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Jewish Journal

Toyota Plus One Year—-A Sordid Tale

by  David A. Lehrer

February 18, 2011 | 2:17 pm

Lots of folks in the public arena must assume that we have no memories and that we are incapable of a simple search for reporters’ and politicians’ prior speeches, press releases, and comments—-that, despite the omni-presence of Google and other powerful search engines.

How else to explain that the past few weeks of news don’t evidence a slew of apologies from media types, elected officials and assorted other mavens who were convinced, and sought to convince the American public, that Toyota was all but intentionally killing Americans by putting unsafe cars on our roads?

Even though the Tunisia/Egypt/Bahrain crises have sucked up much of the media oxygen for the past few weeks, the wires are empty.

Recall that one year ago we were inundated with news stories that breathlessly described Priuses, Camrys and even Lexuses that were “unintentionally accelerating” (Google reports 1.49 million cites). Story after story recounted the tales of folks who swore that their cars were hitting 90 miles an hour while they “weren’t doing a thing.”

The apotheosis of creativity was the story of Rhonda and Eddie Smith who talked about their “runaway Lexus.” Rhonda described a car that accelerated to over 100 miles per hour as she stood on the brake, shifted into neutral, and shifted into reverse. Miraculously, she said, “God intervened…the car came very slowly to a stop; I pulled over to the left median.”

The Smith’s bizarre story not only was a television news bonanza but they were featured performers before a Congressional committee that swallowed their seemingly indigestible story. House committee members described the Smith’s tale as part of compelling evidence that “Toyota vehicles have a serious flaw in their electronic control systems that leaves them vulnerable to sudden unintended acceleration.” One committee member warned against forgiving these companies because it would “let them kill our people.”

The just released 10 month NASA study of the problems revealed that the series of crashes involving Toyota cars and “unintended acceleration” had nothing to do with the cars’ electronics. In fact, the study found that the only Toyota-caused malfunction was the result of defective gas pedals and interfering floor mats (which Toyota remedied promptly last year) AND that most of the incidents reported to the investigators were caused by driver error.

Although, the corrective story has already receded from the front page with a fraction of the half-life of the tall tales of wildly accelerating cars, some questions need answering. How is it that a narrative that seemed bizarre and that lacked any research data was elevated to conventional wisdom in a matter of days? The line was bought by reporters, pundits and elected officials, virtually without question. 

The media reported nearly every alleged case of sudden acceleration, accepting unusual (to be charitable) allegations at face value. Who can forget the fellow who asserted that he couldn’t prevent his Prius from hitting 90 miles an hour while he communicated with a Highway Patrol officer driving next to him? The storyline was that only after the Highway Patrol officer told him to firmly apply the brakes and switch to neutral did the car slow down.  A few days later the facts came out that the Prius’ brakes did not show “wear consistent with having been applied at full force at high speeds for a long period.” That glimmer of reason and light was ephemeral—the stories continued of countless other cases that strained credulity, but they all followed the same narrative and ended up leading the evening news.

Senators and congressmen (of both parties) shamelessly exploited the early news reports of accelerating cars for their own self-serving purposes. Committees couldn’t wait to batter Toyota like a piñata. The hearings had no “investigative” purpose, the politicians’ minds were made up; the cameras were rolling and the target couldn’t have been more tempting. [One senator urged a total ban on the importation of Japanese cars until their government could

guarantee that their vehicles had no defects

].

And what a target it was, a foreign corporation—competing with our down-and-out domestic car makers—which seemingly preferred profit over our safety. Virtually the only skeptics were the elected officials who had Toyota plants in their districts.

The “accelerating” Toyota story was the perfect storm of an issue that in its substance and timing served multiple intersecting agendas while revealing a nastier side of our society.

Politicians who could preen and posture and appear to be protecting Americans’ safety and best interests; TV “journalists” who lusted for a juicy story of a bad guy and buffeted innocents that could play out night after night and lead the eleven o’clock news (on occasion with lurid visuals); and media mavens who rarely ask tough questions or inject reasoned skepticism into their reportage when there is an appealing populist template at play.

It was a shameful incident in which Toyota and its representatives were pilloried and attacked by people who had no expertise or information on which to base their assault—just isolated stories that sounded like they might evidence a problem. Congressional hearings used to be for gathering evidence that could lead to legislation, not publicizing baseless conclusions for vanity’s sake.

Well, a year has passed and it has been conclusively determined that there is NO evidence, zero. It was all an embarrassing show that doesn’t speak well of our legislators or the Fourth Estate.

They owe Toyota and us an apology.

Mercifully, Toyota can take the abuse—with our without the apology—-we aren’t sure how many such manifestly wrong, vacuous side-shows our electeds’ reputations can endure.

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