It was a General Motors pickup that exploded in flames. But it's the reputation of NBC News that's up in smoke.
In a statement read by "Dateline NBC" co-anchors Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips Tuesday night, the network ate humble peacock, acknowledging that its unscientific crash testing of two GM pickups in a Nov. 16 segment of the weekly news program was "inappropriate and does not support the position that GMC trucks are defective."
The statement admitted, in effect, that "Dateline NBC" had made numerous errors of fact and, even worse, had engaged in a form of news staging, an inexcusable act that violated a tenet of journalism ethics virtually carved in granite.
This extraordinary public confession and apology was one of the low moments at a network whose recent history has been tainted by disappointments and public-relations debacles, including losing David Letterman to CBS.
Pauley said that reading the statement was part of the network's settlement of a defamation lawsuit that General Motors Corp. had filed against NBC Monday, charging that the tests were rigged in an effort to portray the line of trucks as vulnerable to fiery explosions in side-impact collisions. GM was recently found negligent in the death of a Georgia teen-ager who died when the GMC truck he was driving exploded in flames after a crash. GM is appealing a jury's decision to award the youth's parents $105.2 million in damages.
Conducted for NBC by the Institute for Safety Analysis, the crash testing was part of the segment's investigation of charges that this particular line of GM vehicles bore dangerous design flaws. And indeed, one of the tested trucks burst into flames.
Under pressure, NBC News earlier this week admitted that remote-controlled incendiary devices had been mounted under the trucks, something "Dateline NBC" shamefully did not disclose to viewers.
On Monday, NBC News President Michael Gartner was defiant, defending the "Dateline NBC" story as "fair and accurate" when "taken in its entirety." On Tuesday, however--after realizing that GM had NBC by the throat--contrition and humility set in.
NBC "personnel" had known that the testing firm had mounted igniters under the trucks to "ensure there would be a fire if gasoline were released from the trucks," the statement said.
Ensure . . . a fire? That is staging.
Viewers weren't informed, the statement said, "because consultants at the scene told us the devices did not start the fire." NBC now agrees that using the incendiary devices "was a bad idea from start to finish" and that viewers should have been told about them, the statement added.
NBC also agreed with GM that "Dateline NBC" had misrepresented the speed of the trucks, incorrectly reported that a gas tank had been punctured and given an erroneous reason for gas leakage.
Other than that. . . .
Actually, the crash test sequence consumed only about a minute of the program's 15-minute segment on the GM trucks, which NBC continued to maintain was otherwise fair and balanced. "They had a good story until they did that," Don Hewitt, executive producer of "60 Minutes," said during a discussion of the issue on CNN's "Crossfire" Tuesday. "They had a smoking gun, and they shot themselves in the foot."
And in the process, shot others as well, for it's dark episodes like this that further chip away the credibility of the media. The dishonest behavior of "Dateline NBC" on this story is disturbing, to say the least, for when one ethical line is crossed, it's that much easier to cross another. And then another and another.
A better case scenario is that NBC News will now be the wiser. "We have . . . concluded," the statement said, "that unscientific demonstrations should have no place in hard news stories at NBC." Finally, they got something right.