Battle Behind The Screen

On Feb. 10, 8 million households tuned in to "Dateline NBC" and a parade of wrenching, now familiar images. A toddler killed at a church picnic, a comatose preacher--and a possible safety flaw in a car. Stone Phillips described how a series of glitches may make certain Ford vehicles accelerate out of control. The alleged defect is just a theory, Phillips said, unproved in the real world. But for Ford, which spends billions burnishing its image for safety-minded car buyers, the segment was a PR nightmare. In the broadcast, Ford's defense--a strongly worded letter--seemed mild. But behind the scenes, Ford was waging war.

It's been six years since General Motors won an apology from NBC News after "Dateline" rigged an explosion of a GM pickup truck. After the "Dateline" scandal the TV news magazines steered clear of Detroit, but lately they've gone back into overdrive. In the last three years the news mags, ever proliferating and with ever-growing appetites, have aired more than 50 segments on auto safety--some of them innocuous consumer tips, but many others featuring allegations of lethal product defects. Some of those shows have won awards and hastened design changes. But they're driving carmakers crazy. For every 15- or 30-minute on-air segment, producers and corporate PR staffs can spend hundreds of hours wrestling behind the scenes. Says one Detroit exec: "It's kind of a game, an obscene mating ritual," in which producers try to coax the company on camera, and the company tries to convince producers there's no story. That Feb. 10 "Dateline" episode, which entailed five months of battling, is a good example.

One of the carmakers' chief complaints is that plaintiffs' lawyers feed TV producers most of their stories. But in fact, "Dateline" producer Steve Eckert says the show first heard about Ford's alleged sudden-acceleration problem from news articles about lawsuits. Then they learned of an Ohio judge's ruling that blasted Ford in biting language. Eckert, 47 years old and a veteran investigative reporter, knew he was in for a difficult and contentious story. He'd been through it before. Says executive producer Neal Shapiro: "When you do a complicated story that's technical, you have complicated technical discussions."

Jim Cain, a former Lehman Brothers vice president who handles Ford's legal PR, first learned of "Dateline's" investigation last September, when a retired engineer tipped Ford after Eckert's assistant producer called him with questions. Eckert's team was exploring a theory by a safety expert who'd testified in lawsuits against Ford that if five separate components in Ford's cruise-control system fail simultaneously, a vehicle could suddenly accelerate. It's the role played by experts that makes carmakers so angry.

Take Byron Bloch, an auto-safety consultant and lecturer who has become a particular bete noire for the car companies. With messianic zeal, dragging satchels of documents behind him, Bloch pitches the shows relentlessly, telling them he can bring them two stories a week. "Have you seen his [document-filled] basement?" says Stanhope Gould, a producer who worked with Bloch on two Emmy-winning segments for "20/20." "I'm surprised the car companies haven't blown it up by now." Bloch, who is uninvolved in the Ford case, counters that he's genuinely trying to save lives--and complains the news magazines don't do enough car stories.

By the first week of November, Cain was playing a massive game of fetch. Eckert and his team would submit a list of technical questions, and Cain would consult Ford lawyers and engineers to craft a response. In a series of letters, he outlined Ford's case: the theory is "junk science" that's never occurred in the real world, and a government investigation showed that most of these accidents happen when a driver mistakenly stomps on the gas. When Cain wrote that some of Eckert's sources had a "vested financial interest" in the issue, Eckert fired back: "Clearly they do, as does Ford."

When Ford learned that Phillips was going to New Mexico to interview a mechanic who claimed to have found the defect, Ford hired a cameraman to videotape the interview, so it had an unedited version. They copied letters to media-watchdog magazine Brill's Content. When "Dateline" did a computer analysis showing Ford vehicles were more likely than other brands to mysteriously accelerate, Ford hired an engineering firm to poke holes in the study. Ford's most significant decision: not to put an executive on the air to make its case. Like taking the Fifth, that tends to make companies look bad, but the risks of appearing callous--or being hit with a smoking-gun document--on camera are high.

When Wednesday night arrived, Cain clicked on Channel 4. What did he see? "One of the most heavily qualified pieces of journalism I've ever seen," he says. Eckert retorts: "Investigative stories resonate more with serious viewers if they are qualified and balanced." A few weeks later Cain paged through the transcript, adding up wins and losses. "I see more in the loss column." True, "Dateline" did abandon the computer analysis (Eckert says it was edited out for length). But the show still had an impact. Ford received hundreds of calls from owners, and several irate letters. "How can you sleep at night?" read one. In March Cain wrote a six-page letter to "Dateline" listing "serious flaws, omissions and distortions." "Dateline" stands by its story.

They'll tangle again soon. Down at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, spokesman Tim Hurd can open up a weekly telephone log and find 11 calls from producers at "20/20," and an additional 10 from "Dateline," all involving different auto-safety episodes. On his desk at Ford, Cain currently has requests from "60 Minutes II" about safety defects with classic Mustangs, from "20/20" about stability issues in Explorer sport utilities and from "Dateline" about structural problems with conversion vans. Watch for them in prime time soon.