Press Box

The Washington Post Blows the Blowout Story

From the beginning, the Ford Motor Co. has dodged blame for the crash-and-rollover tendencies of its Explorer SUV. It’s not an Explorer design problem, Ford repeatedly says. It’s a Firestone tire manufacturing problem.

On Monday, Oct. 9, the Washington Post put the onus squarely on Ford with a devastating Page One investigative story, “Explorer Has Higher Rate of Tire Accidents.” The piece culled crash statistics to show that Explorers had “a higher rate of tire-related accidents than other sport-utility vehicles, even when the popular SUV is equipped with Goodyear tires.” [Emphasis added.]

But by Wednesday, Oct. 11, the Post backed down from its Goodyear-Explorer scoop. The paper could have framed its Page One as a retraction and titled it “Washington Post Story Rolls Over and Explodes” or “Ford Produces Evidence That Explorer Not Necessarily a Deathmobile.” Instead of acknowledging that it blew the story, the Post’s article, “Ford Cites Flaws in Tire Data,” beats up on the car company for providing bad data.

As the Oct. 11 semi-retraction reports, the paper’s scoop was based on the mistaken assumption by both Ford and the Post that every one of the 3,397 Explorers investigated by the Post (for its Oct. 9 story) that had accidents were running factory-installed Goodyear tires. Not so. “Ford now says the plants specified as exclusively using Goodyear tires installed Firestone tires on about 4 percent of vehicles they produced during 1995-97, the period covering the Post analysis.”

That means that as many as 135 of the Explorers examined in the Post’s accident study could have been running the tainted Firestores. How many of the 3,397 Explorer accidents were tire-related? Just 16, according to the Post follow-up story. Because accident reports don’t identify the brand of tires on the crashed vehicle, it’s almost impossible to determine whether the handful of tire-related accidents happened on Goodyear or Firestone rubber.

In its rush to judge the Explorer a deathtrap, the Post engaged in what social scientists call “confirmation bias.” The paper and the majority of the press have accepted that the Explorer is deadly. If by some chance Ford’s official methodology had somehow exonerated the Explorer, you know the Post would have reflexively rejected it. But because the Ford methodology confirmed the view that the Explorer kills no matter what rubber it’s spinning, the Post unquestioningly accepted the company’s findings.

The upshot of the Post’s second story is the negation of the first. We don’t know in fact that “Explorer Has Higher Rate of Tire Accidents.” If the Post were edited and written by mensches, we’d be reading a piece that was more about how the paper made a mistake and less a cover-your-ass piece about Ford’s mistake.