- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 14, 2001

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There are rare times when the powers of the media and the mega-corporations they watchdog can combine to save lives by making sure that extraordinary life-or-death product recall efforts are Page One, prime-time news.

And surely, you´d figure, that would include last week´s news of General Motors´ apparently unprecedented halt-in-your-tracks park-don´t-drive recall of all of its newest model sports utility vehicles.

This is the news that was: GM was frantically trying to contact all 6,000 owners of its 2002 model Chevrolet TrailBlazers, GMC Envoys, and Oldsmobile Bravadas to tell them that a defective part could buckle without warning, causing the driver to suddenly lose control of its steering. GM was telling its customers to park the car immediately, get out and wait for GM to send a tow truck to transport the vehicle to the repair shop and send a free loaner car for the customers to use until their new SUV can be made safe-to-drive.

But of course, that´s probably still news to you if you were looking at your newspaper front pages or your prime-time TV newscasts to tell you all about it. While you´ve probably seen GM´s splashy new TV ad campaign urging you to buy its new freshly redesigned SUV, the TV broadcast networks barely mentioned the news of the urgent recall. Of the Big Three of broadcast news, only the CBS Evening News reported the recall. In his three-sentence report, on April 5, anchor Dan Rather told viewers something the New York Times didn´t mention the next morning: “GM advises owners of these 2002 models to stop driving these vehicles immediately and have GM dealers pick them up.”

The nation´s major trendsetters of news display, the New York Times and The Washington Post whose daily news judgments influence newsroom decisions nationwide played the recall as a business story. So did USA Today. But there was a big difference: The New York Times dismissed it as a one-paragraph business brief, from the Bloomberg News service, stuffed back on page C4. The others did their own reports.

While The Washington Post devoted a huge part of its front page to the “safe passage” of wild condors, it did find space at the very bottom of its front page to alert readers that if they turned to page E1 they would find news affecting the safe passage of people: “GM Announces Urgent SUV Recall.”

But actually, GM never did get around to announcing its recall in a press release. “Events just got ahead of us,” explained GM spokesperson Mike Morrissey. On April 3, GM top executives found out about the steering crisis in its newly minted SUVs one vehicle even lost control while it was being driven off the delivery truck and into a showroom. On April 4, the GM execs decided to order the recall, which meant closing the plant in Moraine, Ohio, near Dayton, until the problem could be identified and fixed. Officials of the plant and the unions were notified. On April 5, an Associated Press reporter in Dayton wrote about it.

“Before we could draft a pro-active press release, we were getting press calls,” said GM´s Mr. Morrissey. It made the Bloomberg News wire which was read inside the New York Times and Washington Post. At the Times, the editors treated it as a matter-of-fact recall, with no mention of GM´s request that vehicle be parked and not driven; their brief focused upon the number of workers (2,500) laid off.

At The Post, reporter Frank Swoboda, one of the nation´s finest business writers, said he read the Bloomberg story, began making phone calls, got confirmation from GM. He realized the significance and began his report by calling it an “extraordinary recall … asking owners to park their trucks and wait for them to be towed back to dealers to fix a potentially dangerous steering problem.” His article noted that the GM spokesperson Mr. Morrissey said this urgent park-and-tow recall was not unprecedented, but couldn´t cite a similar case. (Later Mr. Morrissey told me that in previous recalls, if a customer was worried about driving a vehicle, GM sent a tow truck which, of course, isn´t comparable to this urgent notice.) This was a classic case of a story that was not-made-for-TV: It has no exploding vehicles, no bent or twisted metal, no dead bodies, no grieving families. But it was a classic story of a corporation that did the right thing before the media had a single accident or fatality to report.

And the fact that there was no horrific video or tragic photo to splash before the public doesn´t mean this urgent recall didn´t deserve to be splashed across Page One and in the prime-time news as a newsworthy public service.

Martin Schram is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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