GM and the Media

A reporter for a business publication called the other day about the latest excitement at General Motors headquarters in Michigan. It seems that GM officials are giddy about their “victory” over NBC which apologized for aspects of its televised crashtest regarding the fuel tank placement on certain GM trucks.

These officials are telling the press that “they’re mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore.” In other words, GM is once again about to go backwards into the future. The new aggressive style at. GM, this reporter related, is to go after the media and trial lawyers whom the company believes have been pushing it around for too long concerning alleged hazards in its vehicles. No more Mr. Nice Guy, these GM fellows say.

I had to hide my amazement as the reporter was talking. Here is General Motors which virtually ran the Reagan and Bush policies that suppressed implementation of the safety, fuel efficiency and emission control laws. Here is GM, which throttled these life­saving and consumer-protective programs for years, trying to convince the media that it is the underdog and is not going to be pushed around any more. Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who were injured or lost loved ones due in large part to GM’s intransigent opposition to the air bag that commenced in the mid-Seventies after the retirement of Ed Cole, their air bag booster President.

There is a new management team at GM’s helm after previous executives lost market share and failed to shake up the company’s bureaucracy. This team has a short memory. GM displayed aggression in the mid Sixties when its private detective firm followed a critic of its cars right into the U.S Congress where it was caught.

The resultant Congressional and media furor led to the first federal regulation of the automobile industry for safety standards. After that GM was not reluctant to flex its muscle against Washington. But it did not growl publicly in so doing.

Now it wants to growl and that is good news for its constructive critics. For years criticism of GM was not widely reported because GM would simply not reply or in its own way enter the debate. This strategy worked well on the powerful New York Times whose editor Abe Rosenthal adopted a no print policy for GM critics unless GM responded. So, GM would either not respond or delay responding in time for the newspaper’s deadlines and, voila, no story the next morning.

The resumption of GM’s growling will lead to better and more frequent coverage of GM. This truism obviously has escaped the judgment of William O’Neill, the company’s pugnacious director of public affairs. Consumer advocates dream of having someone like O’Neill bellowing for GM.

Take, for example, the current intention by Inside Edition -­King World’s daily television magazine show — to do an investigative followup on GM’s tests of its trucks with the outside-of-the-cage fuel tanks and the numerous pending lawsuits by injured claimants.

Inside Edition wanted GM spokespersons to go on camera. GM refused. Instead it supplied the program’s producers with a large bundle of opinionated documents. The company did this admittedly because it wanted to show evidence of defamation and malice should Inside. Edition ignore these assertions and go ahead with the kind of story GM anticipates. The promise of a defamation lawsuit was scarcely concealed in the exchange between GM’s attorneys and King World’s lawyers.

Winning by intimidation of the media can work for powerful corporations, in the long run, the intimidating company over­reaches and crosses the boundary into the arena of boomerang.

Inebriated by its humbling of NBC, Chairman Jack Smith’s Goliath seems to be losing both its perspective and its priority which is to learn something from its history and recall its trucks.

Such a decision will be better for the safety of motorists and the loyalty of its shareholders whose present share value has not increased in real dollars since 1965.

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