Review: “Tragic Indifference”

Tragic Indifference: One Man’s Battle with the Auto Industry over Dangers of SUVs, By Adam Penenberg, HarperCollins, 2003, $25.95.

It could be that Tragic Indifference: One Man’s Battle with the Auto Industry over the Dangers of SUVs , simply arrived to long after the Firestone tire-recall fandango for many people to care about the story. But journalist Adam Penenberg’s new book about plaintiff lawyer Tab Turner’s crusade against Ford and Firestone for what he believes was faulty design is a worthwhile read for the exhaustive reporting done, which is organized in a fairly compelling way.

Penenberg, known infamously as the Forbes reporter who exposed New Republic journalist Stephen Glass as a fraud, focuses literally on the trials and tribulations of Clyde “Tab” Turner, the Little Rock, Arkansas, lawyer who has done the most damage against Ford and Firestone in cases representing clients who were hurt or killed in rollover accidents in Explorers outfitted with Firestone tires, as well as cases involving rollover deaths of the Ford Bronco.

By now, the story is well-known to most. Ford instituted a replacement program of Firestone tires on its Explorers in August 2000, followed by a broader replacement program in spring 2001. Along the way, the companies were tarred with a broad brush of negative publicity; Ford CEO Jacques Nasser was forced to resign with the Firestone debacle playing no small part in his demise; the Firestone brand has been severely wounded; and Ford no longer buys Firestone tires for its vehicles.

Almost 300 lives and more than 800 serious injuries have been blamed on the Explorer/Firestone combination. Opinions as to whether the companies were culpable for faulty design are as numerous as the accidents themselves. By focusing on Turner, neither company smells very good in the book. But Penenberg’s scholarship is impressive, and his storytelling often compelling.

It is fashionable to demonize plaintiff lawyers as grubby money-chasers out to exploit corporations willingness to settle cases rather than leave them in the hands of emotional juries. Like much of the reporting surrounding the Explorer/Firestone debacle, Penenberg’s book explores the many short-cuts and compromises Ford made in developing the original Explorer at a time when sport-utility vehicles were taking off as America’s new family wagon. Rather than developing a new SUV from scratch, Ford adapted the chassis of the Ranger pickup. When there were concerns about the Explorer’s propensity to rollover, even during pre-launch testing, one of the remedies decided upon to keep the tires on the road was to lower the recommended inflation of the tires. That caused tires, the theory goes, to overheat and fall apart, especially in hot climates. Ford did an investigation and made its case that a flock of bad tires could be traced to one plant in Decatur, Illinois, Ford maintained inflation wasn’t the issue. Firestone maintained the lower inflation level Ford insisted on was the culprit. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, along with financial corners Bridgestone-Firestone was taking to cope with relentless cost cutting Ford was forcing on its suppliers.

An excerpt of the book shows some of Penenberg’s storytelling skills:

From afar, Ford’s international headquarters in Dearborn seemed more glass than structure, a glistening 14 story steel-latticed box with about 3000 windows. On the 11th floor, executives manned telephones in the company’s “war room,” fielding questions from frantic consumers and journalists on deadline. Ford president and CEO Jacques Nasser ordered its creation in late July 2000 at about the same time Sean Kane broke the news that Ford had recalled Firestone tires in Venezuela, the Middle East and Asia. Starting out in a 20-foot by 20-foot conference room accessible to Nasser via a private staircase from his office, it quickly became the daily meeting place for a task force of engineering, finance, legal, manufacturing, purchasing, and public affairs officials. As the crisis deepened, it became an “amoeba,” as Jason Vines, Ford’s vice president of corporate communications and Nasser’s right-hand man, put it, taking over several additional conference spaces and spreading to other floors.

Although he hadn’t been at Ford long, Vines was the ideal choice to orchestrate the company’s media strategy. Once a true believer at Nissan, and before that at Chrysler, Vines was now Ford tried and true. Hired six months earlier to serve Nasser, Vines brought with him a strong rapport with reporters and reputation as a consummate professional. At the first hint of trouble, he whipped his 250-member public relations team into a streamlined organization with a well-honed message.

While Firestone, overwhelmed and under-staffed, sometimes took days to get back to reporters on deadline, Vines made sure journalists were given prompt and thorough attention. Under his direction, Ford PR supplied its staff a list of potential questions and company-approved answers governing his actions abroad and distributed stacks of charts and graphs and data to back up the automaker’s claims. He dispatched Ken Zino, a testy corporate spokesman with an engineering background and safety communications manager Sara Tatchio to Nashville to baby-sit Firestone PR and keep Ford’s interests in their face. They quickly achieved such control that reporters who dialed into telephone conferences at Firestone were often directed to Ford publicists.

Vines created a list of four principles that top management agreed would guide the company’s actions through crisis, handwritten on a sign outside the war room and printed on index cards to “remind everyone why we were doing this.” “Safety” was the number-one priority, and promise to work around the clock to find solutions the second. Third was “Be open and candid with all of our communications,” and the fourth: “Protect Firestone.”

….At an August 2000 meeting in Dearborn between Ford and Firestone, Firestone representatives alleged that the low 26 psi tire pressure Ford recommended, combined with fast driving in hot weather, was at the root of the problem. But after Ford showed the tiremaker its own data that the automaker had fed into an in-house supercomputer, which indicated the failures were concentrated in 15-inch ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires manufactured at the Decatur factory, Firestone’s representatives “shit their pants,” according to Vines.

Of 2500 complaints involving eight categories of tires, Ford found that 2030, or 81 percent, involved the 15-inch P235/75R15 models, which included the Firestone ATX and Wilderness tires. Of the almost 1700 reported complaints of tread separation on 13 different size tires, 84 percent occurred on Ford Explorers, Broncos and F-150 and Ranger pickup trucks equipped with 15-inch ATX tires. “They basically…called a time out,” Vines said. “They went out and huddled, came back in and said, ‘Okay, we’ll recall them.”

But it wasn’t until Vines was prepping for the joint recall announcement in Washington that he encountered the tiremaker’s intransigence first-hand. Christine Karbowiak, the company’s vice president of public affairs [and a lawyer], advised him that Firestone wouldn’t participate in a live press conference. She suggested instead a one-way satellite feed, no graphs, charts or data, no questions from the press.

Vines told her she was crazy. “You’ve got to show people’s there’s some science behind the decisions,” he said. Millions of tires were covered by the recall and millions weren’t. Even people within Ford found it confusing. How were reporters let alone consumers going to make sense of it?

Eventually Karbowiak gave in on taking questions at the press conference, but refused to budge on providing supporting material. At the 11th hour, she re-introduced the issue of low-tire pressure, which Firestone insisted on incorporating into the joint announcement

Penenberg does a good job of weaving the narrative of the story and controversy with well-reported bits of backroom drama and detailed description gathered from interviews with some of the mid-level players in the thick of the story.

While the jury is out on whether many potential readers are interested in reliving the story, Hollywood seems to think the story of Clyde “Tab” Turner’s fight against the two companies may make a good Erin Brockovich-type story, because Michael Douglas has optioned the story for a movie and plans to play Turner himself. Detroiters have wagged about other casting possibilities such as English actor Bob Hoskins as Nasser and comedian/actor Denis Leary as Vines.

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