AP Headline Falsely Asserts 'Rebuttal' of Those Questioning Cal. 'Runaway Prius' Driver (Update: AP Responds?)

The Associated Press's 10:33 p.m. rendition of its coverage of the ongoing James Sikes "Runaway Prius" saga begins with the following headline and opening pair of paragraphs:

APonJamesSikesToyota031410at1033pm

The problem is that the AP report's complete content, in combination with properly understood English and the relevant definitions at the always-handy dictionary.com, make it clear that Sikes's lawyer hasn't "rebutted" anything.

Here are the alternative definitions of "rebuttal" found at the web site:

Rebuttal

The definitions and verbal treatments at Merriam-Webster.com are consistent.

But using "rebut," the AP's headline writer clearly wants readers, particularly those who only see the headline, to believe that Sikes's lawyer has put the matter to bed and that his client has been vindicated. The problem is that the very first sentence of Elliot Spagat's and Ken Thomas's story, by using the word "dismissed," actually, uh, "rebuts" the headline writer. Also, note that because "rebut" has an object in the headline ("doubts"), the wire service's headline writer can't lean on the weakest definition of the three above, because that meaning can be inferred only when there is no object.

Sikes's lawyer John Gomez can "dismiss" the evidence disputing his client's account all he wants, but he doesn't have the final say, and the article presents no new evidence in Sikes's favor that bears any semblance to a "rebuttal." In fact, Gomez wants us to believe that investigators' failure to replicate the problem doesn't matter:

A Toyota official who was at the inspection explained that an electric motor would "completely seize" if a system to shut off the gas when the brake is pressed fails, and there was no evidence to support that happened, according to the (congressional investigators') memo.

"In this case, knowing that we are able to push the car around the shop, it does not appear to be feasibly possible, both electronically and mechanically that his gas pedal was stuck to the floor and he was slamming on the brake at the same time," according to the report for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for the committee's top Republican, Darrell Issa of California, said Sunday that the findings "certainly raise new questions surrounding the veracity of the sequence of events" reported by Sikes.

... John Gomez, Sikes' attorney, said the findings fail to undermine his client's story.

... "It's not surprising they couldn't replicate it. They have never been able to replicate an incident of sudden acceleration. Mr. Sikes never had a problem in the three years he owned this vehicle."

Brian Pennings, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol, said his agency's view that there is no evidence of a hoax is unchanged. The CHP does not plan to investigate the incident because there were no injuries or property damage.

"Unless they can completely disprove Mr. Sikes, we're done," Pennings said. "It doesn't sound like they can do that."

Though CHP's claim that there is "no evidence" is highly dubious, its stance that it won't go further actually makes sense. Their concern would be whether or not a crime was committed. For a district attorney to prosecute such a matter, he or she would have to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Sikes committed a hoax. That would seem to be a tough standard to meet in the circumstances.

If Sikes were to pursue a civil suit, his standard of proof would be a less stringent showing that a preponderance of the evidence supports his claim. His stated intent not to sue would seem to indicate that he and Gomez can't get there, or anywhere near it.

Yesterday, I noted (at NewsBusters; at BizzyBlog) that Michael Fumento, in a column at Forbes, raised huge doubts about the Sikes's rendition of events, including this one:

His claim that he’d tried to yank up the accelerator could be falsified, with his help, in half a minute.

… I tried to imitate Sikes’ alleged effort in a 2008 Prius.

… it required squashing my face against the radio and completely removing my eyes from the road. (this is something Sikes says he never did -- Ed.)

Further, in terms of the California man's claim that he tried to stop the car by pressing the brake pedal with all his might, Spagat's and Thomas's AP report tells us that "the Wall Street Journal reported Saturday that the wear was not consistent with the brakes being applied at full force for a long period, citing three people familiar with the probe, whom it did not name."

In other words: Rebuttal, reschmuttal -- no matter what the AP's headline writer wants us to believe.

UPDATE, 8:10 a.m., March 15: Interesting -- In its 7:40 a.m. version, AP has comprehensively reworked the story, even though it seems unlikely that any new developments occurred in the wee hours of a Monday morning:

APonJamesSikesToyota740amOn031510

No one can prove it and they would probably never admit it even if true, but one has to wonder if the AP's rewrite was in response to this post's critique.

Also note that the title of the wire service's related video still asserts the existence of the non-existent "rebuttal."

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.