By Michael Miner
Sun-Times Going for Extra Mileage
A reader writes: "Every tire-recall story in the Sun-Times touts how the paper's disclosures led to Firestone's action. Every story in every other newspaper (including the Trib) fails to mention the Sun-Times. Is the Sun-Times getting shafted, or is it taking credit for something it shouldn't be?"
Actually, recent Sun-Times touting has been more scrupulously worded than the above letter suggests. The paper has pretty consistently settled for chronological glory--first we reported, and then things started to happen--without claiming to be the cause of those things. For example, an August 7 editorial noted: "Problems with radial tires came to the forefront in April when a Chicago Sun-Times investigation found that at least 43 deaths since 1990 had been traced to the rubber tread separating from the steel belts. Since then, 80 lawsuits have alleged that more than 30 deaths were caused by defective tires."
An August 10 article walked the line: "The NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] did not begin its investigation of the tires until after the Sun-Times published reports in April about many crashes and court suits involving them."
It wasn't until this past Tuesday that the Sun-Times crossed the line. The lead editorial began: "Last April, when Sun-Times reporter Mark Skertic began revealing a dangerous pattern of tire blowouts, Firestone offered that the problem wasn't with the wheels, it was with the drivers. The only thing wrong with the tires was that motorists weren't inflating them properly. 'You've got to take care of your tires,' a Firestone spokesman said."
Here was language not just careful but sly. Readers were invited to assume that Firestone had been defending itself against revelations about its tires that had been made by the Sun-Times. It wasn't. The case against Firestone did not originate in Chicago.
But there is reason, nevertheless, to praise the Sun-Times's reporting, and Skertic says it's not quite true that no other newspaper has acknowledged this. "Why isn't the Tribune giving us credit?" he asks rhetorically. "They never would, and I don't expect them to. But we were mentioned in the LA Times a couple of weeks ago as one of the first ones out there. I don't think anybody would argue that we were the first newspaper out there."
Out there with what? Reread today, Skertic's original stories of April 30 through May 2 fail to implicate Firestone in much of anything. He examined two tragic accidents involving Chicago-area families; but it was a Michelin tire that blew in a Texas accident that killed three children and a Uniroyal tire that failed in a Georgia accident that claimed three more lives. Other accidents he described more sketchily involved Goodyear, Cooper, General, and Yokohama tires--never Firestone. Skertic's focus was the entire industry; he reported that the tire industry's reaction to a pattern of accidents caused by faulty radial tires made it "impossible to say for certain how widespread the problem may be." When litigation followed an accident, Skertic reported, court documents were routinely sealed at the manufacturer's request. Furthermore, the industry was keeping federal regulators in a state of ignorance. NHTSA "requires tiremakers to send it the same service bulletins they send to tire dealers," Skertic wrote. But when he'd asked NHTSA how many service bulletins concerning problem tires it had received in the past five years, the answer was none.
Firestone barely registers in these early stories. A former Firestone official turned industry critic tells Skertic that the technology of building radials remains imperfect. A corporate spokeswoman suggests that tires often fail because their owners abuse them. A couple of court cases are mentioned in passing. Skertic might have told his readers, but didn't, about a cluster of Firestone-connected accidents that had been reported in Houston last February--KHOU TV had counted lawsuits to document a problem involving Ford Explorers and Firestone tires that NHTSA knew nothing about. "They ran their program," says a NHTSA spokeswoman, "and we started getting a number of calls, all out of Texas."
"Firestones are a story in Houston because a lot of people have died in Texas," Skertic explains. "We have very few Firestone deaths in Illinois or the surrounding states."
He goes on, "Subsequent to [KHOU's] story, which did lead to complaints to the feds, and our stories, which also led to more complaints to the feds, a federal investigation was opened."
Subsequent to or as a result of?
He can't say. "I can lay out the order things happened. The feds have never said we did this because of KHOU or because of the Chicago Sun-Times. They say we did it because of the complaints."
So KHOU said people were dying, and two months later Skertic said people were dying and the government had no idea what was going on. It's safe to say that NHTSA was stung by this accusation; it promptly sent certified letters to eight tire manufacturers demanding the data the agency hadn't been getting.
A more general letter already in the works addressed not just tires but safety seats and other car parts. On the heels of Skertic's articles the letter was promptly rewritten to focus solely on tires. "Mark Skertic's articles bumped the sending of this letter up a notch," says the NHTSA spokeswoman. "So it went out sooner than it would have gone out."
"It's been a good story for us," says Skertic. Because of what seems to be a strong connection between hot, humid weather and blown radials, he's puzzled that no major southern newspaper picked it up early on. But he has plenty of company today. "The Wall Street Journal and USA Today are very aggressive. They're throwing teams at it. We've still broken some stories though. We broke the fact that Cooper Tire has had similar conditions described in deposition testimony. Everyone is very fixated on Firestone. We've tried to take a more industry-wide view of it."
At a more perfect Sun-Times, Skertic and a squad of reporters would have ripped open secret court files, unearthed devastating corporate memos, flayed an inattentive bureaucracy, interviewed shattered survivors wherever they could be found (as the Tribune did on its front page last Sunday), and brought the national scandal back home to Illinois by linking defective Firestone tires to the 1994 strike at the company's plant in Decatur (an angle that wasn't pursued until August).
Instead, Skertic, working alone, made a contribution that was important but incremental. The story soon became a lot bigger than anything the Sun-Times could reasonably take, or be given, credit for. But he helped put it on the map.
Blinded by Brightness
If you're looking for a Sun-Times claim that's blissful hyperbole, savor last Wednesday's banner headline: "Illinois teens smartest in U.S."
How much fun it must have been to slap that across the front page. The facts of the matter, as reported by Rosalind Rossi, made interesting enough news, but nothing to stop the presses for. Seniors from all Illinois high schools averaged a better score on this year's advanced placement tests than seniors of any other state. Illinois' public high school students of all grades led the nation's public high school students in AP average.
In other words, two small, select groups of Illinois students outscored similarly small, select groups from other states in rigorous college-level exams. The scores had nothing to do with "Illinois teens" in any broad sense, as lousy students at lousy schools wouldn't have been taking AP courses to begin with. And they had precious little to do with who's "smartest," since Rossi made it clear that the key to success in the tests was preparation.
She skillfully brought in through the back door the reasons some educators object to AP courses in the first place, finding them the ultimate examples of teaching to the test.
Stevenson High School's AP coordinator told Rossi, "The AP class has a very well-defined curriculum, so it's very spelled out what kids have to know and be able to do."
And she wrote that Stevenson junior Sam Dolins, "who has three perfect AP scores under his belt, said scores of 4 and 5 [the highest] are common among the students in his classes. That's probably because teachers prepare kids so well by giving them lots of practice from past AP exams and coaching them on test-taking strategies, he said."
As John Dewey rolled over in his grave, state superintendent of schools Glenn McGee told Rossi he was "ecstatic."
Lieberman's Little Woman Problem
The time to deal with Senator Joe's problem with women was before it became a problem. That's why the top dog's operative was knocking on the senator's hotel door.
"Your faith has got you where you are today, which is pretty damn close to becoming vice president," he began, "so I speak to you with the utmost respect for everything that you believe."
"Thank you," said Senator Joe.
"However odd some of it might seem to the differently persuaded."
"What I've found," said the senator, "is that people are so relieved to have someone running for office with any convictions at all that it doesn't much matter what they are."
The op paid this insight the tribute of a thoughtful chuckle. "That's certainly true today. But will it be true tomorrow?"
"So far the press has contented itself with empty navel gazing about the phenomenon of a candidate who wears his religion on his sleeve. But sooner or later some rag is sure to take a hard look at the, uh, fine print." A suspenseful pause. "We understand the reason men and women are separated in your temple. It's so neither will be distracted from--"
He paused awkwardly. He didn't know how to pronounce "G-d."
"Go on any way you can," said the senator.
"From the Almighty by the torments of the flesh. This isn't something our own churches necessarily insist on, but who's to say that the purity of your religious fervor doesn't exceed ours? At any rate, our polling shows the average Christian swing voter takes the attitude, 'OK, if it works for them...'"
"Never sell the American people short," said the senator.
"Nothing to worry about there. And all our data says that as issues go, the prohibition on sex during menstruation is a complete nonstarter."
The senator had been in politics a long time, and he'd never been attacked on that one.
"However," the op went on, and somehow the senator knew what was coming next: "when we ask the question, Would you be more or less likely to vote for a candidate if you knew that every morning he thanks, uh, Gd, for not making him a woman, well, this could really hurt us with feminists."
"I'm afraid," said the senator, "the Talmud was not written yesterday."
"We're sure there's a perfectly reasonable explanation..."
"It is the duty of the man to perform mitzvoth, which is to say the commandments of God. More commandments are required of men because their inclination is to run wild and create havoc, while women are divinely endowed in the first place. The mitzvoth keep them in line. It is for the privilege of performing mitzvoth that the man is pleased not to be a woman."
"Works for me," said the op.
Uh-huh, thought the senator.
"But we're not sure the average swing voter on the street shares our theological comfort level. So what we might want to hammer out now, before any of this even comes up, is an impregnable fallback position."
"Something you're absolutely comfortable with."
"We're thinking along these lines--and feel free to put this in your own language--'I intend to remain an Orthodox Jew in order to reform from within.'"
"Reforming from within does have a long, distinguished political history," the senator reflected.
"Been used by the best," the op agreed.
"I'll get back to you on this," said the senator. "But seeing that it's Friday and the sun's going down..."
"Say no more," said the op.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.