In Journalism, Scaremongering Pays — Or, Is Ethical Journalism an Oxymoron?

As legal commentator Ted Frank notes, ABC was rewarded for deliberate scaremongering and deceptive reporting that created needless fear and anxiety among Toyota owners with a coveted journalism award: “Brian Ross of ABC News repeatedly used footage of Sean Kane criticizing Toyota over sudden acceleration without telling viewers that Kane was being paid by plaintiffs’ attorneys pushing bogus product liability claims; he also faked footage of a tachometer speeding out of control to push the “deadly Toyota” meme. All of these scare tactics and hysteria turned out to be utterly false, and refuted by a NASA/NHTSA report finding nothing wrong with the electronics in the automobile. Ross and ABC News haven’t retracted their scare-tactic stories or even apologized, much less slunk off in disgrace. Rather, ABC News submitted Ross’s quack reports for an Edward R. Murrow Award — and got the award, doubling the scandal.”

At Gawker, John Cook calls Ross “America’s Wrongest Reporter” for “his coverage of the Toyota unintended acceleration story,” which had the effect of needlessly “Fostering Global Panic Based on” falsehoods:

“Ross, you will recall, was one of the driving forces behind the Runaway Toyota Panic of ’10, which was later determined by NASA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to have been largely the result of idiots stepping on the accelerator when they intended to step on the brake, and of other idiots talking about it on TV. Ross was one of those idiots. For some reason, ABC News submitted four of Ross’ Toyota reports to the Radio Television Digital News Association for award consideration.  One report they didn’t submit was the one where Gawker caught Ross staging footage to make it seem like a Toyota was accelerating out of control when it was in fact parked with the emergency brake on, doors open, and someone stepping on the gas … In two of the winning reports, Ross quoted safety expert Sean Kane criticizing Toyota and insisting that there were cases of unintended acceleration that “couldn’t be explained by floormats,” which Toyota had recalled in 2009 after some mats became stuck under gas pedals. What he didn’t report was that Kane was being paid by plaintiff’s attorneys who were suing Toyota over unintended acceleration cases, and so had a financial incentive to argue that there was more to the Runaway Toyota scare than just floormats … [Kane’s] position—that electronics were involved—was later eviscerated by the NASA/NHTSA report, which found “no electronic flaws in Toyota vehicles capable of producing the large throttle openings required to create dangerous high-speed unintended acceleration incidents.”

As Gawker notes, Ross has a “documented history of shamelessly hyping cooked stories” stretching back to “the 2001 anthrax attacks.”

But to liberal journalists, Ross got the ideological narrative right, even if his facts were wrong. Even if Toyota’s vehicles were perfectly safe, by making them appear unsafe, Ross’s reporting conveyed a larger narrative to the public that liberal journalists believe is generally true: that businesses like Toyota are greedy and evil and need to be subjected to stricter regulation to keep them from menacing the safety of consumers.

Ross’s reward for deceiving and alarming the public reminds me of how the media circled the wagons after the Duke Lacrosse case. After the innocence of the Duke Lacrosse players became too obvious to deny (due to DNA evidence and the admission of North Carolina’s attorney general that the players were in fact innocent), liberal  journalists like Evan Thomas of Newsweek defended the media’s rush to judgment about their supposed guilt, after having been falsely accused of a racist gang-rape (by a woman with a criminal record and history of false allegations, who recently stabbed to death her boyfriend). “The narrative was properly about race, sex, and class,” he said. “We went a beat too fast in assuming that a rape took place … We just got the facts wrong. The narrative was right, but the facts were wrong.”

To the liberal media, it seems, even false facts are excusable when they advance a politically correct narrative. Their bestowing of an award on Ross is just the latest illustration of this.

AIM asks whether “journalistic ethics” is “an oxymoron,” noting how “former New Republic reporter Stephen Glass signed a six-figure book deal for a novel after he admitted making up stories for the liberal weekly during the 1990s. CBS’ 60 Minutes showcased him in an exclusive interview, which inevitably helped promote his book. Glass’ novel was widely panned and didn’t make any best-seller lists. But he got a lucrative film contract anyway.”