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THE HEADLINE reads “CBS Says It Won’t Run Ads for Rathergate Pic Truth.” Briefly, the network has passed on a multi-million-dollar promotion of Sony Pictures’ Truth, a drama concerning a scandal at CBS 60 Minutes II.
This reminds me of two similar bits of media mediocrity, one involving Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane, the other concerning 60 Minutes and its actions pertaining to the phony unintended acceleration of Audis. In fact, I played a minor, but I like to think illuminating, role in the latter.
Orson Welles produced, directed, played the title role and co-wrote the film Citizen Kane, a biopic of fictional newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane. The title character shares some traits with Welles himself, but primarily with the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. (One of the movie’s key mysteries involves Rosebud, in real life Hearst’s nickname for an intimate anatomical portion of his mistress.)
Evidently citizen Hearst was not amused. He prohibited any mention of the film in any of the Hearst newspapers, no trivial thing given that the movie had nine nominations in the 1941 Academy Awards.
For my second recollection, let the calendar pages flip to November 23, 1986. The CBS program 60 Minutes had a segment titled “Out of Control,” detailing alleged problems with the Audi 5000. Even when the brake was pushed (“I know damned well my feet were on the brakes, both feet were on the brakes,” claimed one driver), six cars accelerated into crashes. At the close of the segment, asked whether the Audi view had credence, a man in clerical collar says, “Absolutely not, I don’t believe it.”
The program also showed an Audi accelerator moving mysteriously on its own. Only later was it found that the car had been purposely modified to misbehave on camera.
Others attributed the unintended acceleration to drivers hitting the wrong pedal, and this is where I got involved. As I knew from track testing, any brake pedal of a car overwhelms its accelerator. (In acceleration testing an automatic-equipped car, you mash the brake, then simultaneously the gas—the car strains but doesn’t move. Release the brake, and timing begins with the car’s movement.)
I demonstrated this characteristic of an automatic’s “stall speed” to a safety-establishment academic, much to his surprise, in the R&T parking lot. Later at the track, even from 80 mph, a mashed accelerator and then simultaneously mashed brake pedal brought the Audi to a stop in fine style.
Apparently men of the cloth held more veracity than Bobby Unser (or me). Audi’s 1985 sales of 74,061 cars plummeted to 12,283 in 1991.
In 1989, both the U.S. National Transportation Safety Administration and Transport Canada, its north-border counterpart, concluded that drivers were hitting the wrong pedal. Canadian officials attributed the crashes to “driver error.” NHTSA called it “pedal misapplication.” Lawyers called it “pedal misdesign.”
More recently, in 2012, NHTSA published “Pedal Applications Errors,” a metastudy of such incidents between 1980 and 2009. A 1988 NHTSA study suggested a mechanism of potential driver error: “Some versions of Audi idle-stabilization system were prone to defects which resulted in excessive idle speeds and brief unanticipated accelerations of up to 0.3g. These accelerations could not be the sole cause of SAIs [Sudden Acceleration Incidents], but might have triggered some SAIs by startling the driver.”
CBS never acknowledged its shenanigans. In particular, the book 60 Minutes: 25 Years of Television’s Finest Hour, 1993, has no reference to Audi in its index. The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research summarized matters in January 1990 with Peter Huber’s “Manufacturing the Audi Scare.”
A class-action suit against Audi filed in 1987 was still working its way through a county court in Chicago in 2010. Plaintiffs charged that because of the controversy, their Audis lost resale value.
I find it distressing that their lawyers were suing Audi, and not CBS. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, Simanaitis Says.com, 2015