Regardless of whether one loves or hates Toyota, a herd of huge elephants in the living room of this controversy has thus far been completely ignored in news reports and analyses. These include, first, a pair of related conflicts of interest underlying the government’s role, and, second, the disreputable records of several key “expert” witnesses in the mounting crusade against the besieged automaker.
The conflicts of interest begin with the fact that the federal government is itself the controlling owner of General Motors, having invested billions of U.S. tax dollars in one of Toyota’s two main American competitors. There’s no credible way to separate federal policy decisions from their commercial impact on both Toyota and GM as long as the government is simultaneously prosecutor, judge and jury. At the very least, the government must divest its GM shares as soon as possible.
The other conflict of interest is with the government’s major partner in GM ownership, the United Auto Workers union. Aside from the fact that Toyota has for decades successfully resisted UAW attempts to organize the Japanese automaker’s U.S. work force, the union is among the most powerful special interests doling out campaign contributions to congressmen sitting in judgment of the stricken car company.
Nineteen of 36 Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee — where the anti-Toyota campaign is focused this week — cashed sizable UAW contributions to their 2010 re-election campaigns, including the present and immediate past chairmen, Henry Waxman and John Dingell. Are Democrats who have long claimed that money corrupts politics now so brazen as to claim they are exempt from such special interest influences?
Then, there are the familiar names from the past reappearing now at the center of the swirling Toyota scandal, especially Joan Claybrook and Clarence Ditlow. Claybrook was administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration under President Jimmy Carter. Her chief claim to fame at NHTSA was forcing automakers to install air bags despite warnings that the technology needed further development to avoid killing infants and children. At least 65 deaths resulted, including infants and children who were decapitated by the exploding devices.
Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, is mainly known for endorsing NNBC’s use of rocket igniters to cause rigged explosions in GM pickups. The object was to “prove” the network’s sensational allegation that some GM pickups were dangerous. When the allegation was exposed as groundless, NBC apologized profusely for the simulations. Despite their records, Claybrook and Ditlow are often cited as “auto safety experts,” including 19 times just in the past week in The New York Times and The Washington Post.
If journalists insist on quoting Claybrook or Ditlow as experts on Toyota’s alleged safety defects, they ought to at least give readers the whole story about the pair’s disreputable pasts.