March 17, 2011

Confession #21: Who wins in the battle between ad dollars and newspaper auto critics?

As a journalist, and one with an admittedly purist mindset, events like Scott Burgess' resignation over The Detroit News' siding with an advertiser's scorn for a car review doesn't sit well with me.

2011 Chrysler 200 Sedan (Chrysler Group LLC photo)
This case in particular seems worse. It's not like a Jeremy Clarkson or even a Dan Neil review, which, while well-written, usually require readers to take many things with a grain of salt. Burgess doesn't have that reputation, and this frank and honest review of the 2011 Chrysler 200, published March 10, was pretty fair. But an advertiser that does business with the paper disagreed, essentially giving editors the choice of a editing the review to remove some unfavorable opinions or losing his ad dollars.

For those out of the loop, the Chrysler 200 is a moderately refreshed version of the Chrysler Sebring, one of the worst products to come out of Chrysler under Daimler's rule and one of the big reasons Chrysler fell on its face during the financial crisis. Under Fiat's stewardship, a renamed version with a new V6, new styling and interior changes has just hit showrooms.

More recognizable to non-auto types, it's the car Eminiem drives in the much-viewed "Imported from Detroit" commercial Chrysler premiered at the Super Bowl.

While I haven't driven one, the consensus among the motoring press is that, while it may be an unqualified improvement on the outgoing Sebring, it's not best-in-class by a long shot. It may be an adequate car now, but it's not earth-shattering.

The circumstances surrounding the 200 make the story Jalopnik broke March 16 even more disheartening. Burgess' original review may have included some quippy remarks like, "The 200 is still a dog," and "If this is the best vehicle Detroit exports, then Glenn Beck is right." Harsh, but ultimately hard to argue with. But worse still is that Burgess' main point was excised from the review. "The only thing this 200 proves is that good enough is never going to be good enough." That's kind of the biggest issue with the car.

Even if it's The Detroit News, there's no reason Burgess needs to root for the home team. And just because the 200 is way better than the car that preceded it, doesn't mean he should call it a great car when it isn't.

When he still reported for the Los Angeles Times (before the Sam Zell era), Dan Neil wrote a review about the then-new Pontiac G6. When I say review though, it was more of a thorn in the side of General Motors' management, including then-CEO Rick Wagoner and infamous executive Bob Lutz.

2005 Pontiac G6 GT Sedan
(General Motors photo)
As I mentioned before, Neil isn't usually one for restraint, so when he takes Lutz and Wagoner to task for more than half of the review, ultimately concluding the G6 is an adequate car at best, but no more – and a sales flop at that – Southern California GM dealers were taken aback. Some took back their ads. Neil didn't resign and the LA Times mostly defended him in this case.

Which is what should have happened with Burgess. Instead, his editors doubted him and to appease the car dealer, edited the online version of the review and apologized for some of his more colorful statements, calling it an error in the editing process.

Even a day after Burgess' resignation, one Detroit News official said he already regrets the way they handled the situation. (Update: By the afternoon of March 17, the original version of the review had been restored online, and a response to Burgess' resignation was posted the following morning.)

Because Burgess' remarks – in particular the omitted ones – were hardly outlandish, inaccurate or insensitive, there seems little reason why his publication should not have stood behind him when a reader called the review into question. His journalism was solid, so why did the problem become so significant?

But the worrier in me questions whether publications, newspapers in particular, can withstand the sting of a scorned advertiser in order to let their reporters and reviewers write facts that may not rub everyone the right way. Considering the state of media these days, this could be the start of an unsettling trend.

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