Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Who Is David Cole, And Why Does The Times Quote Him So Much?

There's a fascinating, peculiar piece buried in the business section today, debunking a recently-cited statistic by bailout supporters -- that the beleaguered auto industry should be saved because it supports one in 10 American jobs.

Kudos to the Times for doing a little nitpicking itself. It's right; the statistic comes from old numbers no longer valid in the current climate.

But the piece unwittingly raises questions about the Times's ongoing and inappropriate dependence on an auto-industry-supported research group for analysis of the ailing American car business -- and, in particular, on its chairman, David Cole.

Today's story was written by Catherine Rampell, who contributes to the Times's "Economix" blog and who first published these findings there on Monday. It casts doubt on figures attributed to the Center for Automotive Research. In her Monday blog post -- though not in the version published in the print edition today -- Rampell offers links to several stories in the Detroit News, Washington Post and other reputable news organizations that used the figure.

Rampell points out, correctly, that the study uses data from 1998 to 2001, and also lumps in jobs that wouldn't be eliminated even if a car company went bankrupt -- for example, jobs in the car-wash industry.

But what Rampell doesn't address in her story -- nor do the multitude of Times reporters who cover the car industry -- is her paper's own dependence for information on the source of that data. It came from the Center for Automotive Research (CAR!) in Ann Arbor, a "nonprofit research group" that, in fact, gets its funding in part from its ties to the industry it studies. Its stated mission, as noted on the Guidestar website that tracks nonprofit groups, makes it clear that the center depends on the auto industry's survival for its own.


But only occasionally will the Times temper its mentions of the group with caveats such as the one that appeared in Rampell's story this morning, which mentions its "ties to labor and government." Most stories identify it only as a nonprofit research firm, failing to add that some of its funding comes from sources within the industry, such as labor unions and trade groups.

And while the group doesn't acknowledge getting money from the auto companies themselves, who else would benefit from its development of new automotive manufacturing technologies?

The center has been cited in 137 different Times stories since 2001, most of them quoting David Cole -- who has been variously identified by Times reporters as its "director," "executive director," "president," "chairman" and "head." (CAR's website give his title as "chairman.") Cole, an engineer and Ph.D. who holds an academic position at the University of Michigan, has close ties to the industry; his father was a manager at Chevrolet, and his long list of credentials includes work in automotive design and marketing.

But these days, Cole's full-time task appears to be as a commentator on the auto industry for reporters in need of a quote -- especially at the Times. He's certainly a knowledgeable source, having worked alongside auto executives for years. But is he an objective analyst of the auto business, given his dependence on its survival for his own?

Twice since Saturday, Times reporters have quoted Cole on auto-industry problems.

Last Sunday, Katie Thomas put a Cole quote in the third paragraph of her story on the potential trickle-down effect of the auto industry's problems on the world of sports:

But as G.M. faces a financial crisis that has executives pleading with Congress for a federal bailout, many are wondering how far the company’s troubles will extend into the sports industry, which is already struggling to attract advertisers and sponsors in a weakened economy.

“It’s one of those trickle-down effects that people don’t look at,” said David E. Cole, the chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, a nonprofit research organization. “It has already hit hard.”

This Tuesday, Detroit bureau chief Bill Vlasic quoted Cole in his piece on beleaguered GM chief Rick Wagoner. This time, Cole's quotes landed him the coveted kicker spot -- in large part because of Cole's three decade-long relationship with Wagoner. In Vlasic's story, the reader is given no information about the center, or Cole, aside from the name and title.

If Mr. Wagoner cannot sway Congress this week to come to G.M.’s aid, the company will be forced to hang on until President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January and presents his own auto bailout strategy.

“That might be the most rational approach, to see what type of plan Mr. Obama and the new Congress will take,” said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Mr. Cole, who has known Mr. Wagoner for nearly 30 years, said he hopes that any decision on his future with G.M. is not taken lightly by officials in Washington.

“I hope they take a deep look at what G.M. has done to fix its business, make an assessment, and then pass judgment,” he said. “Knowing Rick, whatever is best for the company is what he will do.”

On November 8, Vlasic quoted Cole in support of the bailout plan -- again, with no background given to inform readers of his point of view, or qualifications to comment -- aside from his title atop an official-sounding organization.

About three million American jobs are directly tied to the Detroit automakers, said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

A federal bailout, Mr. Cole said, is essential to prevent the rippling economic impact of a failure of one or more of the Detroit companies.

“The bottom line here is that on a cash basis, the cost of keeping these guys going is less than the cost of a collapse,” Mr. Cole said.

This isn't to suggest that Cole isn't qualified to comment on the car industry or its problems. Clearly he brings knowledge and experience to conversations with reporters, making him an indispensable source in times of crisis.

But the Times ought to give its readers some perspective when quoting industry sources, particularly ones whose incomes derive from the very business they tout. Cole -- and the Center for Automotive Research -- ought to be more properly identified when given a platform in the Times to comment on the car business. With the endless cacophony of opinions and ideas at play right now, readers need all the help they can get in sorting through the coverage.


Here's an interesting footnote on Catherine Rampell, whose first New York Times byline appeared in August of 2008.

Rampell, who wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Washington Post before joining the Times, was a columnist for the Daily Princetonian in March of 2007 when she wrote a prescient piece called "True Confessions of an Obamaniac." In it, Rampell said that when asked in job interviews who she liked in the 2008 presidential field, she replied:

"Right now, I support Barack Obama, and for entirely irrational reasons."

This certainly didn't win me any points. Instead, it elicited some nervous, somewhat disapproving laughter, as they waited for me to redact the comment. But, I had told the truth.

Rampell went on to explain her position, and even acknowledged the potential problem of a prospective journalist supporting a specific candidate:

My recent job interviewers may have looked down on me for confessing to my irrational, pro-Obama bias when I claim to be a rational, objective journalist. But I suspect they — if they're reading any of the same publications that I do, anyway — might be affected by the same foolish affliction. And the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

The second step is to stop writing about it in newspapers.

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