When faced with the tragic consequences of unethical business practices, the media are quick to project the problem on an entire industry, then run to the government for help. NBC’s “Today” show exemplified the approach in a May 12 segment on car safety.
“Well you probably think if a car is totaled in an accident it ends up in a junkyard, but many wrecks are actually patched back together and resold to unsuspecting consumers,” Natalie Morales reported. “Experts say it’s a $200 million-a-year scam that is putting lives at risk.”
Morales focused on a couple whose 18-year old son died in a crash while he was riding in a salvaged truck. The truck’s airbags had been replaced by paper towels, according to Morales.
“The Ellsworths want a national system that warns consumers if a vehicle has a dangerous past,” Morales said. She then turned to the left-wing “consumer group” Public Citizen, which is suing the federal government over a national salvaged car database.
“We’re demanding that the Justice Department immediately issue rules requiring reports by the insurance, junk and salvage dealers of all vehicles that they handle that are junked or salvaged,” Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook said, “and that they create a database of this information that is available to the public.”
Morales reported that a law passed in 1992 required such a database, “but “now more than 15 years later, that database still doesn’t exist.” But it already exists in the private sector.
Morales’s pre-taped segment didn’t mention Carfax.com, a Web site that allows car-buyers to find vehicle history reports based on unique Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs) for $25 – a small price to pay for some peace of mind. Some 32,000 used car dealers offer free Carfax reports, according to Larry Gamache, the company’s communications director.
Carfax reports pull information from state departments of motor vehicles, insurance companies, auctioneers, inspection stations, fire departments and a number of other sources to create comprehensive history reports. They highlight serious problems with cars, including salvage records. The company even offers a vehicle buyback guarantee if its information turns out to be incomplete or inaccurate.
Yet Morales wasn’t satisfied with the private sector solution. “Experts say it’s a good idea to look at your car’s, your vehicle’s history by going to Web sites like Carfax.com,” she said in a post-segment interview with co-host Meredith Vieira, “but that’s not going to tell you everything. Best protection is for you to get that car looked at, inspected by a certified mechanic.”
It’s good advice – certainly a certified mechanic might catch a problem a vehicle history report might not. But why would a federal salvaged vehicle database will be any more effective than Carfax?
“We do think that as it’s currently envisioned, this national database, you know, may be a little bit too late in coming,” Gamache told the Business & Media Institute. “The federal government passed this law 15 years ago, never got any traction in developing a national system and Carfax, you know, in the absence of government action created the system and it exists, and quite honestly we think has made the information available to consumers in a quite an impactful and cost-effective way.”
Guilt by Association
Morales’s report also treated that one family’s tragic story as if it were representative of an entire industry. The media have shown a tendency to focus on worst-case examples that are not representative of most Americans’ life experiences, and the segment on car safety was no different.
Morales never mentioned going after the person who replaced the airbag with paper towels, causing the tragedy that cost the Ellsworth family the life of their son died. No discussion of criminal or civil action was included in the story.
Instead of focusing on the real culprit – whatever mechanic or dealership incorrectly repaired the air bags – Morales projected that incident upon the entire used car industry by suggesting that just about anyone driving a used car could be at risk.
But that’s not necessarily the case, according to Gamache. “In and of itself that’s not a problem,” he said of the increase in salvage sales. “A car can be salvaged for any one of a thousand reasons, but the consumer should the right, or the ability to find out whether that car has been salvaged, have it inspected by a mechanic … to be sure they have all the information they need.”
He said Carfax estimates 2.5-3 million salvaged cars are sold among the 35-45 million used cars sold annually. But he said there’s no way to tell which of those cars are salvaged safely or are being openly disclosed to consumers.
“You’ve got to be smart when you shop,” Gamache said. “Buy the car that’s right for you. Ask the tough questions from the dealer or the seller, ask for a Carfax vehicle history report … and get the car checked by a mechanic.”