NHTSA officials used the exclusions as part of their rationale to close at least five of the investigations without finding any defect, because — with fewer incidents to consider — the agency concluded there were not enough reported problems to warrant further inquiry. In a 2003 Lexus probe, for example, the agency threw out all but one of 37 customer complaints cited in a defect petition. It then halted further investigation, saying it “found no data indicating the existence of a defect trend.”
Meanwhile, fatal crashes involving Toyota vehicles continued to mount.
But, this is not about credit, believe me. For one thing, plaintiffs’ lawyers had known about Toyota’s problems for years, but that’s another column.
Joe Winksi, who heads Bloomberg’s regulatory coverage, said in a note to the reader and me, that the wire advanced the story on a couple of key points: the specific number of probes the ex-NHTSA people hindered and the fact that other major carmakers don’t employ ex-NHTSA people the same way:
Bloomberg News was the first to show the public that Toyota is the only carmaker who currently employs former NHTSA employees to help it deal with that agency on defect issues. We also were the first to determine and show the public the specific number of investigations such personnel helped quash, which shows the scope of this constantly unfolding story. Bloomberg’s policy is to always credit prior scoops by other news organizations. Our exclusive showed new facts in this continuing story. We take your comments seriously and will update our “exclusive” tag to better show readers where we succeeded.
He adds to me, “We recognize that defining an ‘exclusive’ isn’t always a clear-cut thing and that we welcome [the reader’s] comments on the matter.”
Fair enough. A few thoughts:
First, it’s good for news organizations to compete ferociously for news and to advance investigations that are already underway.
Second, there’s nothing sacrosanct about the word “exclusive.”
Third, the Bloomberg story is a good, strong story. There’s nothing wrong with it.
Fourth, many news organizations, including Bloomberg, have internal pay incentive systems that track journalists’ performance by many metrics, including sheer quantity, as well as scoops, “exclusives,” and participation in time-consuming projects and investigations, etc.
Journalism metrics, both of quantity and quality, are problematic for a number of reasons, but that’s also another column. For now, if metrics are used, they should be weighted materially in favor of initiating original probes, where no one else is looking, as the LA Times did on the Toyota story.
Finally, that all said, given what’s been printed on Toyota, Bloomberg’s incremental advances on the Toyota/NHTSA story push the definition of “exclusive” to the edge, if not over. The problem isn’t that Bloomberg is claiming credit it doesn’t deserve. The problem is that readers have no chance—zero—of figuring out what’s new here.
At a minimum, there was nothing preventing it from just spelling out what was new and adjusting the headline to reflect it.
In the particular case, Bloomberg probably committed a foot-fault, not a flagrant foul.
In a larger sense, though, this can been seen as an abuse of readers’ time, which, these days, is no small thing at all.