Toyota No Longer Attacking the L.A. Times

The business press has done well documenting Toyota’s spiraling problems, including this morning’s news that U.S. regulators are accusing the carmaker of dragging its feet on fixing defective gas pedals.

The Journal, for example, provides a good overview of Toyota’s safety and business troubles, including new problems cropping up with the Prius in Japan.

But while other papers did good work, only the Los Angeles Times can claim the distinction of having been attacked by the carmaker well before its troubles were widely known, back when the company was still vigorously defending its safety record and its many loyal fans were still howling over press accounts that called attention to safety concerns about the company.

On December 23, Toyota posted on its website this statement:

Today the Los Angeles Times published an article that wrongly and unfairly attacks Toyota’s integrity and reputation.
While outraged by the Times’ attack, we were not totally surprised. The tone of the article was foreshadowed by the phrasing of a lengthy list of detailed questions that the Times emailed to us recently. The questions were couched in accusatory terms.

Despite the tone, we answered each of the many questions and sent them to the Times. Needless to say, we were disappointed by the article that appeared today, and in particular by the fact that so little of our response to the questions appeared in the article and much of what was used was distorted.

Toyota has a well-earned reputation for integrity and we will vigorously defend it.

The statement was signed by Irv Miller, group vice president for environmental and public affairs of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc. and offered a link-through to its detailed replies to the LAT’s questions.

Miller was responding to a December 23 story, by Ralph Vartabedian and Ken Bensinger (an ex-colleague of mine from the Wall Street Journal), that ran under the headline:

Toyota found to keep tight lid on potential safety problems

A Times investigation shows the world’s largest automaker has delayed recalls and attempted to blame human error in cases where owners claimed vehicle defects.

The story said that Toyota engineers found acceleration problems back in 2003, but only issued a recall last year.

During a routine test on its Sienna minivan in April 2003, Toyota Motor Corp. engineers discovered that a plastic panel could come loose and cause the gas pedal to stick, potentially making the vehicle accelerate out of control.

The automaker redesigned the part and by that June every 2004 model year Sienna off the assembly line came with the new panel. Toyota did not notify tens of thousands of people who had already bought vans with the old panel, however.

It wasn’t until U.S. safety officials opened an investigation last year that Toyota acknowledged in a letter to regulators that the part could come loose and “lead to unwanted or sudden acceleration.”

In January, nearly six years after discovering the potential hazard, the automaker recalled 26,501 vans made with the old panel.

By then the paper and the carmaker already had a history. It’s worth following the travel of this.

After Toyota recalled nearly four million cars in September, in the largest recall in the company’s history, the Times began a series of stories, starting here in October, looking more deeply into safety concerns at the company. While the company was blaming mechanical problems, starting with defective floor mats, and driver error, the Times’s reporting raised the possibility that safety issues went deeper than that. Eventually, in a November 29 story, by the same pair, the paper pointed to evidence that the problems centered on electronics:

Data point to Toyota’s throttles, not floor mats

Amid widening concern over acceleration events, Toyota has cited ‘floor mat entrapment.’ But reports point to another potential cause: the electronic throttles that have replaced mechanical systems.

That prompted what diplomats might call a frank public exchange of views between newspaper and carmaker, starting with an LAT editorial on December 5 that called on Toyota to look more deeply into its accelerator problems:

Toyota’s acceleration issue Blaming floor mats may not be enough; the automaker needs to look at its vehicles’ electronics.

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.

In “Power Problem,” our review of pre-financial crisis lending and Wall Street coverage (the link only goes to the top of the story: for a hardcopy, please write we praised the same paper for its lonely work on Ameriquest and found the absence of more reporting on abusive lenders and Wall Street backers to be the big reason the public was so caught off guard by the crash.

This kind of work is, as I say, hard and expensive, and we need more of it.

Also, other media outlets—and I’m not naming names here—ought to err on the side of generosity in crediting this kind of work. It seems to me that that kind of acknowledgment goes beyond courtesy and becomes a form of mutual support that can be returned later, when the other paper needs it.

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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.