Writer's Block: Motoring Journalists and the Seduction of Power

By Glenn Ashton · 28 Nov 2012

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Picture: The Tizona Group
Picture: The Tizona Group

Read any newspaper, magazine or blog about cars and similar symptoms of a pernicious ailment are revealed: big powerful cars are potent, sexy, macho and cool. Green, economical or hybrid cars are underpowered, boring, made for bunny huggers, lentil eaters, housewives or any other cliché springing from the abridged motor writer’s thesaurus.

There is a serious disjuncture here, which needs to be remedied. It is time for motoring journalists to cease portraying themselves as reviewers of cars. They are in fact direct participants in the business of selling cars. These pampered journalists rely directly upon a powerful industry, which occupies 24 positions amongst the world’s 50 wealthiest corporations. I propose that motoring journalism is an affront to very concept of objective journalism, reporting and media transparency.  

Newspapers and journals have historically provided review and insight of new offerings to the public. The most familiar are film and book reviews. But the automobile industry assumes a potent life of its own amongst the global glossies. Here, more than any other sector, individualism has been suborned by the collective power of the corporate driven automobile market.

There is a significant difference between book and movie reviews and what passes for car reviews. While each is at risk of being influenced by personal bias, book and movie reviewers are nowhere as prone to the lullaby of corporate largesse and pampering as are car writers. While some book reviewers may enjoy relationships with publishing houses, they are far more likely to judge a book by its content than by the razzmatazz and goodie packs surrounding its launch. In fact razzmatazz launches are usually an anathema to book reviewers, triggering a reactive cautiousness.

On the other hand car reviewers have a parasitic reliance on manufacturers who unrelentingly woo them with all-expenses paid junkets, either in up-market resorts, or by extended loans of the latest models of car.

The more upmarket the marque, the more lavish the junket. In 2011 Porsche flew in more than 100 cars into my home town, Cape Town, so that more than 2 500 VIP (!) journalists and dealers from around the world could test these overpriced, niche brand machines in suitably pampered circumstances. This month-long extravaganza surely had a huge influence in not just building the brand, but in projecting precisely what the marketers wished. Not to mention its hideous environmental footprint – which obviously nobody did.

The reviewers were housed in top-notch hotels, fed at the best restaurants and treated to days of sophisticated schmoozing. In short they were led to associate the product with an aspirational, exclusive lifestyle of excessive consumption. The question which then begs itself is, how much chance is there of getting a negative review from anyone who attends these sorts of events?

Let’s extend our examination of the relationship between product and reviewer to another sector, that of the pharmaceutical industry and the medical fraternity. Not only is the medical industry tutored in the language of the pharmaceutical industry but as soon as doctors enter practice they are assailed by an endless stream of pharmaceutical industry representatives. Depending on where you live, various degrees of influence are still possible, either through biased medical reviews, sponsored visits to conferences, freebies or junkets related to launches of new medicines.

These practices have come under increasing scrutiny over recent decades. The pharmaceutical industry has been severely curtailed in how it is able to peddle its influence to the medical fraternity, depending on country. More importantly, dozens of critical articles have been published which examine this relationship and the ethics, morals and pitfalls inherent in this relationship.

Yet the relationship between the auto-industry and its reviewers continues, absent of any such self- or external reflection. Some research led me to precisely four articles examining the cosy alliance between the industry and its reviewers. One, published in the US based American Journalism Review (AJR), was deeply critical of the relationship. The second two were written by motor journalists, defending themselves from what they perceived as an AJR attack on their integrity. The other was from Finland, hardly a world leader in the auto industry with its 5 million people.

So then, should we trust car reviews? As with all things in this complex post-modern world there is more than one reality and sometimes these realities are mutually contradictory. Perhaps the ethical business of car reviews has become so complex it has entered a world of quantum uncertainty of Heisenbergian proportions? Well, no, not really – that would just be a cop-out.

Fact is, car reviewers are just humans, prone to the seductions of power and influence. Power is generally measured in horses in this industry and influence is allied with prestige, ego and the almost childlike attraction of speed, noise and the simplistic joys of motoring that propel fools like Jeremy whatsisname to almost obscene levels of popularity. And yes, even he - in fact especially he - is guilty of aforementioned bias, being an unrequited petrol head, a worshipper at the alter of horsepower.

There are certainly a few select reviewers who approach requisite levels of objectivity. Here we must consider true consumer organisation mouthpieces like the US Consumer Reports, which has exceptional standards of independence. Yet most car reviews are written by journalists whose opinions are far more in thrall to the interests of the car industry than of the consuming public.

These journalists turn us all into losers. They not only fall prey to the seduction of consumerism, they are unable or unwilling to admit how compromised they all are. Most importantly in this time of global warming the very concept of an environmentally sustainable motoring journalist is an oxymoron. Yes they may like the Tesla, but that does not make them green.

We all lose because the push to sell oversized, gas guzzling SUVs, overpowered sports and elite cars will inevitably eclipse the somewhat more esoteric and nuanced attraction of hybrid cars, of electric cars and of small, economical cars which safely and adequately get us from A to B. After all, this remains the primary reason for cars – a broadly accessible means of private transportation.

Instead these journalists choose to push cars as a panacea to heal the fragile egos of immature men and indulged women. We ought to take just about everything written about motorcars with a pinch of salt, or at the very least, with extreme circumspection. After all, if there were no cars, motoring journalists would be out of a job. Or extolling the beauties of public transport. There’s a thought…

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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28 Nov

Not Just Public Transport But Also Active Transport

Great points. all very relevant, but it's not just public transport that's a solution, but active travel - especially bikes. Not only environmental benefits, and reducing congestion, but massive public health benefits to a more active population.

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Robert Fysh
28 Nov

Motoring Journalism

Thank you Glen. It's time someone wrote about this incestuous relationship.

We have three or four reasonably objective writers in the field of motoring journalism; but mostly, motoring journalists are an extension of the motoring industry's marketing endeavours. Car companies budget for junkets and depend, largely on positive reviews.

Blame lies in the first instance with the writers themselves, and in the second, with the publications that buy their copy (or employ motoring writers). Advertising creates a significant flow of income, particularly and obviously, for motoring magazines.

For the writer, the benefits include the privilege of driving the latest and the best (or the worst) without the worry and costs of servicing the vehicle, or in some instances even paying for petrol.

However, on a scale of 1 out of 10, the pharmaceutical industry still enjoys an eight, if not a nine. A doctor, one would like to presume, is professionally qualified to assess the dope pedalled by industry representatives. They're not. Doctors are, to quote a doctor friend, "legalised drug pushers".

In both instances, we need to discriminate; ultimately, whether we buy car 'A' over car 'B', or take drug 'X' in preference to drug 'Y'. It is a choice and the more consciously we exercise these choices, the freer we will become. Nobody else can carry the blame.