Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Bark’s Bites: Dieselgate is Deja Vu All Over Again


In light of the great Yogi Berra's recent passing, I felt it appropriate to use one of his more famous "Yogisms" for the title of today's editorial. It's about a time when a great institution was accused of cheating and lying to all of its customers. It's about a time when numbers were inflated beyond rational belief, yet everyone, including industry experts and reporters, blatantly looked the other way. It's about a time when our government decided to get involved and start calling people to testify on Capitol Hill.

I'm referring, of course, to the Steroid Era in baseball. Oh, you thought I meant #Dieselgate? Well, you wouldn't be wrong. Here's how the two situations are remarkably similar, and how it's amazing that either was ever discovered.

Hop in the time machine back with me to 1998 (wow, was that really seventeen years ago?). Our great national pastime, baseball, had been consistently losing mindshare with the nation's sports fans for quite some time. Younger people were no longer playing or following the game in the numbers that they had historically. For the first time, extreme sports were starting to become mainstream.

Baseball needed a savior. Lo and behold, they got not one, but two.

Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captured the nation's attention by hitting more home runs between them than any two sluggers ever had before. McGwire cruised right past Babe Ruth and Roger Maris on the way to a monstrous 70 home runs. Sosa wasn't far behind with 66. Baseball had become king again. And the reporters whose very livelihood depended on the success of the game were more than happy to look the other way as players got bigger, stronger, and swung harder than ever before.

After all, if a reporter asked questions — if he noticed a can of androstenedione in McGwire's locker, if he noticed the nearly universally present back acne in the showers — his access to the team was nearly certain to be restricted. Clubhouse reporters couldn't do their jobs without their access. They needed to befriend the players. They needed to write stories of McGwire as a superstar, a mammoth of a man who paid homage to the Maris family with every swing of the bat. Sosa was transformed by writers from a surly introvert who barely spoke English into a beaming, smiling ambassador for the game. Never mind that he went from a scrawny kid who hit an average of thirty home runs per year to a muscle-bound carnival act who hit sixty home runs three times in a four year span. Sosa was making the lives of reporters possible.

So what if a few grown men decided to inject themselves with drugs that screwed with the entire fabric of the game? They were creating a story, a story that was being read for the first time in God knows how long.

It would take another six years for the San Francisco Chronicle to leak grand jury testimony from Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi that proved they used steroids. But even that wasn't enough. It would take three years after that for the Mitchell Report to be commissioned, and that only occurred because Jose Canseco wrote his book Juiced as a giant middle finger to the game to which he had sacrificed his entire life — only to be blackballed from it in the end. It all could have been reported a decade earlier if reporters hadn't willfully ignored it.

"I think all of us wish now that we had pushed harder," says Tom Jolly, sports editor at The New York Times. "I suspect we weren't as well-informed about the whole thing as we are now."

"In hindsight, I screwed up," said Ken Rosenthal at the Sun in Baltimore. "That is our greatest sin, extolling these guys as something more than they were. Some of us had a feeling that something was amiss. We are more guilty of making McGwire and Sosa into heroes when they weren't."

I have a feeling that we are only beginning to scratch the surface of the dirty pool that Volkswagen played in this scandal, but when it all comes out — both at VW and the other OEMs who have near certainly manipulated tests in their own ways — the question will remain: What role did automotive journalists play in obscuring the story, either intentionally or as willing pawns?

Think about the stereotypical journalist dream car — the cliche of the brown manual diesel wagon. There is no shortage of journalists out there who think that they carry some sort of torch of authenticity by trumpeting the mantra of DIESEL! It will make us just as awesome as Europe! You capitalist pigs who can actually afford new cars might cling to your trucks and your crossovers, but I, the Automotive Journalist, know that diesel cars are the Holy Grail of Automotive Excellence.

They love them. They extol their virtues. The journalists who actually do buy cars put them in their driveways. I can think of half a dozen.

So we are supposed to believe that auto journalists — who are supposed to know about cars as an actual job qualification and tested these vehicles — had literally no idea for decades that there might be something funny going on with the diesel cars that Volkswagen delivered to their driveways everyday month?

At the very least, there's a conflict of interest here, and at worst, there's ethical misconduct. Somewhere in the middle is what most auto journalists are claiming, which is that they shouldn't "be expected to be experts on emissions," so they are morally exempt. To which I say: Nonsense.

If we are to call ourselves "journalists," (which, by the way, is term I never apply to myself as an editorialist) then shouldn't we be responsible for doing, oh, I don't know, investigative journalism?

The Volkswagen bombshell wasn't uncovered by the equivalent of the San Francisco Chronicle's Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada. Instead, it was a study commissioned by the International Council for Clean Transportation after noticing that there was a pattern of non-compliance by VW vehicles in emissions testing. A $50,000 study at West Virginia University was all it took; a study which they reported the findings of nearly a year and a half ago. Auto journalists, including here at TTAC, didn't exactly notice. In fact, they could have emailed the findings of that study directly to every journalist in America and I doubt that it would ever have found its way to the Wheels page. We found out about it at exactly the same time as everybody else, when the EPA served its Notice of Violation to Volkswagen's doorstep.

The automotive press may not be as responsible for obscuring the facts of #dieselgate as sports journalists were for obscuring the Steroid Era in baseball, but it is undeniable that the far-too-cozy relationship between the automotive press and the OEMs played a large role in Volkswagen being able to pull the wool over the eyes of its adoring public for far, far too long. The automotive industry is devoid of watchdogs in the press, who often prefer to be treated as the PR arm of the OEM.

There needs to be a restoration of balance. The OEMs need to start inviting their less-friendly outlets to PR events. A negative review shouldn't cause a writer to be blackballed. Somebody — anybody — needs to start doing some actual investigative journalism in this business. It's far too easy to speculate on Twitter about a business that you've never worked in. It's much harder to actually dig deep and find the real story.

The question is: who? Smaller outlets, such as us, don't have the budget. Larger outlets rely too much on the OEMs for access. Newspapers, who might have had the budget to do it in the past, are shrinking their budgets and workforces daily. So it becomes ever more likely that we'll find out about the next scandal the same way we found out about this one: after the fact.

Who's going to write the automotive equivalent of Juiced? Who's our Canseco? My guess is that every OEM on the planet is praying to Lutz right now that they don't have some disgruntled former employee who's willing to write a tell-all.

But they shouldn't have to. Let's end these cozy relationships and advertorials once and for all.

The post Bark's Bites: Dieselgate is Deja Vu All Over Again appeared first on The Truth About Cars.

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