Braking news: A history of false facts driving the story

Anchorman Contributor
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On Nov. 23, 1986, CBS’s “60 Minutes” broadcast a 17-minute segment, “Out of Control,” about a rash of reports of a “sudden unintended acceleration” problem with the Audi 5000. It was presented by correspondent Ed Bradley, a man who now stands in the annals of TV journalism as a revered and legendary figure.

Bradley’s piece was a tailor-made fear-inducing example of mainstream media distortion. (In those days, the only media.) Its method was rigged. Its results were demonstrably, blatantly false. It painted a picture of a serious problem where none existed. And it almost ruined Audi.

Fast-forward to the present day and a new “sudden unintended acceleration” problem. The technology of cars has, indeed, changed dramatically since the Bradley’s report. The failure of fly-by-wire technology (the kind that governs most auto throttles today) is well-documented in a variety of contexts. Check out this YouTube clip from June 26, 1988, as a prototype Airbus A-320’s makes a perfect landing and explodes in a forest beyond the runway at the Paris Air Show. The pilot wanted to land on the runway. The computer wouldn’t let him. The computer won.

For a really frightening wake up call, check out Peter Neumann’s Risk Digest, which documents and updates thousands upon thousands of computer “failsafe” failures in every imaginable context—from wrongly amputated limbs, changed test scores, air traffic and street traffic control failures and hacked passwords. You name it, it’s there.

Perhaps, Toyota really does have some phantom acceleration problem. Perhaps it’s hiding something. Perhaps someone should face criminal charges. But I’m a little skeptical. Although technology has changed since Ed Bradley’s “60 Minutes” piece, human nature has remained exactly the same.

It is dangerous and potentially callous to call into question flowing tears and riveting, heartfelt emotional testimony. Most victims and survivors of trauma and crime do not fake it or mistake its cause. They should be granted every consideration. But any experienced homicide detective will also tell you, maybe off the record and quietly, that they always look through the tears of the weeping spouse. I noticed the The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday, Feb. 24, that the Lexus owned by witness Rhonda Smith, which surged out of control to 100 mph over several minutes, was resold to a happy buyer who has since put 27,000 trouble-free miles on it.

Ed Bradley didn’t tell you in 1986 when “60 Minutes” filmed a sequence of an Audi 5000 surging out of control, that the acceleration was caused not by some undiagnosed demon, but by a man named William Rosenbluth, an automotive consultant retained by plaintiffs in a suit against Audi. Off camera, Rosenbluth drilled a hole in an Audi transmission and piped fluid into it, causing the desired lurching forward and the “phantom sudden acceleration.”

It was some time after that, that NBC’s “Dateline” got caught staging an explosion of side-saddle gas tanks on a GM pickup truck by using incendiary devices to start the fire, after a side impact collision. The producers were working with crash experts closely aligned with trail lawyers suing GM.

This week, investigative reporter Brian Ross of ABC, did show the device and the engineer who managed to short-circuit a Toyota Avalon into a sudden acceleration. A scientific test, it was not. There was no control, as one should use in the scientific method. We saw no other brand of vehicle being tested. Nor did Ross mention that the engineer was being paid and sponsored by five law firms who are suing Toyota. Strange for a reporter whose stock in trade is to “follow the money.” (See Ross’s report on AIG execs spa retreat after the financial bailout.)

That very evening, after Ross’s “smoking gun” piece on Toyota aired, Exponent, an engineering firm paid by Toyota, worked into “the wee hours” to replicate Ross’s experiment. They succeeded. It worked on a Toyota and on another make of vehicle, a Honda.

Some members of the House committee investigating Toyota on Tuesday made a point of dismissing “the appearance of conflict” that their investigation might pose. After all, the U.S. government is now the chief stockholder in General Motors, or “Government Motors” as some derisively call it, one of Toyota’s chief competitors. The United Auto Workers is the second largest stockholder in GM.

I noticed that on Jan. 28 of this year, just a few weeks before this weeks highly publicized hearing on Toyota, that Teamsters President James Hoffa and UAW Vice President Bob King and a bevy of labor and consumer groups held a protest outside the Embassy of Japan. One of Brian Ross’s sources on the Toyota issue, safety advocate and trial-lawyer cohort Sean Kane, was there. They said they wanted the Japanese government to hold Toyota accountable for “waging an attack on thousands of good paying jobs in the U.S.” They didn’t say that Toyota workers in the U.S. have been waging a years long struggle to resist unionization.

When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration completed its study on the Audi 5000 sudden acceleration syndrome some years after Ed Bradley’s piece, they could find no smoking gun. The default conclusion was that Audi 5000 drivers may have been pressing their foot on the gas pedal, thinking it was the brake pedal. A very common phenomenon. A very easy explanation. One that nobody in that now long gone war of words, money and emotion wanted to hear, least of all, the trial lawyers.

There may be no easy answers to the Toyota problem, but there are some easy history lessons. Trial attorneys had their handprints all over the rigged Audi test on “60 Minutes.” Their hands were all over the rigged test of a GM pick-up on “Dateline.” And they were all over the Brian Ross’s test of Toyota, just this week. They’re salivating at the goldmine that Toyota represents.

And they’re a major contributor to the Democratic Party that controls the direction of these hearings now under way.

Anchorman a well-known news anchor from a top-10, big city station. The Daily Caller has elected to redact his identity to protect his anonymity