Toyota's general counsel is calling on ABC News president David Westin to retract and apologize for a cocked-up story by America's Wrongest Reporter, Brian Ross. UPDATE: ABC News' response is below.
Last month, Ross filed a report featuring a test conducted by David Gilbert, an Illinois professor who claimed to have found a way to induce unintended acceleration in Toyotas without triggering an error code that would allow mechanics to diagnose the problem. The exercise was supposed to prove that it's theoretically possible for Toyotas to accelerate without command and then show no sign of having done so later on.
Ross himself took a little on-camera death ride. And to make it seem even scarier, he took a staged shot of a surging tachometer taken while the car was parked and stitched it in to the piece to make it look like it was happening while he was driving. ABC News later changed the online version of the story after we asked them about the fakery.
The story had other problems, according to Toyota: As the company demonstrated in a lengthy online rebuttal, Gilbert's test almost certainly can't be replicated under real-world conditions. He essentially rewired a Toyota to do what he wanted it to do—accelerate without command and without generating an error code—which is kind of like leaving the gas on a stove on for a few hours and lighting a match to prove that America's kitchens are littered with millions of ticking timebombs. Engineers from Stanford working on Toyota's behalf were able to rewire a Subarus, Honda, Chevrolet, and Ford in the same manner.
And Ross didn't disclose in his report that Gilbert had previously been paid as a consultant by Sean Kane, an investigator working for plaintiff's lawyers in lawsuits against Toyota, and has an agreement with Kane paying him $150 an hour for work "going forward." In the March 11 letter, a copy of which was provided to Gawker by a source close to Toyota, the company says Ross "singularly failed in his basic duty as a journalist to disclose material information about Professor Gilbert that would have directly influenced his credibility with the audience." It also accuses him of "rush[ing] out his report on the eve of important congressional hearings concerning Toyota" and failing to offer the company an opportunity to examine Gilbert's test before responding. Indeed, on February 23, the day after Ross' story aired, Gilbert testified before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and the death-ride came up.
Read the full letter, which ends with the veiled boilerplate threat that "Toyota reserves the right to take any and every appropriate step to protect and defend the reputation of our company and its products from irresponsible and inaccurate claims," below. A good reporter knows when he gets letters like this that he's doing his job. Unfortunately, Brian Ross is not a good reporter. And he's been off the radar at a particularly sensitive time—Ross hasn't covered Toyota since the furor over his report erupted. An ABC News spokesman says he's in the midst of a "long-planned vacation," and that ABC is "in receipt of Toyota's letter. Our lawyers are looking at it, and we will respond." UPDATE: We've obtained ABC News' response. It's posted below Toyota's letter.
And here's the response, which repeats the news organization's prior acknowledgment that the faked tachometer shot was an "editorial error" but declines to retract or apologize. ABC News says Gilbert's test was "legitimate and newsworthy" whether it was flawed or not, and that it pointed out Gilbert's work for consultants hired by plaintiff's attorneys on the day after Ross' broadcast, which begs the question as to whether Ross was aware of it on the day of the broadcast.