Back Behind the Wheel  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   March & april 2011

Back Behind the Wheel   

Why Detroit News auto critic Scott Burgess returned to the paper after resigning over changes to a review that had been challenged by an advertiser. Thurs., April 7, 2011

By Andrew Damstedt
Andrew Damstedt (adamstedt@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     


It was a tough call for Scott Burgess.

He had quit his job as the Detroit News' auto critic on March 14 after he was ordered to make changes in his negative review of the 2011 Chrysler 200 in the wake of complaints from an advertiser. The episode attracted national attention; it was reported by such news outlets as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and featured on Jim Romenesko's media news blog, all after Ray Wert of the auto news blog Jalopnik.com broke the story.

Then the paper ran a front-page apology and offered Burgess his job back. And he decided to return to work.

"I assumed when I quit I was done, and I had no intention of coming back to the paper. I didn't quit with a big list of ultimatums," the 43-year-old Burgess says. "What we did was wrong, and I don't want to work here" was his feeling at the time. "Why would anyone want to be part of an organization that does that, especially a journalist? It wasn't a culmination of a series of things. It was one incident and nothing like this has ever happened to me before. I'm pretty certain the newspaper will never do that again."

Burgess says he received countless phone calls from friends and family asking him about the situation. He had to recount numerous times how he was asked by his editors to make changes to the online version of his review after he was told an advertiser had complained. (The paper has not identified the advertiser.) The review ran as he had written it on March 10 both in the print version of the paper and on its Web site. Burgess made the desired changes to the online review the following day.

So why did come back? Burgess says he resigned solely over that one issue and rescinded his resignation because he accepted the paper's apology. He went back to work on March 28. Three days later, his review of the Dodge Journey appeared, along with his opinion as to why Charlie Sheen should drive that car.

"I'm really glad to be at work. It's not just to have a job; I really care about this job," Burgess says. "At some point, somebody apologizes. I really think I accepted it because I believe they were sincere and taking a number of steps and putting in a really strong policy on how everything online will be treated."

The Detroit News ran a story about his resignation on page 10 on March 17, followed the next day by a front-page apology from the publisher to the paper's readers. That prominent placement, Publisher Jon Wolman says, was to make it "easily accessible to readers. It was an unusual episode. Our readers deserved the explanation."

Wolman wrote, "While our intent was to improve the piece by making these passages less grating, our decision to make these changes after fielding an advertiser's complaint was a humbling mistake. As publisher and editor, I want to apologize to our readers and of course to Scott. Once the review was published we should have maintained the wording in all our formats and avoided any sense that we were acting at the influence of any interest aside from our readers' interest."

Burgess says that after he was asked by his editors to make changes in his online review of the 2011 Chrysler 200―a car Eminem drives in a Super Bowl commercial promoting Detroit―he physically made the alterations as his editors went through the review point by point, telling him what to delete.

"I'm the one who took it out. I wish I had made a big fuss then," Burgess says. "Had anyone spoken up, it would have never happened. I was a little scared; I didn't know what I was going to do."

He says he went home that Friday night and told his wife that he was going to have to quit his job after five years at the paper, four as the auto critic.

"I will say when he was walking out of the garage and into the house, he comes walking up to me, gives me a hello kiss and says 'I think I need to quit my job,'" his wife, Vikki Stenstream, says. "He told me what happened and I go, 'Yeah, I think you should.' You look at that and go 'Wow, I can't imagine a paper doing that.'"

Burgess says he informed the paper the following Monday that he was quitting, a decision that Wolman disagreed with.

"I talked to the publisher on Tuesday, he made the argument that what they were trying to do was good journalism, calling my review too acerbic or kicking a dead horse or being too mean," Burgess says. "He said all they were ever trying to do was clean it up. To this day, I don't believe that."

Burgess says the story was filed eight days before it was published and was reviewed by four editors, all of whom signed off on the original wording. He says if any changes were necessary, they could have been made before the article was published and not after an advertiser complained.

Wolman says all the paper was trying to do was improve the review, and points out that the alterations didn't affect the "verdict or oomph of the review, which as you know was a negative one. It didn't scrub it into a positive review or into an on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand review. It stayed true to the critical verdict of the original."

One of the items that was removed was Burgess' comparison of the car to a loggerhead turtle. "If you look at the car and the turtle they are the same," Burgess says. Other changes included taking out a section calling the car "horrendous" and saying, "Hopefully, this car is a placeholder until the real redesigned 200 arrives―eventually."

Burgess says he drove the 200 around for about eight days after he initially drove it at a press launch.

"I didn't like it when I drove it the first time... When I don't like a car, I try to spend even more time in it," he says. "It's easier to write a car review that's good. I write for a general consumer. I've always been an enthusiast. I try to write on a consumer level, looking at all their stuff, their lifestyle and how and what is this vehicle supposed to do and does this vehicle deliver on those things."

Wolman says after reviewing events, he felt dissatisfied with the way the incident was handled, and the original wording of Burgess' review was restored on the Web site. He says he didn't consult with the advertiser who complained before, during or after the changes were made or after the banished material was restored.

Burgess says the bigger issue that he sees in all of this is how newspapers view their online content.

"While everyone talks online is the future for news dissemination, I don't necessarily think they feel that way," he says. "The published paper is what's important, and the online is this other thing. There's tons of people that only read their news online and don't know what the printed version of the paper looks like, and what they're expecting is exactly the same as the newspaper, truthful and transparent. And everyone has this goal. In online, you can placate the advertiser because you still have the printed version and can make a different online version. It's a basic tenet that you don't do that."

Wolman says the News had been in the midst of updating its online ethics policies, but this situation had accelerated that process. "This was an inadvertent episode from beginning to end, one we regret, but it has had the effect of bringing our attention on the need to clarify and update our practices in the newsroom, and we've taken advantage of the lapse here to do that," Wolman says.

Stenstream, who says she told her husband they could make it for a while on her income from her job at an automotive supplier, says she had concerns about her husband's decision to return to the paper.

"Where does he stand in the eyes of readers? Does Scott lose credibility going back? I am surprised at the people I work with telling me that 'it's really great that he went back,' " Stenstream says. "I think it's a healing process for both the paper and for Scott. I'm glad it got resolved in the way that it did."

She says it was interesting to watch the situation evolve and hopes that the outcome turns out for the best.

"I never felt like I was thumping my chest in making some big stand," Burgess says. "When you go through this, it's horrible. You have the long-term fear of, 'What am I going to do next?' It's all really sad. And that's how you feel sad."

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