Freedom of the Press Is Not For Sale

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KPCC 89.3 FM – Pasadena, CA

Thinking about buying a car this weekend? Commentator Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, says you might want to consider one unusual factor: whether the automakers’ advertising dollars are being used to make the case for more than your purchase. (Click here and scroll down to listen to audio of the commentary.)

Earlier this month General Motors announced it was pulling its corporate advertising from the Los Angeles Times because its local dealers were complaining about the paper’s reporting. This week Automotive News reported four major Southern California GM dealers have cut their Times advertising in half.

What’s got GM and its dealers so bent out of shape? GM corporate says it’s factual errors and misrepresentations about the company, although it won’t say what they are. One dealer has claimed there’s a general anti-GM spirit at the Times.

The buzz is that the controversy centers around the Times’s Pulitzer-prize winning auto critic Dan Neil, who called for the ouster of GM execs and panned their Pontiac G6 the same week GM pulled its ads.

But I don’t think that’s it. Neil didn’t say anything Wall Street and other media outlets weren’t already saying about GM’s failed business strategy of ignoring hybrids and investing in SUVs when gas prices are soaring.

Here’s what I think is really going on. GM is upset about how closely the Times has covered the car dealers’ wheeling and dealing in Sacramento. The paper was all over the story of how Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the car buyer’s bill of rights last year, after he took more than a million bucks from car dealers. And the Times did a story about how the governor axed a Department of Motor Vehicles chief who was coming down on car dealers. Times columnist Steve Lopez called the Guv’s policies, “Leave No Car Dealer Behind.”

It seems to me the Southern California GM dealers are trying to send a message to the newspaper and to the media at large — not about coverage of their products, but about coverage of their politics.

You see, right now is a critical time for dealers, because backers of a ballot initiative for the Car Buyers’ Bill of Rights are expected to announce any day enough signatures to send the initiative to voters. The bill of rights would prevent dealers from ripping off customers through shady financing deals. It would also give used car buyers three days to reconsider their purchase. On Monday the State Assembly will take up parallel legislation.

GM says it recognizes and supports the media’s freedom to report and editorialize as they see fit. But by pullings its advertising from the Times, the company is also making it clear the gloves are off. It’s true that, as GM says, the company and its dealers are free to spend their advertising dollars where they see fit. But what that translates to is, “get off our backs, and we’ll scratch yours.” As I see it, Freedom of the press is non-negotiable. If you agree, next time you’re greeted by the initials GM, answer with two of your own: N-O.

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
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