PRESS: Where NBC Went Wrong.....


February 22, 1993 William A. Henry III

PRESS: Where NBC Went Wrong The network suffers a humiliating bout of confessions and soul-searching after admitting it rigged the crash-and-burn of a GM truck

But for a puff of smoke, it all might have turned out differently.

Last week General Motors Corp. might still have been reeling from a $105.2 million jury verdict, awarded to an Atlanta couple whose son died when his GM truck exploded in a collision. NBC News might have been touting itself for having exposed the danger of GM's controversial ''sidesaddle'' gas tanks in a riveting Dateline NBC segment. Instead the network singed its reputation, and the car company won in the court of public opinion the safety battle it had lost in the courthouse.

Dateline's report on Nov. 17 featured 14 min. of balanced debate, capped by 57 seconds of crash footage that explosively showed how the gas tanks of certain old GM trucks could catch fire in a sideways collision.

Following a tip, GM hired detectives, searched 22 junkyards for 18 hours, and found evidence to debunk almost every aspect of the crash sequence. Last week, in a devastating press conference, GM showed that the conflagration was rigged, its causes misattributed, its severity overstated and other facts distorted. Two crucial errors: NBC said the truck's gas tank had ruptured, yet an X ray showed it hadn't; NBC consultants set off explosive miniature rockets beneath the truck split seconds before the crash -- yet no one told the viewers.

There was plenty of sarcastic speculation about what happened between Monday afternoon, when NBC was defiantly dismissing GM's charges, and Tuesday morning, when it drafted an abject apology largely on GM's terms. NBC News president Michael Gartner says he simply realized that he had goofed by speaking first and asking questions later: ''The more I learned, the worse it got. Ultimately I was troubled by almost every aspect of the crash. I knew we had to apologize. We put 225,000 minutes of news on the air last year, and I didn't want to be defined by those 57 seconds.'' Gartner also faced nonjournalistic pressures. GM's top management had sent word it would sue via the top management of NBC's parent company, General Electric, a big GM supplier. Dateline co-anchor Jane Pauley, who shared the awkward duty of apologizing on air, told the staff in a pep talk the next day that she took ''perverse pride'' in the readiness to admit failings.

But most journalists and, for that matter, most news consumers seemed to agree with former NBC News president Reuven Frank, who said, ''This is the worst black eye NBC News has suffered in my experience, which goes back to 1950.'' How could NBC go so far wrong? One veteran correspondent was not surprised. ''The whole atmosphere'' has been so competitive and overeager, he said, that the network was ''an accident waiting to happen.'' More details may emerge from NBC's investigation, but it is already clear that employees fell into some familiar traps:

1. CHOOSE A SEXY TOPIC AND SELL IT SEXILY. Video newsmagazines are proliferating because they are cheaper, and thus more profitable, than comedy or drama. But to beat the tabloid ''news'' and talk shows, network magazines increasingly concentrate on crime, celebrities and scandals -- and on graphic visual imagery. Gartner says NBC would have had a perfectly sound, valid and sensible 14-min. story about the controversy without a crash. But the producers felt the story would be stronger with one.

2. PICTURES ARE EVERYTHING. The firm that NBC hired staged just two crashes. GM trucks do not, of course, explode in half of all sideways collisions, or there wouldn't be many left on the road. So the consultants helped things along. As GM later demonstrated, the truck that did burn -- apparently because it had an ill-fitting gas-tank cap, made for a different truck -- ignited for only about 15 sec. But to ensure that its images were graphic, NBC used tightly edited shots in which the flames looked much worse.

3. TRUST THE EXPERTS. NBC's testers insisted that the rockets wouldn't matter unless fuel was spilled, and that on the actual day the explosion was sparked by a broken headlamp anyway. The producers were so taken with this reasoning that they forgot the basic question, Is it fair? The essential contract is not with any source or expert, but with the reader or viewer, who is entitled to the facts to judge for himself.

4. CIRCLE THE WAGONS. Journalists are so often assailed by news subjects protesting stories that are fair and true -- but inconvenient -- that they tend to dismiss all complaints. It was ill advised of the story's producers to answer GM without consulting NBC's legal department or journalistic superiors. It was loyal but just as unwise for Gartner to reaffirm the story later without checking. Even the ablest journalist sometimes gets things wrong.

What will this episode mean for NBC News? Theories last week ranged from short-term embarrassment all the way up to demise. The most probable result is that all TV-news shows will look for more about celebrities, crime and vastly less complex scandals. The safety of GM trucks is exactly the kind of issue that popular news programs should address. But instead of making sure that they do it right, skittish producers and executives will probably be inclined for a while not to do it at all.

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