It’s a bleary Wednesday morning in October, and I’ve just exited Highway 401 near Belleville, Ontario, in my rented 1998 Ford Contour. The car shudders, the brakes squeak, and the engine vibrates as I stop on a deserted rural route and wipe fog from the windshield. I look for a sign telling me which way to go. Suddenly, a midnight blue Infiniti Q45 swooshes through the fog. Its curvaceous body passes in a heartbeat, moving down the road and around a bend. It should be going where I’m headed, so I follow.
A few minutes later, I arrive at the small town of Shannonville and the Shannonville Motor Sport Park. Usually, the park’s racetrack is home to car and motorcycle racing, but today there’s no derelict Detroit metal to be seen. Instead, the park is packed with brand-new Mercedes, Audis, Jaguars, and just about every other new car for sale in Canada.
It’s also packed with the men and women who write about them. They’re here for TestFest, the biggest gathering of car writers in the country. Sponsored by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) and in its 20th year, TestFest assembles virtually every automotive journalist in Canada over four days for a look at the following year’s crop of new vehicles.
Not long after I arrive, I hop up into the passenger seat of a beast of a machine, a white Dodge Ram. Sitting in the driver’s seat is Ted Laturnus, a stocky, middle-aged automotive journalist with a reputation for speaking his mind. He answers questions about automotive journalism, and then I ask him whether he thinks that the free trips car writers accept from car companies might influence their objectivity. He slams the steering wheel.
“All I can say to the people who think we shouldn’t be taking free trips is, ‘Go fuck yourself. Come back to me when you’ve grown up.’ They don’t know the side of reality to this business. I do. I’ve been in it for 20 years. I have no patience for that sorta thing. It’s the way the game is played.”
Not that long ago, the game of automotive journalism in Canada was decidedly minor league-one-page advertorials leading into the car classified ads. In 1987, Dennis Morgan, special sections editor of The Toronto Star, decided to increase the paper’s automotive coverage, and launched the Wheels section. The section grew to 20 pages in its first year, and became one of the paper’s top revenue-generating subsections. The Star‘s success prompted many imitators, including The Globe and Mail in 1998 and the National Post in 1999. Today, many small-town papers even have auto sections. It seems most newspapers have discovered what the Star found out 15 years ago: when it comes to advertising, those who make and sell cars have deep pockets.
Unfortunately, the newspapers’ pockets, by comparison, don’t seem very deep at all. The vast majority of auto writers in this country are freelancers, and they typically make between $200 and $400 per week, if they’re published regularly. They also have virtually nonexistent expense accounts.
Laurance Yap is a regular freelancer for the Star‘s Wheels section. He has to supplement his modest income from auto reporting by writing other types of articles and doing freelance computer consulting. “Automotive journalism doesn’t pay very well, but people do it because they love being around cars.”
At TestFest, it’s clear Jim Kenzie-the premier reviewer for Wheels-loves cars. “Now I’ll show you the difference between a BMW M3 and other cars,” he says as I hop in the passenger side of the neon green convertible. Once he checks the specifications and makes some adjustments to his seat and mirrors, we’re off to the racetrack. After receiving clearance, we merge out to the pebbled asphalt, and the fun begins. Kenzie revs the engine almost to redline before shifting, bringing a muted roar from the Beemer’s engine and gluing me to the green leather seat. He tromps on the gas: 100, 110, 120 klicks pass instantly. As Kenzie steers the car into a corner, he comments that its steering feels a bit light, before squealing around to the next straight stretch. As we go into the curves, he describes how to take corners on a racetrack like a race driver, making a straight line from the outer edge of the first curve to the inner edge of the second. After a lap, he glances over and tells me to let him know if I’m going to throw up. I do feel queasy, but also have a delightful sensation of speed and excitement pulsing through my body. I just grin, say I’m fine, and we’re off again. Toward the end of lap two, he expresses regret that he can’t spend the whole day on the track with the M3. As we take it back to the testing area, Kenzie says that everyone wants to do his job, “to fly off to Europe and test Porsches and Beemers. That’s until they have to come home and live on the salary.”
While newspapers may not be willing to spend much money on their automotive journalists, car manufacturers have no such reluctance, as is made especially clear with their lavish press trips. Top car reviewers such as Kenzie can receive anywhere from 30 to 40 invitations a year for new model launches around the world. With these invitations come airfare, accommodation, meals, and receptions, all paid for by car companies.
Like Ted Laturnus, the Post‘s automotive freelancer David Booth has no problem with the way the game is played. A 19-year veteran of automotive and motorcycle writing, he’s circled the globe for his craft, amassing an impressive roster of destinations. He’s stayed at some of the world’s finest hotels, including the Hotel du Cap on the French Riviera, usually associated with Europe’s jet set. And he’s done it all on the car companies’ dime. Booth knows the reason he’s treated so well is that car makers want positive coverage of new models. But it doesn’t bother him-he claims his objectivity can’t be affected by a few business-class plane tickets and a room at the new Hotel Savoy in Cannes.
As well as free trips, companies also hand out generous gifts on occasion. Mark Richardson, a Star editor who also writes a freelance motorcycle column for Wheels, was the recipient of one such present. In August of 1999, BMW flew Richardson to Calgary for a press event the likes of which he had never seen before. Upon arrival, he was wined and dined, put up in a four-star hotel, and given a special $2,600 motorcycle suit-a gift to the journalists for coming, so BMW said. “It was funny to see all the journalists’ eyes light up when they brought the suits out,” chuckles Richardson. He was unsure of the ethical problems that might arise from accepting such an expensive gift, but after he returned from the trip, the Star‘s ombudsman told him to keep the suit if he wanted. He used the suit and eventually featured it in a story. (In the article, he compared it to other suits, saying that it was excellent but prohibitively priced.) After writing the story, Richardson was called into the editor’s office and forced to give the suit back or risk termination. He gave it back.
David Booth went on the same trip, was given the same suit, and still has it. “Yeah, I kept mine. It doesn’t bother me. I never gave it a second thought. My price is way higher than a suit.”
That kind of thinking does trouble some journalists outside the field. Peter Desbarats, former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of Western Ontario and a specialist in media ethics, believes that by accepting free trips and gifts, auto journalists seriously compromise their integrity. “This obviously affects their ability to write critically about cars.” Desbarats compares auto journalism to the bad old days of newspaper reporting in the late 1950s, when some journalists sold out to industrial or political organizations. He views auto sections as an anomaly these days, and says readers shouldn’t expect objective coverage.
However, the editors of the large newspapers’ car sections insist their content is not affected by the automotive industry’s PR machine. Patricia Cancilla, the editor of the Post’s automotive section, Driver’s Edge, maintains no writers for her section have been swayed favourably by car companies, but also stresses that car reviewing is a highly subjective practice. She says her reporters must provide clear reasons for why they love (or hate) a particular vehicle. She also says the editorial and advertising sections at the National Post are completely removed from each other, and that advertiser complaints rarely get back to the reporters themselves.
Adam Gutteridge has been the editor of the Star‘s Wheels for just over a year. Like Cancilla, he says his writers are objective about the cars they review, and are never affected by the companies treating them well. “When I read our reviews, they are not characterized by hype, they are neutral and factual. If I felt someone had been influenced [by car companies] then they wouldn’t be working here.” Gutteridge mentions one example of a Wheels review that got the paper into trouble with an advertiser. In 1995, when Ford released its Contour/Mystique-a model heralded in auto journalism circles as a huge step forward for the company-Jim Kenzie criticized its suspension and gave it a less-than-enthusiastic review. This so upset Ford of Canada that the company pulled its ads from the section for three weeks. Nonetheless, the Wheels editor stood by the opinion of his reviewer. Gutteridge says that Wheels can deal with a temporary loss of revenue because it has established itself as an authority on automotive reporting in Canada and has a wide enough readership and ad base to emerge from such instances unscathed.
Alex Gillis, however, begs to differ about the Star‘s willingness to stand up to the car industry. In 1996, he took a job writing monthly columns and articles on car-related consumer issues for Wheels. He left two years later, largely because he was disgruntled with how much advertisers tried to quash or influence his opinion. He recalls one instance in August 1998 when he wrote a brief description of one of Canada’s first online car-sales websites, autodepot.ca, saying it was strange and disorganized. The company didn’t like his review and threatened to sue. When Gillis tried to write a more comprehensive piece on the site, his editor killed the story, saying it would be unwise to run it. The autodepot.ca site eventually went belly-up in July 1999, causing many customers to lose money. Gillis’s career as an auto journalist went belly-up too. He quit the Star in 1998. “If anyone ever tells you that car advertisers don’t influence content,” says Gillis, “they’re either lying through their teeth or they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
If there’s a problem-at least with the optics-in accepting free trips and gifts, there’s a similar problem with the way the writers get the cars they’re going to test. Most of the time, the reviewers test cars long before they become available to the public, which means they’re driving vehicles that are delivered to them by the manufacturers. So unlike, say, the world of restaurant reviews, in which a restaurant never knows when a reviewer may drop in and sample its fare, car manufacturers know exactly which vehicles will be evaluated, and they make them the best they can be. “The test vehicles can be much more carefully prepared and put together than the consumer ones might be,” says Globe and Mail reviewer Richard Russell. “In that sense, you get the very best.” But Russell says there’s no other way. “Unless you get someone who has $10 million who can afford to buy a new car every week, you have to test the ones provided by a manufacturer, not a dealer. And the company is going to make damn sure that all the bits are working properly.”
Contrary to what Russell and most auto journalists think, there is another way to write about cars without taking free trips or testing the special pre-production models. The Automotive Protection Agency, headquartered in Montreal, prides itself on offering objective coverage of cars to Canadian consumers through its annual publication, Lemon-Aid. It does this by not accepting freebies, renting new models instead of borrowing them, and always testing cars in comparison with others, rather than in the glitzy environment of new model launches. By doing this, claims APA president George Iny, it can offer coverage with a level of integrity not seen in the daily papers.
Iny sees many problems with the way the mainstream media approaches car journalism. One of the biggest is the lack of useful criticism. “In most car writing, it’s well known that you can criticize a cupholder but can’t criticize design or safety flaws.” He says that car writers are so dependent on manufacturers that if they are ever critical, they risk getting blacklisted from the launches and other events that are so crucial to the articles they write. Iny suggests that the big newspapers could remedy this problem by giving auto journalists a significant expense account-maybe $200,000-and allowing them to test cars independently. Until they do, he says newspaper car sections will continue as little more than entertainment, which isn’t good if consumers base their buying habits on what’s written in them.
Newspaper car reviewers do admit that their reviews are consistently upbeat, but they say it’s because most cars coming out these days are good. And while that may be true, it’s also true that some cars are better than others. One car that wasn’t so good was the 1995 Chrysler Neon, which suffered from serious reliability problems. Yet the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada collectively named it Car of the Year, which helped the car score impressive sales in Canada. Of course, newspaper car reviewers can’t always predict a car’s future reliability, especially when they often have only a week to drive it and are working under relatively tight deadlines. But it seems clear that when an automaker’s previous models are known to be unreliable, auto journalists should consider the company’s track record before offering strong recommendation. Yet while AJAC’s members are expected to evaluate acceleration, handling, and fit and finish, there is no space on their evaluation forms to factor in reliability of past models.
What results might be described as sins of omission. For example, in a recent review of the 2002 Kia Sedona minivan, David Booth of the Post wholeheartedly praised the vehicle, especially its engine. Booth wrote that “the Sedona is an impressive accomplishment, made even more so by the fact that it’s Kia’s first effort to break into the competitive minivan market.” What he didn’t say in his review, and what Lemon-Aid did, is that the vehicle’s reliability is unknown, and that previous Kia models have rated lower than average. Similarly, Malcolm Gunn, a reviewer whose articles are carried in smaller Canadian newspapers, wrote glowingly of Land Rover’s Freelander mini-SUV. “Based on this junior ute’s impressive amount of all-terrain features, combined with its significant comfort content, even Her Majesty and the rest of the Windsor clan should be content to thrash about their estates in this wee beast.” What he failed to mention is that the Freelander has a pitiable reliability record and was the subject of a large recall in Europe, where it’s been sold for four years.
The sun is casting long shadows over Shannonville. The racetrack is closed and cars are being detailed for tomorrow. Most of the journalists have gone for the day. No one I interviewed agrees that the field of automotive journalism has some basic flaws. One writer said that my article should focus on how objective car writing is.
There are still a few writers at the AJAC tent whom I didn’t get the chance to talk to earlier. One is Michael LaFave, a reporter for the Canadian car magazine World of Wheels. When I ask him for his thoughts on car writing, he’s surprisingly candid. “If car journalists are paid off by car companies, who’s going to care?”
I want to answer “the readers,” but I’m not sure he’d care. So I climb into my rented Contour and head out for the highway.