Duping the viewers is an old game in network television

Mona Charen

June 14, 1993|By Mona Charen

DO YOU read National Review? If not, the current issue may persuade you to subscribe. In addition to the usual pungent and hilarious analysis contained in the magazine's editorials, this issue includes a special segment on "The Decline of American Journalism."

More than doctors, more than politicians, more than business leaders, American journalists suffer from a severe unwillingness to be criticized or to criticize one another. National Review vigorously departs from the unwritten Commandment 11 of the press: "Thou shalt not criticize a fellow journalist."

In a piece entitled "It Didn't Start With Dateline NBC," Walter Olson, author of "The Litigation Explosion," takes a look at television's portrayal of other auto safety issues over the past 20 years or so. Mr. Olson quotes "60 Minutes" producer Don Hewitt's remark that if CBS had done what NBC did in the case of the GM "exploding" truck -- place incendiary What the program omitted to mention is that the car in the film burst into flames because it was supposed to. It was wired with incendiary devices.

devices in the vehicle without informing viewers -- "I'd be looking for a job tomorrow."

Well, maybe not, implies Mr. Olson, because "60 Minutes" has done quite similar things over the years. Remember the story about the Audi 5000 -- the car that went into sudden acceleration even when the driver had his foot on the brake? "60 Minutes" aired a program about that car in 1986, interviewing several people who said this had happened to them. In addition to anecdotal accounts, "60 Minutes" showed a filmed version of such an acceleration prepared by an expert witness who testified against the manufacturer. The car accelerated, it was explained, because of "unusually high transmission pressure." Ed Bradley told viewers to "watch the pedal go down by itself."

What Mr. Bradley didn't say is that William Rosenbluth, the expert who prepared the film, had drilled a hole in the car's transmission and pumped compressed air or fluid into it. The tank, writes Mr. Olson, "with its attached hose was apparently sitting right on the front passenger seat of the doctored Audi, but the '60 Minutes' cameras managed not to pick it up."

Defending the segment years later on CNN's "Crossfire," Mr. Hewitt asked: If there was nothing wrong with the car, why did Audi recall the model after the broadcast? Mr. Olson has an answer. Audi installed an "idiot-proof" feature which prevented drivers from shifting into gear unless the brake was depressed. "If you accept Ed Bradley's theory that their feet were on the brake all along," Mr. Olson sums up, "that fix should have been useless."

The third major network, ABC, has a skeleton in the closet as well. In 1978, "20/20" aired a segment about Ford cars. At the time, the Ford Pinto was the subject of several suits because of a propensity to catch fire when hit. The point of the "20/20" broadcast was that many Fords, not just Pintos, might be rolling fire traps. The program's shock video showed a Ford sedan being rear-ended at 55 miles per hour and bursting into flames.

What the program omitted to mention is that the car in the film burst into flames because it was supposed to. It was wired with incendiary devices.

ABC did not make -- and did not claim to make -- the film shown. It was the product of research done at UCLA by the Ford company itself. But ABC took a conspiratorial tone toward the footage, claiming that it proved Fords were fire-prone. The truth, which ABC must have known since it was published by the researchers fully 10 years before the broadcast, is that the researchers were trying to study what happens to the passenger compartment when a car burns. Since crash fires are quite rare, they used incendiaries.

The expert ABC relied on for that "20/20" item is one Byron Bloch, a veteran expert witness hired by plaintiffs in auto injury cases. He was also (small world!) the adviser to "Dateline NBC" for its GM story.

If Mr. Olson is right, the game of screw the manufacturer, dupe the viewer has been going on for years. NBC was different only because it got caught.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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