Tom-Tom: Automotive Journalism’s Credibility Gap
Jack Baruth says he is the only person in American history to hold both a professional BMX racing license and a professional auto racing license. This, combined with five dollars, he notes, will get you a “venti” at Starbucks. He has been writing for publication since 1991 and wrote the unpopular “One Racer’s Perspective” and “BMX Basics” columns for Bicycles Today magazine. In the past several years, Jack has won a few races, lost many more, and received multiple disciplinary actions for contact and rough driving. He races in NASA Performance Touring, the Koni Challenge and the Skip Barber Mazdaspeed Series. You can find him at speedsportlife.com, thetruthaboutcars.com, leftlanenews.com and in Malaysia’s “Wheels Weekly” tabloid.
Automotive Journalism’s Credibility Gap
“If Woodward and Bernstein had been automotive journalists, the Watergate story would have been a five-star review of Richard Nixon’s personal tape recorder.” I’m putting that in quotes, even though I just wrote it, because I think it’s quotable.
Here’s another quotable idea, courtesy of a young autoblogger whom I occasionally read: Manufacturers should stop paying for auto journalists to enjoy unbelievably sybaritic new-vehicle launches, $80,000 free loaner cars disguised as “long-term testers”, and all of the other little bennies of the biz. Instead, the money should be spent reaching out to, and connecting with, the actual customers for their products. In short, auto journalism as we know it needs to die. The denim-jacket fatties and bald old buzzards who shuffle-steer their incompetent way through a driving event, hold down barstools for the evening, and then rewrite the press release during the flight home — well, they should be taken out back and shot.
The color rags should wither and fall from the shelves like autumn leaves, with only the lace-like rotted pages of a MacNeil Products special-advertising section remaining. The functional illiterates who take a free plane ticket to an auto show, have their hands held by PR reps through a scripted sequence of roundtables, and then breathlessly blog about the “awesomeness” of cars they’ve never driven — they will become as difficult to find as their talent was. All change, as they say. Everybody goes home.
It’s interesting to note that special-interest car rags have been around nearly as long as the automobile itself. Autocar was founded in 1895, and the inimitable LJK Setright tells us that it was originally a bit of a shill rag, featuring far-from-impartial opinions to benefit its owner, who also held part of Daimler. The idea of the self-published auto magazine is still with us — nearly every major carmaker publishes an utterly worthless color rag on a quarterly-ish basis, complete with moronic reviews of luxury hotels, expensive watches, and second-tier men’s fashion — but I find it hilarious that the most dignified name in the print trade was corrupt from Day One.
As we’ve all heard, the automobile is the second-most expensive purchase we will make in our lives, unless we buy a used Porsche 928, in which it will be the most expensive purchase we will ever make. It’s no surprise, then, that buyers have been looking for advice since the nineteenth century. In some cases, such as when Patrick Bedard left an engineering career to work for C/D, or when Consumer Reports decided to pay its own money for cars to test (mostly) impartially, the buyer has been well-served by listening to that “expert advice”.
Other examples of automotive “expertise” are closer to being laughable than reputable. Consider the “Wheels” section in nearly every major newspaper. The “Wheels” writers are as numerous as Biblical locusts at the new-car launches, and they descend on the buffet table with the same legendary ferocity, but in most cases they are completely unqualified to review automobiles. They aren’t engineers, race car drivers, or even hopelessly passionate enthusiasts. They’re just the guys who sucked too hard to be permitted to write about something critical, like municipal levies, local flower shows, or country-club golf tournaments.
This is the problem in a nutshell. Real journalists go out and find their stories at their own expense, or their employers’ expense. Automotive journalists are effectively compensated by the manufacturers on which they report. And if an autojourno decides to take a “principled” approach, refusing to participate in press launches or take loaner cars… that writer will be effectively six months behind the competition.