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Solved by verified expert:Read the short-attached article on “The Times and General Motors: What went wrong?” Consider the story and decide what kind of decision-making occurred that resulted or caused issues for GM’s management (use your class readings to analyze). What changes need to be made at GM – their possible structure, culture and assumptions about stakeholders (and perhaps have been made) to ensure that this mistake won’t be repeated.Howard, D. (2016). The Times and General Motors: What went wrong?. Cogent Arts & Humanities, Vol 3, Iss 1 (2016), (1), doi:10.1080/23311983.2015.1134030 – THE ARTICLE HAS BEEN ATTACHED
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Darmstadter, Cogent Arts & Humanities (2016), 3: 1134030
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/23311983.2015.1134030
CULTURE, MEDIA & FILM | CRITICAL ESSAY
The Times and General Motors: What went wrong?
Howard Darmstadter1*
Received: 20 October 2015
Accepted: 16 December 2015
Published: 18 January 2016
*Corresponding author: Howard
Darmstadter, 1159 Rock Rimmon Road,
Stamford, CT 06903-1210, USA
E-mail: hdarmstadter@gmail.com
Reviewing editor:
Lincoln Geraghty, University of
Portsmouth, UK
Additional information is available at
the end of the article
Abstract: In 2014 General Motors Company (GM) recalled more than 2.6 million
automobiles to replace a defective ignition switch that had been implicated in more
than a dozen deaths. Despite early problems with the switch, it took GM almost
11 years to initiate the recall. The recall announcement led to a firestorm of media
criticism. Much of that criticism, however, was badly distorted. I concentrate on
The New York Times’ coverage because it is a trusted news source, and because
it devoted substantial resources to the story. Problems with The Times’ coverage
were likely magnified in less reliable media outlets. I describe what we know about
the switch problem and General Motors’ attempts to solve it, and try to explain the
forces—mainly psychological—that warped The Times reporting. These forces—love
of a story with heroes, villains, and a moral dimension; willingness to view group
human activity on the model of individual human activity; overly simple theories of
human motivation; a tendency to attribute beliefs and desires to organizations—are
not unique to The Times or this particular story, and can thus be expected to affect
media reports of other corporate decision-making.
Subjects: Journalism; Journalism & Professional Media; Media Psychology; Media Studies;
Newspapers; Newswriting and Reporting
Keywords: General Motors; ignition switch recall; New York Times; organizational decisionmaking; media biases
1. Introduction
On 7 February 2014, General Motors Company (GM) announced a safety recall that eventually covered 2.6 million vehicles from model-years 2003 through 2007 (Valukas, 2014, p. 226). The recall
was to replace a defective ignition switch1 implicated in more than a dozen deaths.2 (The recall
mainly involved Chevrolet’s Cobalt model, but also included Saturn Ions, Pontiac G5s, and other GM
models; I’ll refer to them all as “Cobalts.”)3 Despite early awareness of problems with the switch, and
of the fatalities, it took GM almost 11 years to initiate the recall.4
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PUBLIC INTEREST STATEMENT
Howard Darmstadter is a retired philosophy
professor and lawyer with more than 70
publications in law, philosophy, psychology, and
public policy.
The New York Times’ coverage of General Motors’
recall of defective ignition switches in over 2.6
million cars was badly distorted. The reporters
ignored the only detailed independent study
of the problem, instead filling the vacuum with
stories that reflected their own preconceptions.
These biases are not unique to The Times or the
particular story, but can be expected to warp
media coverage of much organizational decisionmaking, especially where complex technical issues
are involved.
© 2016 The Author(s). This open access article is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution
(CC-BY) 4.0 license.
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Darmstadter, Cogent Arts & Humanities (2016), 3: 1134030
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/23311983.2015.1134030
Reactions to the announcement were loud and critical. Congressmen called for investigations, and
Joan Claybrook, a former director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency (NHTSA), opined
that “General Motors should be criminally prosecuted for covering up this safety defect.” (Jensen,
2014b. Here and throughout, dates for New York Times stories refer to the byline date, not the date
the story appeared in the print edition). While there was extensive media coverage, one media outlet
“flooded the zone” (to use a former editor’s metaphor): In the year following GM’s initial announcement, The New York Times website carried over 200 stories on the defective switch and its
consequences.5
I focus on The Times’ coverage for several reasons. For one, The Times is a trusted source—a “paper of record.”6 Times reporters are serious and scrupulous professionals. If there are deficiencies at
The Times, then there are likely to be larger problems at lesser organizations. Moreover, no other
mass media outlet covered the story as extensively. The Times’ team of reporters had ample opportunity to understand and explain what happened and to correct any mistakes. Nonetheless, despite
these moral and material advantages, The Times’ coverage was substantially flawed.
Newspaper accounts of complicated business stories necessarily involve some distortion, as journalists struggle to boil down a complex reality into compact daily reports. Almost everyone I know
who has been involved in events that were reported in the press has been dismayed by the oversimplifications. The reporter, however, must mediate between a complex web of events and a readership that seldom has the patience for the full account. The trick is to separate the essential structure
of events from the enveloping mass of less important detail.
But the flaws in The Times’ reporting were not simply oversimplification, or reporting the trivial
while missing the essential. Rather, the coverage erred in distorting the facts to meet certain flawed
assumptions and practices that the reporters brought to the story, assumptions and practices that
not only characterize The Times’ coverage of this particular story, but frequently control the reporting of business events in the media generally. The presence of these almost-predictable distortions
raises questions about the reliability of the media in a free society. But before we can understand
what The Times, and by extension the media, did wrong, we have to understand what GM did wrong.
2. The Valukas report
About a month after the recall announcement, GM directed the Chicago-based law firm of Jenner &
Block to prepare “an unvarnished account” of why it took so long to recall the Cobalts (Valukas,
2014, p. 5). Jenner & Block’s effort was headed by Anton R. Valukas, a former federal prosecutor. On
29 May 2014 Mr. Valukas delivered a 276-page report (plus 49 pages of appendices) to GM’s Board of
Directors, who made the report public on 4 June.
The Valukas report is likely to be the best account we’ll get of what went wrong at GM. Valukas’s
team had “unfettered access,”7 reviewing millions of internal documents8 and interviewing over 230
people (some more than once), including all the important players at GM.9 However, the Valukas
team did not commission any new engineering studies, so what we know about the crashes is what
GM knew, as ferreted out by Valukas and his team. As Valukas reports, the engineers at GM (eventually) came up with a plausible theory about the role the defective switch played in the crashes, a
theory that explained most of the accidents they studied.
One can legitimately be suspicious of the Valukas report. It was commissioned by GM’s management, was put together quickly, and ended up absolving GM’s top officers. (It did, however, lead to
the firing of some 15 GM employees, not all of them low-level (Stout, Ruiz, & Ivory, 2014).) But the
GM engineers’ theory presented in the Valukas Report has not been seriously questioned, and is thus
the only theory currently on offer; anyone with a different theory will have to produce a more compelling explanation. Moreover, the Report presents a plausible narrative of organizational disfunction that fits in with other studies. In what follows, I’ll accept the account presented in the Valukas
report.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/23311983.2015.1134030
3. The low-torque switch
The ignition switches installed in the Cobalt from its introduction in model year (MY) 2003 into MY
2007 allowed the key to be turned on and off with so little force (torque) that the key could move
from the on (RUN) position to the accessory (ACC) position when lightly jarred, as could happen if the
key fob was brushed by the driver’s knee (Valukas, 2014, pp. 59–61) or the car hit a curb or pothole.10
When the key moved to ACC, the engine shut down and the steering and brakes, denied power assist, became heavy. More critically, after approximately 0.15 s power for the airbag sensor was lost,
so that the airbags would not deploy in a crash.11 (Shutting off power to the sensor when the key was
in the ACC position was a deliberate design choice, to prevent the airbags inflating while the car was
stationary.12)
It’s not clear why the switch, manufactured by Delphi Mechatronics, had such low torque, which
was outside GM’s established parameters and contrary to the original switch specification.13
Raymond DeGiorgio, the GM engineer mainly responsible for the switch, knew about the low-torque
condition but approved the switch, apparently because he feared that changing the switch would
compromise its electrical performance.14 (The switch had so many electrical problems in development and early production15 that DeGiorgio signed an instruction to Delphi not to increase the rotational torque as “Ray (tired of the switch from hell) DeGiorgio”).16 The Valukas teams were unable,
after interviewing hundreds of witnesses, to find any GM employee besides DeGiorgio who knew
before 2013 that the switch failed to meet the original torque specification.17
4. Moving stalls
Complaints about stalling caused by the key turning to ACC while the car was moving began to reach
GM soon after the first Cobalts hit the streets, but DeGiorgio and the other GM engineers who worked
on the switch (whom I’ll call the “switch engineers”) apparently did not know that when the key was
in the ACC position the airbags would not deploy.18 They believed, however, that a car without power
remains controllable, so they considered the ignition switch problem a “customer convenience”
rather than a safety issue.19 Consequently, they felt no pressure to solve the problem quickly.20 (GM
personnel met several times in 2004 and 2005 with NHTSA officials about the general issue of engine
stalling, and concluded that the Agency did not see it as a per se safety issue; there seems to have
been no discussion of the Cobalt’s particular stalling problem.21)
In response to GM’s worries about the volume of customer complaints, DeGiorgio proposed replacing the switch with a higher torque version,22 but in September 2005 an upper level GM engineering
committee rejected his suggestion, apparently for cost considerations; the committee still considered the issue merely one of customer convenience.23
Notwithstanding the committee’s rejection of his proposal, in April 2006 DeGiorgio approved a
modified switch with higher torque, which began to be installed during MY 2007. The stalling problem was solved.24
5. The airbag problem
In 2006 a different group of GM engineers (whom I’ll call the “airbag engineers”) became aware of a
fatal Cobalt crash early that year in which the car’s airbags did not deploy and the car’s “black box”
(technically, the “sensing diagnostic module” or “SDM”) indicated that the ignition switch was in the
ACC position at the moment of impact.25 These engineers knew that turning the switch to ACC would
disable the airbags, but they thought that the airbag did not deploy because the impact had been to
the car’s right front corner rather than head-on. (A picture of the wreck confirms the corner impact
(Jensen, 2014c).)
This may be an appropriate moment to introduce a consideration that figured only peripherally in
the Valukas report and was never mentioned in The Times’ coverage: Airbags don’t always work. A
2009 study concluded that airbags failed to deploy in 8% of fatal front-end crashes; (Braver, McCartt,
Sherwood, Fraade-Blanar, & Scerbo, 2009, p. 6). Earlier studies had put the rate as high as 18%.26
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/23311983.2015.1134030
(None of the studied non-deployments involved a Cobalt.) Most of these failures could be explained
by specific crash characteristics—for example, a “complete underride” with a large truck where the
vehicle hood is not contacted, or an impact that is mainly to the side27—but the deployment failures
in up to 2% of fatal crashes could not be explained.
6. Outsiders pinpoint the switch
In 2007 two outsiders connected a Cobalt’s airbag non-deployment to the ignition switch: A
Wisconsin state trooper at the site of a fatal crash reported that the ignition key was in the ACC position and surmised that the airbags had failed to deploy for that reason, (Valukas, 2014, pp. 116–118).
and an Indiana University Transportation Research Center report on the crash reached the same
conclusion.28 The outsiders’ reports were in GM’s files and the public record,29 but the airbag engineers only became aware of the Indiana report in 2012, at which time they discounted it because it
did not square with their other information—some of it, alas, misinformation.30 The outsiders were
able to connect the dots because they had fewer dots to connect.31
There’s another reason, not discussed in the Valukas report, why the airbag engineers might have
discounted information provided by outsiders: Many of these outsiders were plaintiffs or their lawyers, who had a great deal to gain if an accident’s cause could be pinned on a GM design defect. This
is not new territory: The MY1982–87 Audi 5000 model and various MY2000–10 Toyotas were claimed
by persons involved in accidents to have had “sudden acceleration”—“unintended, unexpected,
high-power accelerations from a stationary position or a very low initial speed accompanied by an
apparent loss of braking effectiveness.” (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, [NHTSA],
1989). Audi sales suffered, and Toyota initiated massive recalls and a $1.2 billion settlement, as a
result of these claims. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration later concluded that most
of the sudden-acceleration crashes resulted from driver error (“pedal application error” being the
regulatory euphemism).32 Outside information frequently fails to be objective.
7. Attention turns to the switch
The investigation into the Cobalt airbag problems did not focus on the ignition switch until mid-2009
when an airbag engineer who had been keeping a spreadsheet of the incidents noticed that SDM
data indicated that the switch was in the ACC position in a number of crashes where the airbag did
not deploy. (Not all Cobalts in these crashes had an SDM, and in those that did the SDM showed the
switch to be in RUN about half the time (Valukas, 2014, pp. 9, 129, 135, 156, 206).)
The airbag engineers, still unaware of the stalling problem the switch engineers had dealt with,
began to focus on the electrical system as the possible cause of the ACC readings. They had noticed
that many of the airbag non-deployments involved off-road crashes, and soon came up with a theory—“contact bounce”—that sought the cause in the internals of the switch rather than the key
position. The theory was that jarring the ignition switch—as when you jump a curb or hit other offroad objects—could “open up” the switch, so that the signaling mechanism for the airbags would
report the key as in the ACC position and shut off power to the airbag system.33 The engineers conducted “abusive and teeth-chattering tests” in 2009 “in which the car was driven through steep
ditches and deep potholes” without ever getting the switch to “open up.”34 The Report doesn’t say,
but presumably the engineers were testing Cobalts built after the ignition switch change; otherwise
the bouncing would likely have caused the key to rotate to ACC. The airbag engineers were still unaware that the switch had been changed during MY 2007.
8. The switch is seemingly absolved
Sometime later in 2009 the airbag engineers realized that non-deployments had ceased for MY 2008
and later Cobalts,35 which caused them to rule out the switch as a potential cause of the non-deployments. There were two reasons for this mistake: First, while the ignition switch was changed during
MY 2007 to solve the low-torque problem,36 DeGiorgio had not informed anyone else at GM, and,
contrary to GM policy, had not changed the part number.37 Worse, on several occasions DeGiorgio
told airbag engineers that the switch had not been changed (except for an irrelevant change to the
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Darmstadter, Cogent Arts & Humanities (2016), 3: 1134030
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/23311983.2015.1134030
anti-theft system).38 Consequently, the airbag engineers, believing the switch to be unchanged,
ruled out the switch as a possible cause of the non-deployments.39
We can only speculate as to why DeGiorgio did not inform others of the change to the switch, did
not change the part number, and misinformed the airbag engineers. DeGiorgio says he does not remember many of these events.40 Perhaps these actions were simply DeGiorgio’s attempt to cover up
his disregarding the engineering committee’s decision not to change the switch.
When DeGiorgio ordered the switch change, he may not have been aware of the connection to the
airbag system. But it seems likely that when the airbag engineers asked DeGiorgio if the switch had
been changed, they would have informed him of the switch’s suspected connection to the airbag
non-deployments. Under these circumstances, DeGiorgio’s statement that the switch had not been
changed put many lives in danger.
9. The light dawns
In March 2012 airbag engineers examining a crashed Cobalt at a junkyard noticed that the ignition
switch turned extraordinarily easily.41 The engineers had not brought any tools with them to measure the torque, but using a fish scale they purchased from a nearby bait and tackle shop (you can’t
make this stuff up), they measured the torque for a number of Cobalt ignition switches in the yard.
The torque on many switches was so low that they concluded that the key could turn to ACC if the
car hit a pothole.42 The next day one of the engineers, John Dolan, searched the Cobalt warranty
database and discovered the numerous customer complaints about the ignition switch turning to
ACC.43 For the first time, the airbag engineers discovered what the switch engineers had known for
years—that the Cobalt switch could be turned from RUN to ACC with minimal force. Dolan immediately elevated his concerns to more senior management.44
Two months later, in May 2012, the airbag engineers revisited the junkyard and tested some 40
Cobalts.45 (This time they brought a torque wrench.) They found that earlier Cobalts required lower
torque, but this was also true of some MY 2007 and MY 2008 models.46 (It is not explained why some
2008 models, all of which should have had the redesigned switch, had low torque.) But the airbag
engineers still struggled to put the pieces together. In spring or summer 2012, DeGiorgio and his
supervisor again stated that there had been no changes in the switch that would affect the torque.47
And there remained the still unexplained fact that in about half of the non-deployments the SDM
showed the key to be in the RUN position.48
In April 2013, plaintiff’s attorneys took apart pre- and post-2007 switches and showed GM’s lawyers just how they had been changed: A plunger in the later switches was longer by a bit over a millimeter (about 1/25th of an inch), just enough to significantly increase the torque.49 But it was
another six months before Delphi could confirm that in …
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