In an extraordinary public apology, NBC said Tuesday night that it erred in staging a fiery test crash of a General Motors pickup truck for its “Dateline NBC” news program and agreed to settle a defamation suit filed by the auto maker.
“We deeply regret we included the inappropriate demonstration in our ‘Dateline’ report,” said a statement read by NBC News co-anchors Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips Tuesday night. “We apologize to our viewers and to General Motors. We have also concluded that unscientific demonstrations should have no place in hard news stories at NBC. That’s our new policy.”
The apology, still being negotiated within five minutes of air time, was part of a settlement of a lawsuit GM filed Monday over film used in a Nov. 17 segment of “Dateline.”
In its apology, NBC admitted that it had used incendiary devices to ensure that a fire would erupt if gasoline leaked from the truck being hit by a test car. The 15-minute segment was addressing critics’ charges that GM’s full-size pickup trucks built between 1973 and 1987 are unsafe because their gasoline tanks are on the sides of the trucks, outside the frame.
GM has staunchly denied that the trucks have safety problems.
NBC’s public apology, which completely reversed statements the network made Monday defending the program, is yet another in a long series of setbacks to the financially troubled network. It is already reeling from the collapse of its prime-time entertainment lineup and the embarrassing loss of late-night talk show host David Letterman to rival CBS. Once the dominant TV network, NBC’s ratings are down sharply from last season, and it has slipped to third place overall among the major networks.
Just as important, disclosures of the rigged demonstration has already damaged the credibility of NBC News. Many of the network’s reporters and producers privately professed embarrassment over the incident, and media experts were roundly criticizing NBC’s tactics as highly questionable and unethical.
“It’s a classic case of damage-control public relations on the heels of a devastating lawsuit,” Everette E. Dennis, director of the Freedom Foundation for Media Studies at Columbia University, told the Associated Press.
“Whether or not NBC did anything improper,” he said, “they did not inform the public of the somewhat artificial nature of the test that they ran.”
That failure damaged NBC’s credibility in an otherwise fair, well-documented report, Dennis said.
But, although NBC’s apology is a victory for GM as it seeks to battle a potentially huge liability problem, it will not end the auto maker’s legal and public-relations woes.
GM still faces many lawsuits by relatives of victims killed in crashes involving the pickups. Meanwhile, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is investigating whether to recall 4.7 million GM pickup trucks. And consumer advocacy groups have mounted a major publicity campaign to pressure GM into recalling the pickups.
Estimates of the cost of recalling the pickups range from $300 million to $1 billion.
GM does not need any more financial setbacks. In February, the auto maker announced special accounting charges for 1992 that will likely result in a $23-billion annual loss, the largest in U.S. corporate history.
NBC agreed to pay the cost of GM’s investigation into the crash demonstration on the original “Dateline” program but declined to say how much that would be. As to whether any disciplinary procedures will be taken against NBC News staff, network spokeswoman Tory Beilinson said that was “a premature question, but we’ll now investigate what went awry.”
Beilinson stressed that only one minute of the 15-minute segment had been in dispute.
In a separate statement, GM Executive President and General Counsel Harry J. Pearce said GM accepted NBC’s apology.
“In view of NBC’s announcement, and because it is our business to design and manufacture great cars and trucks and not to be preoccupied with litigation, we are tomorrow dismissing the defamation suit that we brought Monday,” Pearce said.
GM’s defamation lawsuit against NBC charged that the broadcaster rigged the crash in an effort to portray GM pickups as susceptible to fiery explosions in side-impact collisions. The nation’s top auto maker alleged that the test crash was part of an “orchestrated campaign” by plaintiffs’ lawyers and others to unfairly sway public opinion concerning the safety of GM’s pickups.
Pearce charged that NBC and the Institute for Safety Analysis, which conducted the tests, “grossly misrepresented” how the crash tests were conducted. He charged that they used “remotely controlled incendiary devices” to spark a fire in one test. The use of igniters was not disclosed on “Dateline.”
GM’s lawsuit was announced five days after an Atlanta jury awarded $105.2 million to Thomas and Elaine Moseley, whose teen-age son was killed when the GM pickup he was driving exploded in flames after a collision. The jury found the auto maker negligent in the design of the trucks.
The Center for Auto Safety claims 300 deaths are attributable to the vehicles. That is more than 10 times the number killed in the Ford Pinto, which was recalled in the 1970s after the government determined that its fuel tank could explode in rear-end crashes.
Times staff writer John Lippman contributed to this story.