “You have people pontificating about things on which they have probably not much more knowledge than a grapefruit has on the same subject,” says Jim Hall, managing director of 2953 Analytics in Birmingham.

Some things never change. Although journalists ideally adhere to principles of fairness and objectivity, they were mistrusted long before Spiro Agnew popularized the phrase “nattering nabobs of negativity.” Those who write about the auto business are no exception. It likely comes as no surprise that media outlets on the coasts are seen as the worst offenders of presumed fairness.

When Warren Brown began to cover the auto industry for the Washington Post in 1982, he says it was with the traditional journalistic mission of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. Brown says the afflicted, “by convenient decision,” were the people who worked for the UAW — and the comfortable were the people the UAW worked for. “The tendency was to see everything through the UAW’s eyes and to see the corporations as monoliths that wanted to make money at any cost,” he says. “The more I learned about the industry, the more obvious it became to me that none of that was really true. If you stopped and listened long enough, you were dealing with people on both sides who really just wanted to try to do the right thing,” recalls Brown, who retired this year.

Although his outlook has changed, Brown sees the same 1982 mentality in the Post’s newsroom in 2009. “There is a tendency in New York, [at] The Washington Post, and a couple other places in the northeast to view the (domestic) automobile industry as the enemy,” he says. “Do you realize how much time it took me to get my editors to realize that Toyota sells proportionately as many trucks as it does anything else? They were shocked. They felt betrayed.”

William J. Holstein, author of Why GM Matters: Inside the Race to Transform an American Icon, which is sympathetic to General Motors, says the American media turned hostile toward GM over the last 20 years. He claims the competition among major newspapers and networks became defined by who could find the buttons to push GM into bankruptcy. “The guy who could get Rick Wagoner fired and force GM into bankruptcy, he or she would be the hero … their careers were going to advance. And the other people, who were arguing that GM should stay out of bankruptcy, those people were not going to advance. Their voices were not being heard.”

Bias can be a two-way street. Holstein says he ran into “a real buzz saw of raw hatred” when he was re-searching his book. “The Wall Street Journal and CNBC wanted GM to fail because they wanted to see the UAW broken. They fundamentally had an anti-labor agenda. That obscured their judgment,” he says. “At the other end of the ideological spectrum, you had MSNBC, CBS, The New York Times, and NPR. They also were hostile toward General Motors and wanted to see it go bankrupt because it was a big, bad GM that only made, in their view, gas-guzzling SUVs and had … closed too many factories.”

Now that both GM and Chrysler have exited bankruptcy, coverage of the auto industry is decidedly different. There are no more elaborate interior waterfalls at auto shows, no more vehicles crashing through plate glass windows, and shrimp appears to be on the endangered species list. But most don’t seem to mind. In fact, they prefer scaled-down events.

“The 2009 Detroit auto show was a more substantive show because the real important stuff about the cars popped out ahead of who’s got the coolest press kit and who put on the more ridiculously over-the-top press conference,” says Motor Trend’s Lassa.

“Because you have the Muppets introducing a minivan, does that make the minivan any better?” asks Hall. “No, of course not. Does it make your message any more relevant or real? Nope. And the people watching the 11 o’clock news coverage of that event — how many of them are going to be influenced to buy a minivan? Not enough to justify the expenditure, to me. We’re getting back to what the business is about — selling cars.”