NBC apologizes to GM for staging crash of pickup truck

February 10, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic The New York Times contributed to this article.

In a total reversal of its position just a few hours earlier, NBC News said on-air last night that it was wrong to stage a crash-test fire of a General Motors pickup truck on "Dateline NBC" last November and apologized to GM for doing so.

The admission and apology were part of a settlement reached last night between NBC News and GM, which resulted in GM's withdrawing a lawsuit that it had filed Monday against the network, according to "Dateline NBC" co-anchorwoman Jane Pauley.

"The demonstration was inappropriate and does not support the position that the trucks are defective," Ms. Pauley said as part of a prepared statement read at the end of the newsmagazine show last night.

"We deeply regret that we included the inappropriate demonstration, and apologize to GM and our viewers," co-anchorman Stone Phillips continued, adding that NBC News now has a "new policy" not to stage such events.

Harry J. Pearce, general counsel and executive vice president of GM, said in Detroit: "We have reviewed the statement and we accept it." He said that GM would drop the suit and that the network would reimburse GM for the cost of the investigation. In addition, he said, NBC agreed not to use the crash scenes again.

The network about-face came at the end of a day of fierce criticism of NBC News for rigging the crash test by using incendiary devices to ensure that the truck would burn and, then, not telling viewers about the devices.

"It's just despicable. It was phony journalism, and I can't imagine any excuse NBC can make for what it did," said Reese Cleghorn, president of the American Journalism Review (formerly the Washington Journalism Review) and dean of the University of Maryland College of Journalism.

"Is what NBC did standard operating procedure for prime-time network newsmagazines?" said a CBS producer, who asked not to be identified. "Absolutely not. The answer is they made a mistake over there" at NBC.

News executives at both ABC and CBS declined to comment specifically about the lawsuit by GM or the admission by NBC. But spokesmen for both networks did say that the same `D guidelines that apply to the nightly newscasts also apply to prime-time newsmagazines at their networks. And those standards include telling viewers how visual effects, such as the fire in the test crash, were obtained.

On ABC, the magazines covered by news standards are "20/20" and "Prime Time Live." On CBS, they are: "48 Hours," "60 Minutes" and "Street Stories." On NBC, it's "Dateline NBC."

"At ABC News, we try to show what happened and we explain what happened in any news situation -- that goes for newsmagazines, too," said Walter Porges, vice president for news practices at the network.

Tom Goodman, a spokesman for CBS News, said his network operates under similar guidelines. "Absolutely, there's a very large standards book," Mr. Goodman said. "It applies to all news employees across the board."

Mr. Goodman said that while there is no specific guideline in that book about staging a test crash, there is a guideline that says viewers must be informed about how a result was obtained in such a situation.

Even though NBC News says it has the same standards for "Dateline NBC," the magazine did not tell viewers about the incendiary devices, which were described in GM's depositions as "model rocket engines taped to the underside of the vehicle to serve as an ignition source."

Calling the "Dateline NBC" report "fair and accurate," NBC News President Michael Gartner said on Monday that the spark that set the pickup truck on fire came from a headlight on the crash vehicle and, therefore, there was no reason to tell viewers about the incendiary devices.

But GM said in its lawsuit that the incendiary devices caused the fire.

Last night, as part of its public apology, Ms. Pauley of NBC said: "We agree with General Motors that we should have told viewers . . . about the devices."

No president of a network news division in recent memory been as publicly undercut as Mr. Gartner was by last night's on-air reversal.

GM's action Monday against NBC comes against a backdrop of controversy over the automaker's 1973-87 pickup trucks. Critics claim the trucks are dangerous because dual fuel tanks are located outside the truck's frame.

A $105.2 million verdict was handed down by a jury last week against GM in the case of a 17-year-old who was killed when his 1985 GM pickup went up in flames after it was hit on the driver's side by another vehicle and the fuel tank ruptured.

Mr. Gartner cited the Atlanta verdict, saying that GM was seeking to divert attention from safety problems with its trucks through its action Monday against NBC.

But by the end of the workday yesterday, no one in the industry seemed to be buying Mr. Gartner's position. "I don't want to comment directly or come across as second-guessing the folks at NBC," said David Roberts, news director at WBAL (Channel 11). "But given the number of re-enactments that are used on reality-based programs, it becomes even more important to separate what's real from what's staged for the viewers."

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