What NBC did was wrong, but it didn't kill anybody

ROGER SIMION

March 01, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

If Michael Gartner were president of a Japanese company instead of NBC News, his future would be clear.

He would have to kill himself.

He would have to do this because of the shame that he has brought upon his company and his profession.

I am sure you have read about what happened, but to briefly summarize:

NBC attached toy rocket engines to the bottom of a General Motors truck and ignited them by remote control in an attempt to demonstrate how certain GM trucks could catch fire in crashes.

NBC didn't tell the viewers about the toy rocket engines and either disguised or left out other pertinent information about the crashes it was filming.

General Motors, understandably upset, sued and NBC was forced to issue on-air apologies.

But if you read through some of the stories done about the episode -- the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post both have done very long and informative pieces -- other interesting facts emerge:

* At the time that NBC aired its expose, GM was in the third year of its contract to spend $500 million in advertising on NBC. So it took enormous guts for NBC to air such a show about one of its biggest advertisers.

How much credit does NBC get for this today? None. And that's too bad.

* NBC did not need to stage its own crashes to get footage. It already had footage of real accidents in which people were burned to death in GM trucks.

* What NBC was trying to demonstrate was that the "side-saddle" fuel tanks in GM full-size pickup trucks built from 1973 to 1987 could rupture in crashes and ignite.

NBC staged two crashes and the tanks did not rupture. NBC disguised this fact. And General Motors is now making a big deal over this.

But the failure of the gas tank to rupture in that truck doesn't really prove much. Nobody says that every time a 1973-1987 GM truck gets in a crash it will explode and burn.

Some people are saying that on some occasions these trucks will explode and burn.

And on Feb. 4, a jury found that GM was negligent in the design of the fuel tanks of such trucks and awarded $105.2 million to the parents of a teen-ager who was killed in the fiery crash of his JTC GMC Sierra pickup. GM denies any wrongdoing and is appealing.

But according to one lawyer representing families in six cases against GM, there have been "hundreds" of such cases that GM has settled out of court.

And that's really all NBC needed to say: One side says the trucks sometimes explode due to faulty design. GM denies it. Here are some pictures of actual crashes. Here are both sides having their say. That's all folks.

And that's what NBC did for 14 minutes. But it was the 57 seconds of its own staged crashes that doomed the show and blackened the image of the network.

Why NBC bothered to stage its own crashes, I don't know. Maybe to get more credit for itself.

In any case, what NBC did was wrong and stupid. But let's keep one thing in mind:

NBC didn't kill anybody.

Can General Motors say the same thing?

According to one jury it can't.

Yet all the attention right now is on NBC and almost no attention is on GM.

You see scores of editorials and columns denouncing the terrible sins of NBC, but you don't read much criticism about GM and those trucks.

Actually, I suppose I should take this as a good sign.

One reason so many people are outraged at NBC is because we don't expect respectable news agencies to fake stories.

And one reason we see so little outcry against GM is that we do expect giant corporations to act irresponsibly every now and then even to the point of killing people.

Still, GM is basking in self-righteous glory right now. It caught NBC red-handed.

And NBC is living through some of the darkest days in its history, days of shame, embarrassment and mortification.

So do I really think NBC News President Michael Gartner should kill himself?

Of course not.

Just forcing him to ride around in a 1985 Sierra ought to be punishment enough.

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