Devolution: Revised AP Reports on GM Whitewash Trust Problem, Ignore Its Real Cause
If your blood pressure can stand it, you can learn a lot about how the Apparatachik Press -- er, the Associated Press -- operates as you watch a news story evolve, or I should say devolve. The wire service often reworks adequately-written stories with no new developments for no apparent reason other than to add bias and/or remove inconvenient truths.
A classic example of this occurred in the situation involving Barack Obama, Henry Louis Gates, and Cambridge, Massachusetts police in late July (covered at NewsBusters; at BizzyBlog). AP reporter Nancy Benac's headline went from "Obama Rushes to Quell Racial Uproar He Helped Fire" on a Friday evening to "Obama Moves to Dampen Uproar on Comment Over Race" on a Saturday morning, even though there had been no new developments in the story. The later story's text was heavily revised, totally deleting an accurate opening paragraph about the president being "knocked off stride" and trying to "tamp down the controversy," leaving readers of that version with the impression that Obama had become the conciliator in the controversy instead of the being its fueler.
Another AP devolution took place between Thursday afternoon and early this morning. An already pretty weak story that bordered on being a PR piece about a two-month new vehicle refund offer by Government Motors -- er, General Motors -- only got worse in subsequent revisions.
For starters, here are the respective headlines and first paragraphs from Thursday afternoon at 3:47 p.m., Thursday evening at 10:27 p.m., and Friday morning at 5:38 a.m., respectively (links are to full versions of articles saved at my host here, here, and here, for fair use and discussion purposes):
Note how the need "to regain consumers' trust" and to "win them back" disappeared from Emily Fredrix's initial paragraph. Though the next paragraph in the second and third renditions refers to how GM "aims to win back customers leery of GM since it filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year," the word "trust" disappeared entirely. By Version 3, the words in the headline and first paragraph were predominantly positive.
In Versions 2 and 3, Fredrix did refer to importance of making customers "less reluctant to buy" -- in the second-last paragraph out of 17 in each instance. She saved her last paragraph for a person labeled as coming from "a Web site that follows and is often critical of the auto industry and GM," who characterized the company's move as "a Hail Mary pass." That's nice, but many if not most readers won't get that far, and subscribing publications and broadcasting outlets will often leave it on the cutting-room floor.
No AP report of the three ever tells readers that the federal government now owns the majority of GM. The fact that Versions 2 and 3 manage to mention in their second paragraphs that GM "needs to improve sales so it can repay billions in government loans and stay in business" is in a way helpful. But it also gives the impression, in the absence of an ownership disclosure, that lending represents the full extent of the government's financial involvement.
No one who reads any of the three AP reports will learn how much money has been thrown into the company's bailout by taxpayers and other unwilling parties (at least $49.9 billion, plus billions more in value obtained through contract law-violating disproportionate treatment of the company's unsecured bondholders), or that the Congressional Oversight Panel on Wednesday predicted that it is "highly unlikely" that taxpayers will fully recoup their auto-bailout .... (excuse me, I had to pick myself up off the floor after breaking out in convulsions of laughter) .... "investments."
Perhaps readers might excuse AP for not bringing up GM's baggage in a marketing story. But in a report that is really about a company trying to regain its footing, Fredrix failed to note one of the main reasons -- if not THE main reason -- why GM's sales have been falling. That reason goes well beyond the products, product quality, or even that GM went through a bankruptcy.
The fact is that enough consumers to matter have been shunning the company's vehicles because they opposed its bailout by taxpayers -- either on principle, or out of concerns that a government-owned operation won't keep its warranty and other promises. Further, the substantial number of people who feel this way aren't likely to put their opposition aside any time soon.
I'm not saying this, pollsters Rasmussen and Gallup are:
- On June 8, Rasmussen reported that "only 42% of those who currently own a General Motors car are even somewhat likely to buy a GM product for their next car." It further noted that "just 26% of Americans believe the bailout was a good idea, and nearly as many support a boycott of GM products."
- On July 27, Rasmussen told us that "46% of Americans now saying they are more likely to buy a car from Ford because it did not take government money to stay in business."
- Though it apparently didn't attempt to dig into the whys, a June 9-10 Gallup poll said that "55% of Americans (are) saying they disapprove of the government's investing $50 billion in General Motors to make the government the majority owner of that automaker."
But in AP's world, GM's trust issue all but disappeared in the space of 14 hours. How did that happen?
In early May, AP reporters Kimberly Johnson and Dan Stumpf, in a nice bit of honest reporting, opened a story about April car sales by telling readers that "Detroit's Big Three is becoming Ford and the other two." Since then, the AP reports I have seen have largely glossed over the continuing market share declines at GM and Chrysler. Only the few who dig into the detail such as that found at the Wall Street Journal's monthly auto sales report know that:
- In August, a month dominated by the Cash for Clunkers program, Toyota sold a whopping 31% more cars than GM.
- Nissan went from trailing Chrysler in total unit sales by 19% in July to beating it by 13% in August.
- GM's position in the marketplace has deteriorated in the past 12 months by a shocking 22% (19.4% market share in August 2009 vs. 24.5% in August 2008).
Tidbits like these and other are virtually absent from AP reports, while the negatives coming out of GM and Chrysler are often minimized or described in vague terms. That now seems to include the monthly missives from Johnson and Strumpf (August example here).
As long as AP engages the kind of truth avoidance described here, and despite occasional heartening exceptions, including one cited here on a different topic yesterday by NewsBusters, calling the wire service the Apparatchik Press will be too close to the truth for comfort.
Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.