Complaints about Toyota and Lexus cars suddenly accelerating out of control began surfacing about a decade ago, and a series of inconclusive federal investigations followed. But despite the reams of auto coverage churned out by the automotive press and in the ad-rich auto sections of newspapers, this life-and-death story wasn’t broken until it had become nearly impossible to ignore. And then it was a business reporter on the auto-industry beat who dug in and pieced it all together. The Los Angeles Times’s Ken Bensinger, with the help of national reporter Ralph Vartabedian, produced a laurel-worthy series of more than fifty stories, even as Toyota—the world’s largest automaker, with a reputation for producing reliable vehicles—denied that the runaway cars could be caused by faulty electrical systems.

Bensinger and Vartabedian’s coverage (which was a finalist for a Pulitzer this year) began with a piece published on October 18, two weeks after Toyota issued a recall connected to a San Diego crash that killed an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer and three of his family members. Toyota blamed the car’s sudden acceleration on floor mats that it said caused the gas pedal to stick.

That first article almost didn’t happen. The day of the first Toyota recall in September, Bensinger was busy on what was considered a bigger auto-beat story: GM’s decision to discontinue its Saturn line. But Toyota’s floor-mat excuse didn’t sound right to him. Musing about it in his backyard that weekend, he decided to follow his gut.

Using public documents on the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration Web site, Bensinger examined all the complaints about sudden acceleration and Toyota. He called his editor right away. “It was an amazing group of data,” he says. “I can’t believe no one did anything with it before—it doesn’t take a genius to connect these dots.”

Bensinger and Vartabedian’s first story showed that the government had received hundreds of complaints about sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles and had launched, and largely dismissed, nine investigations over the past decade. Their second story showed that Toyota accidents caused by sudden acceleration had claimed nineteen lives since 2002—more than all other manufacturers combined. (NHTSA later raised that number to thirty-four, after old incidents came to light, spurred by the reporters’ coverage.)

The duo found that for some Toyota models, reports of unintended acceleration increased more than five-fold after 2001, when Toyota started building cars with “drive-by-wire” acceleration systems, which replaced traditional mechanical hardware, like steel cable, with computerized sensors, microprocessors, and electric motors.

They also delved into how NHTSA investigations were conducted, and found them lacking. Many auto writers had done routine news stories about NHTSA investigations into runaway Toyotas and the subsequent recalls over the years, but no one had questioned the agency’s conclusions. Indeed, some auto writers who remembered Audi’s sudden-acceleration recalls in the 1980s, and an infamously doctored 60 Minutes report that faked the problem in a test drive, were hesitant to touch the Toyota story, and as public attention mounted even defended the company.

But the failure of the press to catch the Toyota story earlier says something about the state of auto coverage, specifically, and journalism broadly. In our last issue, we wrote about how the general failure of news outlets to follow up on stories belongs on a list of systemic problems in journalism. The assumption that regulators are doing their job (see crisis, financial) belongs on that list, too, as does the reflexive deference to successful companies (see Enron, AIG).

Meanwhile, the auto beat has never really been a hotbed of watchdog journalism. Newspaper auto sections are mostly cash cows, often slapped together by the ad-sales side, with a syndicated column thrown in for good measure. Top trade publications, such as Automotive News, arguably should have been on top of the safety story, but even the venerable Consumer Reports was late on it. The magazine’s January 2010 issue included an entire page praising the Toyota Avalon, with no mention of the acceleration problems. Even though Consumer Reports published a revealing online investigation on runaway Toyotas in December, it wasn’t until the April auto issue that it disavowed its Toyota recommendations in print. “We wanted to be very cautious not to incite panic,” says Jeff Bartlett, the magazine’s online deputy auto editor, citing the rare one-in-10,000 incident rate that influenced the decision not to sound the alarm sooner.

Fair enough, but there’s another lesson here, especially in this era of diminished newsroom resources: good journalism is often painstaking. Poring through years of safety complaints is tedious work. But look at the payoff. Thanks in part to two reporters’ persistence, Toyota has recalled 10 million cars, worldwide. In April the automaker was hit with a $16.4 million fine—the largest in NHTSA history.

Given the volume of coverage devoted to automobiles, it seems reasonable to expect more of a balance between exacting watchdog coverage and the kind of aspirational coverage that currently dominates. And so we award a dart to the automobile reporters—and their editors—on the frontlines of the Toyota story who had repeated opportunities to provide a real public service, but did not.

 

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.