Total Recall

By Al Tompkins

For six months, KHOU-TV investigated and aired stories that eventually forced The Ford Motor Company and Bridgestone Firestone to recall 6.5 million potentially defective tires at a cost of more than $300 million. The station's investigative team documented case after case of Ford Explorers crashing after their Firestone tires fell apart and the driver lost control.

After KHOU first reported the story in February, the federal government launched its own investigation. By summer's end regulators had logged more than 750 complaints about the failure of Firestone tires involving more than 60 deaths. In 1978, Firestone recalled 14 million "500 series" tires. But this recall involved more deaths than any auto safety recall ever.

The day we interviewed KHOU's investigative reporter, Anna Werner, she was not celebrating the station's journalistic achievements. She was reading a wire service report of another Ford Explorer crash in Texas. The Texas Public Safety Department said a tire tread separation contributed to the wreck. A pediatric heart surgeon from Florida died in the crash while driving across Texas. He was taking his son to college.

Working Her Sources Pays Off
Werner, producer David Raziq and photojournalist Chris Henao began their investigation In December 1999 after Werner made a routine call to a source, a Houston attorney. "I asked him if he was working on any interesting cases and he said 'I have this case about something called tread separation-it's when the tread peels off your tire.' The fatal crash involved a mother and two children who were driving down a Texas road when they lost control," Werner recalls.

The lawyer told Werner that there could be similar cases pending. KHOU's team began collecting information about 20 crashes involving 30 deaths around the nation. All of the crashes involved Ford Explorers and Firestone ATX and ATX II tires.

"Many of the cases had been settled out of court and the people involved could not talk about the details of their settlements with Ford and Firestone," Werner says.

In 1996, another Houston station, KPRC-TV, had reported similar complaints about Firestone tires but the instances were rare. This time, the body of evidence was substantial.

KHOU news director Mike Devlin says, "We are like a Mom and Pop operation compared to Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford. We knew we had to be right and that we were going to need great legal help from our station attorneys. I am not going to lie to you and tell you I wasn't concerned [about the legal impact of the stories]. These corporations can tie you up and cost you millions of dollars by filing suit. Our team persevered. This was a high level of reporting."

On February 7, KHOU aired its first story. "Our first piece was nine minutes long," Werner says. That night viewers who had experienced similar problems flooded the station with phone calls and emails. "My voice mail was full, the calls were coming in so fast we could not keep up with them. People were saying 'I thought I was the only one, I didn't know this was happening to others.' There were some sad stories from people who had lost friends," Werner says. The calls provided the foundation for follow-up stories. The entire KHOU newsroom kicked in to produce additional stories. Still, other local television stations and the national press didn't follow up.

Firestone Goes on the Attack
Firestone wasted no time attacking KHOU's reporting. In a letter to Belo chairman and CEO Robert Decherd, Firestone public affairs vice president Christine Karbowiak wrote, "This series, broadcast on various segments beginning on Monday, February 7, contains falsehoods and misrepresentations that improperly disparage Firestone and its product, the Radial ATX model tire. The program and related activities give the unfortunate appearance that KHOU is more concerned with sensationalism and ratings during the February sweeps period than its commitment to the presentation of truthful and objective reporting. As responsible executives and managers of a major media company and one of its leading TV outlets, you should be concerned with the obvious fact that your reporter, Anna Werner, and/or her producers have been co-opted by plaintiffs' personal-injury lawyers and their purported "expert" witnesses to present a one-sided view of Firestone's product. This series has unmistakably delivered the false messages that Radial ATX tires are dangerous, that they threaten the safety of anyone using them, and that they should be removed from every vehicle on which they are installed. Each of these messages is simply untrue. "

But a month later, on March 6, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an internal "initial evaluation" of the complaints that had poured into their office as a result of KHOU's reporting. Soon, The Chicago Sun Times and television stations in California and Florida contacted KHOU for details that helped them launch their own investigations. Those stories prompted even more public awareness, and the feds took even more complaints. On May 2, NHTSA opened a more formal "defect investigation."

Story Has International Implications
On July 30, producer Raziq gathered a key piece of information. A source told Raziq that Ford quietly launched what it called a "voluntary customer satisfaction initiative" in Venezuela. Using the Internet, Raziq discovered that a Venezuelan automotive website had mentioned the recall. Ford had launched the initiative only weeks after NHTSA opened its defect investigation.

Photojournalist Henao, who is fluent in Spanish, called journalists in Venezuela and began gathering stories that were similar to the accidents the investigative team had heard about months earlier in Texas and around the U.S.

It didn't stop there. Raziq discovered that Ford had set up similar voluntary recalls in Thailand, Malaysia, Colombia, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and four other Arab countries. Most surprising, Ford had issued the recall in Saudi Arabia 10 months earlier, in September 1999, but nobody in the U.S. picked up on it. Ford issued the voluntary recalls in countries with warm climates. Ford says that 80 percent of the tread-separation cases in the U.S. are in the warmer southern and southwestern states.

As KHOU was learning about the international recalls, an auto safety lobbyist group, Strategic Safety, was also nailing down the details. Strategic Safety issued a press release calling for a national recall. The next day, newspapers nationwide carried the story.

Firestone Issues Voluntary Recall
A week later, on August 9, Ford and Firestone held a news conference to announce they were setting aside $350 million to finance a voluntary recall.

Werner sat on the second row of that news conference, her stomach in a knot. KHOU carried the Washington news conference live. "We knew they were going to announce at least a partial recall, but when they stood up there at that news conference and said it was a full recall, my jaw dropped," Rasiq says.

"The company estimates that the number of tires still in use and involved in the recall is 6.5 million, which includes 3.8 million radial ATX and ATXII tires and 2.7 million Wilderness AT tires," the joint statement said. Gary Crigger, Bridgestone/Firestone executive vice president, said, "At Bridgestone/Firestone, nothing is more important to us than the safety of our consumers."

Following the Firestone 500 recall in 1978, Firestone nearly went bankrupt. After the August 9,2000, news conference, Bridgestone Firestone stock dropped by almost a third.

KHOU had prompted one of the nation's most far-reaching auto parts recalls.

The New York Times wrote an editorial that said "Had it not been for a Houston television report on the problem that triggered a spate of complaints to the agency earlier this year, most drivers would still be unaware of [the tire] danger."

"We all know there is some anxiety that TV news is not like it used to be," says news director Devlin, "but local TV stations can do this kind of work. [Luckily] we work for a company, Belo, that's willing to fund these kinds of things."

Devlin says even though the investigation involved the potential for large legal bills and directly targeted big companies that advertise on television, there was no front-office pressure to soften coverage. "Peter Diaz, our general manager, totally supported this project. If there was any business or advertising pressure brought on him he shielded the news department from it."

Beyond the journalism, Devlin says these high-impact investigations are good strategy for news operations. "Stories like this distinguish you. Every station is trying to break away from the pack. Some do it by contesting, we do it by content."

A congressional subcommittee has scheduled hearings into the tire safety issue. Firestone originally planned to take a year to replace all of the questionable tires, but moved the timetable up after the public protested.

The reporter, producer and photojournalist who started the story are struck by the power of their stories. Werner says, "The three of us, almost daily, look at each other and say, 'Can you believe this?'"

Besides reporting the story, KHOU was personally touched by it. When Devlin looked in the station's parking lot, he saw a fleet of Ford Explorers the station uses for news vehicles. Nine of the trucks were riding on the newly recalled tires.-Al Tompkins is the broadcast/online group leader at the Poynter Institute