Sunday, March 14, 2010...8:30 am

Modern media is rubbish #2: the Toyota hoax

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Here’s a nice dissection on the Forbes web site of a Toyota Prius accelerator fault hoax that has hit US news media.

Apparently, James Sikes was driving a Toyota Prius in California when the accelerator jammed – the same fault that is said to have caused the death of a family in a Lexus and prompted the recall of a dozen Toyota models numbering more than a million vehicles.

After reaching 94mph and trying to prise the pedal off the floor with his hands, the deadly journey was only halted when a California Highway Patrol Car braked in front of him and the two cars slowed down together. Here’s one video report:

One big problem is that Sikes’s story was false. But the bigger problem, according to the Forbes story by Michael Fumento, is that the mainstream media simply took it at face value. At no point did any of the initial reports investigate any of Sikes’s claims:

Virtually every aspect of Sikes’s story as told to reporters makes no sense. His claim that he’d tried to yank up the accelerator could be falsified, with his help, in half a minute.

Fumento dissects all the other claims, including the dramatic claim that the patrol car had to brake right in front of the Prius to bring it to a halt. In fact the patrolman just ordered Sikes to put on the brakes and that’s what did the job – something the media coverage reported he wasn’t able to do.

Why wasn’t the mainstream media more critical of this not-terribly sophisticated hoax? Mainly, it seems, because the media was in a “Toyota feeding frenzy”. The news agenda was to knock a big – foreign – car manufacturer and not let the truth get in the way.

In fact it fell to web sites like Gawker.com and Jalopnik.com to dig the dirt on Sikes and employ some real journalistic scepticism. Oh, and some of those despised and parasitical bloggers also started picking holes in the story.

The perpetual cry of beleaguered media types is that journalism is vital to hold power to account. But to do that it really needs to wield some kind of capacity for critical, sceptical analysis.

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