Shoptalk: selling us a lemon

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

In the Jungian collective unconsciousness of newspapers, the most powerful myth driving the self-image of the greenest cub reporter and the crankiest curmudgeon at the top of the masthead is the notion that newspapers are Tough Guys who don’t take any guff from anyone. We brought down a president, pal, and ya know what? It was kind of fun. You bet we buy ink by the barrel, and we’ll spill a bunch your way if we think you’re outta line. You got a problem with that?

Sure, the space for corrections these days is fatter, if not necessarily more forthcoming, about just why there are so many

mistakes. But they’re honest mistakes. Apologize? What for?

Which is why it seemed to be big news recently when The Daily Nonpareil in Council Bluffs, Iowa, published a front-page, above-the-fold apology ? in its best-selling Sunday edition, no less.

Had the Nonpareil covered up for a serial murderer on its staff? Deliberately published the wrong scores of last week’s pro golf tournament because, you know, why should it look like Tiger wins them all? Nope, they were apologizing to a local auto dealer for a two- part series that included the reporter’s first-person account of being ill-served by the good folks at Lake Manawa Nissan/Kia.

Ah, of course. An auto dealer. That explains everything.

Newspapers pillory presidents, maul mayors, antagonize aldermen, and cudgel candidates ? but, boy, do they kiss up to any auto dealer that looks at them cross-eyed. Mr. Dealer, what’s it going to take to put me back in your good graces today?

Now as E&P’s Joe Strupp reported at the time, the Nonpareil case is a little complicated, and maybe an apology really was in order. The now-former reporter left an inaccurate impression about how Lake Manawa Nissan/Kia handles customers who don’t pass the credit check, and apparently made a couple of other errors. But a newspaper apologizing to an auto dealer is a dog-bites-man story.

When writer Blake Fleetwood took on the whole issue of how newspapers handle coverage of advertisers for Washington Monthly back in 1999, he discovered that every publisher or editor he talked to had a story about the local car dealer threatening or conducting ad boycotts because of some piece in the paper.

Remember the classic 1994 boycott by half the dealerships in Santa Clara, Calif., imposed on the San Jose Mercury News? Nothing the paper could do, including a public apology ? and even running a full-page ad listing “10 Reasons Why You Should Buy or Lease Your Next New Car from a Factory- Authorized Dealer” ? could mollify the dealers. By the time the Federal Trade Commission stepped in and declared the boycott illegal, the paper had lost an estimated $1 million. The object of the dealers’ wrath? A column of tips on negotiating a lower price when buying a car.

Most times, though, dealers need only huff and puff to get newspapers to roll over. It can’t only be because of advertising. Most newspapers routinely publish critical reviews of advertisers ranging from restaurants to consumer electronics retailers. What is it about auto dealers? Do they have seminars on how to bully newspapers?

Well, as a matter of fact, they do ?though of course, they don’t call it bullying. “Oh, yes, we covered this subject (of unflattering newspaper stories) both in presentations and networking at our conventions,” Gene Fondren tells me over the phone from Austin, Texas. “The [automobile dealer] association executives meet twice a year, and typically that’s a topic on our agenda.”

Before joining the law firm of Hilgers, Bell & Richards LLP in January, Fondren for 30 years headed the Texas Automobile Dealers Association, and served as president of the Automotive Trade Association Executives. He’s listened to a lot of angry dealers, and, he says, read a lot of unfair reporting: “I would get a call from a dealer very upset about a story either failing to distinguish between a franchise dealer and a non-franchise dealer, or simply tarring everybody with the same brush.”

Almost inevitably, he adds, the dealer wanted to organize a mass boycott. Fondren would gently remind them that that’s illegal, and offer to talk to the publisher himself. That usually solved the problem.

Fondren said he has the impression that dealers are getting along better with newspapers in recent years ? in part, he says, because the dealers themselves are behaving better in the sale and repair ends of their business. But self-censorship sure seems to play a part, too. Evergreen stories about auto dealer tricks of the trade are just not worth the grief. Indeed, as Fleetwood reported in his Washington Monthly story, as far back as 1992, one-third of journalists surveyed by Consumer Reports said they had “stopped running stories about cars and car buying because of friction, or anticipated friction, from dealers.” And for that, they owe readers an apology.

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