The Washington Post’s Warren Brown makes no apologies for promoting SUVs in his weekly auto column. On Jan. 19, he wrote a piece lauding the 2003 Lincoln Aviator, which comes with a 302-horsepower V-8 and a 15-mpg gas-mileage rating. “From its sumptuous, heated leather seats to its winged instrument panel, this SUV has everything, which is precisely the point of its being,” wrote Brown.
Between raves about the Aviator’s power and comfort, Brown in the January piece made light of Arianna Huffington’s argument that the gas-guzzling vehicles advance the agenda of Middle Eastern regimes. “Huffington and her friends might call that terrorism. I call it capitalism, and I’m a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist, which is why I enjoyed tooling around in the Aviator.”
Brown thus articulates the most persuasive polemic for SUVs. It goes like this: These trucks are on the market, I’m going to buy one, and I’m going to drive it down your throat.
Once you invoke facts and figures to make the pro-SUV case, however, you veer off the road. That’s what happened in Brown’s March 2 column. The piece in question was a review of the new Infiniti FX45, a “crossover utility vehicle” that lacks a few of the structural drawbacks of the traditional SUV.
Brown notes that the FX45 has a longer wheelbase and a lower center of gravity than regular SUVs. “That means it is less inclined to roll over than traditional SUVsa matter of some concern to SUV opponents, although rollovers account for 2.5 percent of all crashes involving all kinds of vehicles on U.S. roads.”
Geez, Dept. of Media wonders where Brown got that stat. Here’s a guess: The Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, a D.C.-based trade group that specializes in rebutting attacks on SUVs. When asked about SUV rollovers, Alliance spokesperson Eron Shosteck responds, “Rollovers are rarethey account for less than 3 percent of all accidents.”
Brown is “repeating a statistic that the auto industry likes to trot out,” says Brian O’Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Contrary to Brown’s contention, rollovers are a concern not just for SUV opponents; they matter, too, for dead and maimed SUV owners. The only statistic about SUV rollovers worth quoting is this one: You’re three times more likely to roll over and die in an SUV than in a passenger car, according to 2001 data collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
The majority of SUVs
are essentially trucksunwieldy cargo vehicles that have been tricked out to carry passengers. That’s made them Detroit’s most successful class of product over the past decade. But the underlying truck design means that SUVs have steering and braking abilities inferior to those of regular cars. They also tend to crunch passenger cars in highway collisions.
“Crossovers” such as the Infiniti FX45 try to address these problems by using a car chassis. In last Sunday’s column, though, Brown pooh-poohed that approach:
“Because it is built on a car platform, the FX45 theoretically would be more compatible in a crash with a car than would a truck-based SUV. But compatible does not mean benign. A large car theoretically would be more compatible in a crash with a compact car than would a truck-based SUV. But the people in the smaller car would be likely to suffer more grief than the people in the larger one.”
Here, your friendly Post columnist is just obfuscating. Invoking the weight mismatch between large and small cars glosses over the design scourge of traditional SUVs: With their rigid, truck-height chassis, they penetrate the soft midsections of passenger cars in crashes.
The result isn’t “grief,” as Brown suggests, but death. The relevant stats: Large cars kill 85 people in other vehicles per 100,000 crashes. Large SUVs kill 205.
In an e-mail, Brown argues that crashes between SUVs and cars make up only 4 percent of crashes. “Why is that crash mode more relevant than the other 96 percent?” he writes. “Can you choose the kind of crash you will have before it happens?
“The bottom line is that any reasonable reading of stats debunks the SUV as demon myth,” Brown writes.
Other people reading the stats, however, haven’t seen it that way. Even laissez-faire types in the Bush administration and Congress have begun to sound the alarms about vehicle safety: In January, NHTSA chief Dr. Jeffrey Runge warned that SUVs are so unsafe that he wouldn’t let his own child drive some models. And last week, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) held a hearing on SUV safety in which he chided Detroit’s unwillingness to voluntarily correct its mistakes. Auto producers, said the senator, once contended that they “couldn’t afford seat belts and air bags.”
The dangers and depredations of the auto industry generally don’t get top billing in Brown’s entertaining car-review column, which tees up an entire section of automotive advertising. It’s a space designed to get readers in the mood for a trip to Stohlman VW or Ourisman Honda. “He’s highly biased toward the industry,” says Carl Nash, a former senior executive at NHTSA. “He never met a car he didn’t like.”
Hold on, there: Brown did mock the Camarojust as it was going out of production.
In his defense, Brown says that over the years he has written plenty of material questioning Detroit, not only in his weekly print column but in his Web writing as well. “It’s all there on the record, isn’t it?” he asks. Says Shosteck, of the automobile lobby: “I would say he’s fair. He’s good at presenting both sides of the story.”
Whatever his ideology, Brown has had the Post’s final word on SUVs. Media outlets other than the Postparticularly the New York Timeshave been hammering away at the SUV issue for years, exploring the big vehicles’ cultural, regulatory, environmental, and safety implications. But except for occasional updates on safety problems in the financial section, the Post has largely ignored the booman omission not lost on Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie.
“This is a subject that interests me, and I have expressed my interest to the financial section, which covers the auto industry and auto safety,” says Downie.
Georgetown socialite and Post writer Sally Quinn has been on a chem-/bio-terrorism freakout dating back to Sept. 11. Just weeks after the attacks, Quinn used an Op-Ed piece to ask if the government had enough vaccines, antibiotics, and gas masks for all its constituents. She was still at it last month, issuing advice to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge in another Op-Ed. In one memorable flourish, she suggested that riparian Washingtonians stock inflatable kayaks in the event of an evacuation.
Now the Post has found the perfect outlet for Quinn’s civil-disaster jitters: a special March 16 section on emergency preparedness. Features editor Mary Hadar says that the section will be “purely practical.” “We’re trying to summarize much of the stuff that the government has put out but answer some of the stuff that the government hasn’t answered,” says Hadar.
According to a Style staffer, Hadar and Quinn have been huddling in front of a workplace video station, presumably to screen the latest in disaster-related primers. “That’s when I knew they were serious,” says the staffer.
Post writers avoid contributions to special sections as assiduously as they do weather-trend assignments. “I imagine everyone is ducking this one, because it’s ridiculous,” says a reporter who asked for anonymity. Hadar says that if writers are bailing, “I don’t know about it. The key writers I wantedI have them all.”
And that includes Quinn, who will be writing one of the pieces. “How could you put this section out without Sally? She’s the world’s expert.”
As well as the subject of much newsroom snickering. Hadar notes that the pullout isn’t synonymous with the newsroom’s premier celebrity. “[Quinn is] one of several people who suggested that we do a special section,” says Hadar.
Quinn did not return calls for comment.
Dissent on Parade
Ever since President Bush started talking tough about Saddam Hussein, critics have questioned his priorities in singling out Iraq. What about North Korea, a creepy and hostile nation that has acknowledged having a nuclear weapons program? Or Saudi Arabia, a long-running dictatorship known for beheading citizens and abusing women? Why not change those regimes?
Well, now axis-of-evil watchers have a high-circulation publication that’s taken up their mantra: Parade. In its Feb. 16 issue, the magazine ranked Saddam Hussein only No. 3 on a scale of heinous dictators, behind King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and top-ranked strongman Kim Jong Il of North Korea. “He has allowed vast numbers of his citizens to starve to death. Since he assumed power, almost 300,000 North Koreans have fled to China to avoid food shortages,” reads the Parade story by David Wallechinsky.
That sort of dictatorial enterprise, reasons Parade, places Kim ahead of a guy like Saddam Hussein, who was “considered over the hill as a global-scale dictator until President George W. Bush began to promote his status as a threat to world peace.”
So Saddam is a mere creation of Dubya’s scare tactics? That’s a firmer indictment of Bush administration politics than you’ll read in most U.S. news outlets this side of the Nation. And according to Parade Editor-in-Chief Lee Kravitz, it’s not even intentional. “Believe me, we’re not taking a political stand by offering the piece,” says Kravitz. “It was to get people to talk among themselves.” Parade has a circulation of roughly 36 million.
Parade, an insert in about 340 Sunday papers nationwide, continued the anti-Bush drumbeat this past weekend, with a piece on income trends that attacked the administration’s new tax-cut proposal. “The White House frequently states that its latest tax-cut proposal would allow ’92 million Americans to keep an average of $1083 more of their own money.’ But that’s an average. Some…would keep more, others less. President Bush and Vice President Cheney, according to estimates by Bloomberg News Service, would keep an extra $44,500 and $327,000, respectively, on their reported taxable income.”
Says Kravitz: “We have writers who have a strong perspective and know how to communicate to a large audience, and that strikes a chord.” Erik Wemple