--NYT Company Policy on Ethics in Journalism.
In a series of page-one stories in recent days -- including the lead story in today's paper -- the NYT has tried mightily to cover the massive Toyota recall with its usual aggressive fervor: long takeouts with anecdotes, interviews and angles meant to suggest scoops to its readers.
But what these stories have failed to disclose is that the NYT been consistently late to report on details of the unfolding scandal.
The stories have also failed to credit other publications with reporting that first appeared elsewhere, tacitly misleading readers into thinking its stories represent scoops.
Much of what the NYT has reported in the last week or so has been previously and extensively reported on in other newspapers first -- most notably in the Los Angeles Times, a favorite whipping boy of the NYT when it comes to the suggestion of coverage compromised by budget cuts.
Last January, in one of his regular "Talk To The Newsroom" interviews, NYT executive editor Bill Keller went on an arrogant rant against the Los Angeles Times. Keller's tirade was notable not only for its condescending tone, but also its failure to acknowledge that his own paper was facing wrenching cuts in its own coverage:
To reach its current payroll, The L.A. Times had to eviscerate its reporting and editing staff. Not that many years ago, The L.A. Times had approximately as many journalists as The New York Times. It had a robust network of foreign bureaus, and a truly competitive Washington bureau, and a free-standing book review. It now has approximately half the journalists of its heyday, has subjected its foreign and Washington bureaus to wrenching cuts, folded its book review, and so on. I've read The Los Angeles Times since I was a college student in Southern California, I admire the editors who are trying to weather a period of ruthless ownership, and I still follow its coverage. But it is not what it once was.
But a look at the NYT's Toyota coverage -- in the wake of a superior series of stories in the Los Angeles Times beginning last October -- shows clearly that the NYT is engaged in a systematic effort to catch up with its competition.
In doing so, the NYT is sticking with its long-held, informal policy of not crediting other newspapers for their scoops, despite ethics rules that clearly dictate otherwise.
Consider last Monday's page-one story by Detroit reporter Bill Vlasic, "Toyota's Slow Awakening to a Deadly Problem."
Vlasic launched his story with a chilling lede that told, in detail, the saga of a tragic August 2009 Lexus S350 accident -- one that resulted in the death of an off-duty California traffic cop and his family.
Given the story's placement above the fold on page one -- atop a 2,061-word piece -- a NYT reader would be forgiven for thinking that the lede was a fresh anecdote to introduce a story with original reporting.
But that lede -- in only slightly different form -- had already appeared as the opener to a Los Angeles Times page-one piece nearly four months earlier, on October 18, 2009.
Here are the two ledes. First, the NYT from last week:
The 911 call came at 6:35 p.m. on Aug. 28 from a car that was speeding out of control on Highway 125 near San Diego.
The caller, a male voice, was panic-stricken: “We’re in a Lexus ... we’re going north on 125 and our accelerator is stuck ... we’re in trouble ... there’s no brakes ... we’re approaching the intersection ... hold on ... hold on and pray ... pray ...”
The call ended with the sound of a crash.
The Lexus ES 350 sedan, made by Toyota, had hit a sport utility vehicle, careened through a fence, rolled over and burst into flames. All four people inside were killed: the driver, Mark Saylor, an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer, and his wife, daughter and brother-in-law.
It was the tragedy that forced Toyota, which had received more than 2,000 complaints of unintended acceleration, to step up its own inquiry, after going through multiple government investigations since 2002.
Now, the Los Angeles Times, from October 2009:
The 2009 Lexus ES 350 shot through suburban San Diego like a runaway missile, weaving at 120 miles an hour through rush hour freeway traffic as flames flashed from under the car.
At the wheel, veteran California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor desperately tried to control the 272-horsepower engine that was roaring at full throttle as his wife, teenage daughter and brother-in-law were gripped by fear.
"We’re in trouble. . . . There’s no brakes," Saylor's brother-in-law Chris Lastrella told a police dispatcher over a cellphone. Moments later, frantic shrieks filled the car as it slammed into another vehicle and then careened into a dirt embankment, killing all four aboard.
The tragedy Aug. 28 was at least the fifth fatal crash in the U.S. over the last two years involving runaway Toyota and Lexus vehicles made by Toyota Motor Corp. It is also among hundreds of incidents of sudden acceleration involving the company's vehicles that have been reported to Toyota or the federal government, according to an examination of public records by The Times.
Toyota has blamed the incidents -- apart from those caused by driver error -- on its floor mats, asserting that if they are improperly installed they can jam open the accelerator pedal. A month after the Saylor crash, Toyota issued its biggest recall in company history, affecting 3.8 million vehicles in model years as far back as 2004. But auto safety experts believe there may be a bigger problem with Toyota vehicles than simply the floor mats.
The Los Angeles Times's story -- by reporters Ralph Vartabedian and Ken Bensinger -- was the second in a series of scoops last fall that questioned Toyota's attribution of its problems to faulty floor mats, and suggested the possibility of fundamental problems.
Its stories -- including an extensive page-one investigation, "Runaway Toyota cases ignored," that ran on November 8, 2009 -- lay out a sequence of events that the NYT only recently has begun to explore in detail.
Indeed, its page-one story today -- "Toyota's Pattern Is Slow Response On Safety Issues," carrying the bylines of three NYT reporters -- echoes the Los Angeles Times's findings in a page-one story from December 23, 2009, headlined "Toyota found to keep tight lid on potential safety problems."
Here's what the Los Angeles Times reported that day:
Even as its sales have soared, the company has delayed recalls, kept a tight lid on disclosure of potential problems and attempted to blame human error in cases where owners claimed vehicle defects.
And here's what the NYT reported today:
Toyota's recalls and disclosures in recent months are part of a lengthy pattern in which the automaker has often reacted slowly to safety concerns, in some instances making design changes without telling customers about problems with vehicles already on the road....Toyota initially faulted drivers....
The NYT story, before the jump, notes that Toyota knew for years about problems with the steering mechanism on the Hilux Surf -- sold in the U.S. under the 4Runner name.
The NYT reported:
And in early 1996, Toyota engineers discovered that a crucial steering mechanism could fracture on the Hilux Surf, which was sold as the 4Runner in the United States. Toyota started installing a stronger version on new models. Yet it took Toyota eight more years to start recalling Hilux Surfs and 4Runners built before the 1996 design change, after an accident involving an out-of-control Hilux Surf prompted a police investigation. Toyota received a rebuke from the Japanese government and was ordered to overhaul its recall system.
Here's how the Los Angeles Times reported the same set of facts in December, making the same point as today's NYT story about Toyota's slow response:
A decade later, Toyota recalled about 330,000 vehicles in Japan after a 2004 crash there -- caused by a broken steering linkage -- seriously injured five people. The vehicle in the accident, a Hilux Surf, was sold in the U.S. as the 4Runner. Other truck models sold here, including the Toyota 4x4 and T100 pickups, also used the same linkage, a steering relay rod. Despite that, the company told NHTSA in an October 2004 letter that it would not conduct a U.S. recall because it had not received information here indicating a problem with the part. Documents entered in four lawsuits filed in Los Angeles this year, however, show that Toyota had received numerous consumer complaints dating from 2000 and had replaced dozens of the parts under warranty. The documents also show that Japanese police, in an investigation of the defect, said that Toyota employees had known about the problem since 1992 and should have initiated a recall immediately.
It isn't just the Los Angeles Times that has provided fodder for NYT reporters looking for ledes to spice up page-one "scoops."
Bill Vlasic's Friday page-one story, "Lawsuit Over a Crash Adds to Toyota’s Difficulties," led with yet another anecdote that looked original -- the story of the death of Flint resident Guadalupe Alberto, after the sudden-acceleration crash of her 2005 Toyota Camary into a tree.
But that lawsuit had already been reported repeatedly in the previous week, in publications ranging from Business Week to to the Flint Journal to the Detroit Free Press.
Here's the NYT's Vlasic version:
The trip was one that Guadalupe Alberto had made many times before, just a few miles through her neighborhood to the small grocery store her family had owned for years.
It was a Saturday afternoon, April 19, 2008, and Mrs. Alberto, a 77-year-old former autoworker, was driving her 2005 Toyota Camry. Within blocks of her home, witnesses told police, the car accelerated out of control, jumped a curb and flew through the air before crashing into a tree.
Mrs. Alberto was killed instantly, leaving her family stunned at how such an accident could happen to someone who was in good health, never had a speeding ticket and so hated driving fast that she avoided taking the freeway.
Her car was not among the millions of Camry models and other Toyotas recently recalled for sticky accelerator pedals. And it also did not have floor mats at the time, which were part of a separate recall.
Instead, the crash is now being looked at as a possible example of problems with the electronic system that controls the throttle and engine speed in Toyotas.
Here's the same story, written by Eric Fish as his lede in the Flint Journal, published on January 31, nearly a week earlier:
Guadalupe Alberto’s 2005 Toyota Camry careened down West Copeman Boulevard in Flint at 80 mph, weaving in and out of traffic before hitting a tree, sending her car airborne.
Her car eventually smashed into another tree, hitting it 8 feet off the ground.
The 77-year-old Flint woman — a business owner, wife, mother of four and grandmother of 10 — was killed instantly.
Alberto was known as a careful, conscientious driver, so her family looked to the mangled black Camry for answers.
Toyota last week recalled a record 2.3 million vehicles for defective gas pedals that may be responsible for sudden acceleration causing 19 deaths. Her family believes Alberto is also a victim.
“It’s very painful to think of her death this way,” said Lilia Alberto, Guadalupe’s daughter. “I kind of knew there had to be something wrong. My mother was not a fast driver; she was never a fast driver. She was always very, very careful.”
In the last four months, the NYT has not once mentioned the Los Angeles Times's investigation into the Toyota crisis -- or, for that matter, the work of any other publication. But there's little of news value that has made it into the NYT before appearing elsewhere first.
During that same period, the NYT's coverage of the Toyota scandal has been sporadic and thin, presumably prompting the recent spate of catch-up stories by its automotive team.
The issue isn't so much an ethical matter as a failure of enterprise. The Los Angeles Times stories first focused the American public's attention on the Toyota problems, and has kept it there with its aggressive reporting.
We look forward to the possibility that NYT reporters will now begin to break exclusive stories on this significant and ongoing story, one of the most massive recalls in corporate history. But in the meantime, we look forward to seeing the NYT -- at Bill Keller's instruction -- give credit where it's deserved: to the Los Angeles Times, the paper that led the way.