Magazine article USA TODAY

Media Silence Is Not Golden

Magazine article USA TODAY

Media Silence Is Not Golden

Article excerpt

EVERYONE KNOWS about the story now. An estimated 6,500,000 Firestone tires have been recalled because they have been linked to hundreds of reports of tread separations and at least 100 deaths, mostly involving Ford Explorers that rolled over or crashed when their tires failed at highway speeds in hot weather.

With few notable exceptions, the media didn't report the story until it was too late for those who had died or suffered crippling injuries. There was plenty of time to do a national expose There were complaints against the suspect Firestone fires more than a year ago when one major insurance company alerted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to the problem. Ford Motor Co. itself should have notified the Federal government when it began to replace Firestone tires on sport utility vehicles in foreign countries last year, but it didn't. And nothing was done until it was too late. One Houston television station and a Chicago newspaper were the only media that reported the story a few weeks before NHTSA started investigating the problem in May. In early August. the Los Angeles Times came up with an exclusive of its own using internal documents to show that Ford, rushing to meet production deadlines, had rejected major design changes that would have made its Explorer SUV less prone to rolling over.

To those who had bought a Ford Explorer, knowledge of the problem could have meant the difference between life and death. My friends' son and daughter-in-law didn't know any of this when they drove on a Texas highway during a hot summer day in their Ford Explorer. And their relatives in California couldn't understand exactly what happened when the news came that the Ford Explorer's tire tread separated, their daughter-in-law couldn't control the car, and their only son and granddaughter had been killed and their daughter-in-law had barely survived. None of their friends could understand exactly what happened on that sunny day--until everyone saw and read the news months later that Firestone was voluntarily recalling the 15-inch tires in response to complaints that the tire treads were coming off, often while consumers were driving at highway speeds.

How many other stories like this won't be reported until it is too late for some of us'? If the information had been made available when everyone in the industry knew the facts, my friends' family could have replaced the tires and gone on with their lives. Now, no one can replace their lives.

Neither Ford nor Firestone was terribly eager to alert the public and admit their possible failings. The government claimed it didn't have enough information to act upon until May, 2000. That would have been enough time to alert our friend's family, but newspapers and TV stations didn't bring it to anyone's attention. They seldom report stories that a special-interest group or spot news event doesn't bring to their attention.

Investigative journalism that uncovers news before it breaks is rare, and it usually takes place after the newspaper or TV station has been tipped to the story by a rival special-interest group or company, unhappy employee, or government official. Even then, it takes a good deal of guts to publish or air the story--especially when it concerns Big Business and Big Advertisers. …

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