Journalists used to live by the maxim that if your mother told you she loved you, you had to “check it out.” That sort of unbending skepticism was the backbone of credible news reporting — the “journalism of verification.”
But in today’s hypercompetitive news climate, reporters sometimes revert to a yellow-journalism standard — “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story” — when covering something that perfectly fits their preconceptions. Such is the case with the firestorm surrounding defects in various Toyota models, most recently the Prius.
Take the reporting on Prius owner James Sikes and his supposedly wild ride on a California freeway occasioned by a sudden and inexplicable acceleration. As Sikes told it — and an uncritical media has endlessly repeated — he tried everything he could think of get his Prius to stop, even as it zoomed at speeds up to 94 mph.
It was only thanks to help from a California Highway Patrol officer that Sikes was finally able to control his rogue Prius and bring it to a stop. Because the audio of his 911 call has been endlessly played on cable television, Sikes’ terror during the incident is easily heard and genuine beyond dispute.
Well, maybe not. Renegade investigative journalist Michael Fumento — who has made a career of debunking various fashionable trends in the scientific, medical and political worlds — looked into Sikes’ explanation of the incident and came away convinced that it doesn’t add up. Writing in a Forbes.com op-ed, Fumento said Sikes claimed to have jammed repeatedly on his brakes, only to have the Prius continue accelerating.
That flies in the face of what anybody who has ever attended a professional drag race knows: Even 600-horsepower muscle cars can be held at a dead stop as their monster engines scream and their rear tires disappear in billowing clouds of acrid blue smoke. If a 600-horsepower hot-rod Mustang can be held back with its brakes, why can’t a Prius with barely a sixth as much power?
Fumento also makes a persuasive case that Sikes could not have, as he claimed, reached down and tugged the gas pedal in a vain effort to slow down his Prius. Sikes said he did, despite telling the 911 dispatcher repeatedly that he was afraid to remove either hand from the steering wheel. Due to the ergonomics of the Prius controls, Fumento said Sikes could not have grasped the gas pedal with his hand. And then there is the matter of Sikes’ bankruptcy and $700,000 in outstanding debts, including $20,000 on the Prius, that were unearthed by the Jalopnik Web site.
Whatever happened to that journalism of verification?