Toyota’s reply, “A Healthy Discussion on Safety,” offered a stout defense of its handling of the accelerator problem:

The issue of unintended acceleration involving Toyota and Lexus vehicles has been thoroughly and methodically investigated on several occasions over the past few years. These investigations have used a variety of proven and recognized scientific methods. Importantly, none of these studies has ever found that an electronic engine control system malfunction is the cause of unintended acceleration.


In fact, electronic throttle control, which has been adopted in some form by nearly all automakers, has several fail-safe features and enhances vehicle safety by making possible functions such as traction control, stability control, adaptive laser cruise control and snow mode power control on current or future vehicles.

Based on the comprehensive investigation and testing, we are highly confident that we have addressed the root cause of unwanted acceleration — the entrapment of the accelerator pedal.

The Times kept going, however, and on December 23 published its expose, which went well beyond safety issues and raised questions about the company’s candor. That led to Toyota’s tough repost.

Today, of course, the company is in full retreat.

Regulators are piling on, as the Journal reports:

“While Toyota is taking responsible action now, it unfortunately took an enormous effort to get to this point,” Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said Tuesday in a statement. “We’re not finished with Toyota and are continuing to review possible defects and monitor the implementation of the recalls.”

And the company is admitting it may not have done enough after all:

Mr. [Shinichi] Sasaki, the Toyota executive vice president in charge of quality, said at a news conference in Japan the company may not have done enough to look at “how vehicle parts perform as a whole inside the car under different environmental conditions,” and how that could cause system failures.

Here’s today’s unsigned press release:

Nothing is more important to us than the safety and reliability of the vehicles our customers drive. Since these issues first came to our attention, we have understood that the soonest possible action would be in the best interests of our customers and have acted accordingly. We are very grateful for the advice of all the government agencies involved and feel that through our handling of the recall we have a chance to regain the trust of our customers. We will continue to cooperate fully with NHTSA on all vehicle safety issues.

Then there’s LaHood’s testimony this morning:

LaHood tells owners of recalled Toyota cars to stop driving them

Attempts to reach Miller, who recently retired, via the carmaker’s (certainly swamped, I realize) media line proved unavailing.

This Motor Trend timeline credits the Times with helping to trigger the current revelations starting back in October:

October 18, 2009: The Los Angeles Times publishes the first of several stories concerning claims of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles. The Times article reveals there have been nine separate NHTSA investigations into claims of unintended acceleration by Toyota vehicles in the past decade.

The Journal’s Holman Jenkins noticed and credited the LAT’s work here and here.

This is not about calling for Toyota to take it back its earlier defenses. The issue of whether the problem is mechanical or electronic remains to resolved definitively, though one can see this is not heading in Toyota’s direction.

Nor is this about calling a winner in the who-got-there-first newspaper contest.

Other outlets, as I say, have done good work, and I’m not here to hand out any awards.

But it is to recognize that it is harder for a news organization to be first and alone in tackling sensitive and difficult investigative projects. Put it this way, no one would have noticed if the Times hadn’t done its several investigations back in the fall and early winter.

And, bogus canards to the contrary, news outlets do indeed take corporate arguments, complaints, and denials very seriously. They have to. It is journalism at a higher level to publish in the face of denials and to see the main facts asserted vindicated by government investigations or corporate admissions.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014).

Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.