‘SF Chron’ Writer Claims He Was Dropped For Panning Subaru

By: Joe Strupp

A freelance auto writer whose work regularly appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle claims the paper dropped his column as punishment for writing a negative review of a new Subaru model.

The review, penned last month by Robert Farago, slammed the Subaru B9 Tribeca, saying the carmaker had “put a vagina on the nose of an SUV” and described the design as “hideousness and piss-poor packaging.”

Farago said he submitted the column in early August after it appeared on his Web site, www.thetruthaboutcars.com. The Chronicle published it, but omitted some sections, including those mentioned above. Following its publication in the paper’s Friday auto section – which is an advertorial-driven publication – Farago said he received an e-mail from Chronicle Creative Director John Packowski informing him that the column would no longer be used.

“I asked if this had anything to do with the review and they wouldn’t tell me,” Farago told E&P. Packowski declined to comment today and referred inquiries to Chronicle spokeswoman Patricia Hoyt.

Hoyt said the paper’s dropping of Farago was part of a switch the Chronicle is making in its auto section coverage, away from advertorials and toward editorial content. She noted that, starting Aug, 16, the weekend auto sections would be produced through the news department, not the marketing department. She also hinted that a full-time auto writer might be hired to replace Farago.

“Editorial has the strength, staff and capability to take on this work,” Hoyt said. “It leaves the marketing people free to do more special sections, there has been a move to do more of those.” Editor Phil Bronstein confirmed the switch, but declined to comment further on it or Farago.

The paper’s Sunday travel section had made a similar change in June, Hoyt said, adding that the Thursday travel pages are also likely to be taken over by the newsroom before the end of the year.

When asked if the Subaru column had been part of the reason for the Chronicle cutting its ties with Farago, Hoyt said “that plays into it,” adding that Farago “is not incorrect in saying there is a tie-in with his review.” But Hoyt declined to elaborate.

Farago, who has been covering the automotive industry for two decades, writes reviews for several publications, including the Robb Report, from his Providence, R.I. base. He said several sources at the Chronicle had told him the newspaper dropped him after Subaru complained about the review. “I panned the car and it was a very harsh, negative review,” he said. “They just won’t tell me what happened and it annoys me.”

Dominic Infante, a product public relations manager for Subaru of America, told E&P that he had heard about some Subaru dealers in California complaining internally about Farago’s review. But, he said, the company never complained to the Chronicle.

“I know that there were some complaints to our regional guys from dealers, but I don’t know exactly what,” he said. “I know no one from our office complained.”

In an angry essay posted on his Web site last week, Farago claimed that he was a scapegoat for a Chronicle mistake. He contends that, first, one advertorial editor had told him the column would not run, but that another published it anyway. When the fallout from Subaru hit the paper, Farago claims, he took the heat by losing his part-time position. “This did not strike me as fair, honorable or just,” he wrote online.

Farago also claims Subaru stopped allowing him to test-drive cars for his reviews, a common practice he contends he had been allowed to do for years. Infante said he was unaware of such a move by the company.

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