The Firestone/Ford Explorer story was broken not by a major newspaper or network but by a Houston TV news investigative team. It took a long time for federal safety officials--and the national media--to catch up.
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
ON AUGUST 9, after six months of denying its tires had played a role in more than 88 deaths, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. did something it called "extraordinary." The company voluntarily recalled 6.5 million tires, many on Ford's phenomenally popular Explorer.
The largest tire recall in automotive history, estimated to cost $450 million, triggered a frantic rush on tire dealers, who couldn't keep up with demand for replacement tires. It caused a nasty finger-pointing schism between Ford and Firestone, a partnership that began in 1906 when Henry Ford bought 8,000 tires from Harvey Firestone. It caused Congress to denounce the federal agency that failed to spotlight the defective tires that caused high-speed blowouts--blowouts that caused Ford Explorers to flip and, as of November 1, 119 deaths. It caused two testy congressional hearings that pushed Congress to revamp automotive safety standards at warp speed.
After a Bridgestone/Firestone executive announced the recall at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and virtually every major newspaper and television and radio station in the country led with the story.
Sitting in the second row, pumped full of so much adrenaline that she had to write down her question, was a reporter for KHOU-TV in Houston. Anna Werner, 36, who had joined KHOU's newly created investigative unit, "The Defenders," in July 1998, had a particular interest in the story. In the back, jammed in among a dozen or so cameras, was KHOU photographer Chris Henao, 34. Henao and Werner, expecting a crowd, had arrived an hour ahead of time but still had to fight for a good spot.
Both were bleary eyed. They'd learned about the press conference the afternoon before, written a story for the 6 p.m. newscast, zipped home for clothes, caught the last flight to Washington and, after getting lost, arrived at their hotel at 3 a.m. The third member of the team had enjoyed a good night's sleep. Producer David I. Raziq, 40, was back in Houston at the CBS affiliate glued to all-news stations on the newsroom's televisions.
The press conference was their big moment, but few at the press club knew it. Werner was determined to get her arm up first. She knew she'd only have one chance.
In walked Firestone and Ford executives. Bridgestone/Firestone Executive Vice President Gary Crigger made a short statement, then asked for questions.
Werner's hand shot up. She asked: "To both companies: You've been quoted in reports saying you began investigating the problem in May. Prior to our February 7 report, when we called you with about two dozen lawsuits, did you not investigate then?"
The answer was fuzzy, but the point was clear. If you were to trace the river back to the source, it would start with Belo-owned KHOU-TV. In January, the station discovered a curious link between Firestone treads inexplicably peeling off at high speeds and Ford Explorers careening out of control. KHOU had uncovered nearly 30 deaths from the combination.
In a nine-minute segment that aired during a ratings sweeps week, Werner, Raziq and Henao pieced together what they saw as a public service story alerting viewers to a slew of disturbing fatal accidents in Texas, Florida, New Mexico and other parts of the country. Each accident involved Ford Explorers equipped with Firestone tires. Ford had been mounting Firestone tires on its Explorers since the first one rolled off the production line in 1990.
"At the time, we were not able to say conclusively that this is a problem," Raziq says. "The point was to bring it to the attention of the public, the government and industry. We wanted to ask the question: Is there a problem here?"
The story opened with a Houston choir teacher whose husband died in 1997 when their Explorer flipped after a blowout and she lost control of the vehicle. He died; both her legs were amputated below the knee. There were other examples in the story and comments from experts, including Joan Claybrook, a former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration director, who ordered a landmark Firestone 500 recall in 1978. Claybrook said it sounded like another recall was in order.
After the story aired, Firestone fired off a letter on February 10 accusing KHOU of spreading "falsehoods and misrepresentations that improperly disparage Firestone and its product, the Radial ATX model tire." Displayed on KHOU's Web site, the letter may help explain why no other media outlet picked up the story for quite some time, says KHOU Executive News Director Michael Devlin.
It would take six months before the tread separation story became front-page news. But a case could be made that it actually took much longer. Attorney Bruce Kaster of Ocala, Florida, has been involved in tread belt separation suits against Firestone and other tire companies for 15 years. In the past year, Kaster has talked to 131 journalists. Before that, he can name each reporter who contacted him.
But even if reporters had called Kaster, he couldn't have provided too much information. The courts prohibited lawyers from sharing information with other attorneys or the press to protect the trade secrets of tire companies.
After KHOU aired its story, other factors helped bring issues to the fore: the popularity of Ford Explorers, media reporting on soaring accident and death totals, Ford's recall of Firestone tires in other countries and the refusal by two judges in May and July to let Firestone keep depositions and testimony private in the name of protecting trade secrets.
"Once the judges lifted the iron curtain of secrecy, the media could get access to all the information Firestone was trying to hide," Kaster says. "Prior to that I couldn't tell you what I knew.... But for the media attention, nothing would have happened."
Ford chief executive Jacques Nasser was more specific. Seven months after KHOU's story aired, Nasser paid tribute to the Houston station at a congressional hearing. "They deserve a medal, actually," said Nasser, "because they did focus attention on this.... They started everyone to think: Well, wait a minute. Maybe there really is something there.'... It had an impact on us."
IN TELEVISION, THERE ARE three critical ratings periods that determine how much stations can charge for advertising. KHOU's investigative unit is required to produce four meaty pieces for each weeklong sweeps period. Like many major TV markets, Houston is very competitive, with three network affiliates and one Fox-owned station. Each station except KHOU has had an investigative team for years; the Belo-owned station decided to join its rivals when it hired Devlin as news director in June 1998.
Devlin moved quickly to put together an investigative unit, hiring Werner and former "20/20" producer Raziq and then letting them interview photojournalists. They chose Henao, who came from an Atlanta station, WXIA, where he did general assignment photo work. By October 1998, "The Defenders" were in place.
A year later, in late November 1999, Werner was checking in with sources, foraging for stories. "Hey, what's news?" she asked a local attorney she knows.
He mentioned an unusual "tread separation" case he was handling. A mother was barreling down a Texas expressway with two boys in tow when the tread popped off, the sport utility vehicle rolled, and she was killed.
"Tread separation?" Werner asked. "What's that?" The attorney explained, and Werner thought it sounded worth pursuing. "I'm interested," she told him. "Can I talk to the family?"
"If you don't at least cut out some time in a week and say, 'Who haven't I talked to in a while?' " Werner says, "your funnel of story ideas becomes smaller and smaller. I consider myself a very traditional, boring reporter. Sometimes people think you have to have some incredible source and this is where you are going to get great stories. My orientation is toward finding stories in everyday sorts of simple questions."
Werner figured she'd meet the family and see if there was anything there. The tip went nowhere, but the attorney directed Werner to another Houston lawyer.
This lead proved more promising. "Cynthia Jackson and her husband, C.J., who were newlyweds, were driving in their Explorer with a teenager in the backseat," Werner recalls. "She was driving back from Galveston Island and felt a vibration. She knew immediately something was wrong. She shook her husband, who was asleep in the passenger's seat."
A Firestone tire had peeled off the back wheel. Her Explorer Sport rolled, and that's the last thing Cynthia Jackson remembered. After doctors amputated both legs, Jackson was left a widow in a wheelchair. She had already settled with Ford and Firestone by the time Werner talked to her, and the settlement details were secret. But Houston lawyer Rob Ammons could talk about the facts. He led Werner to related cases. "From there on out, I started contacting different lawyers and experts," Werner says.
In January, Werner had amassed cases from around the country. "The point where we said, 'Gee, this might really be something,' is when we started to get more and more cases. We had over two dozen and nearly 30 deaths," Werner recalls.
The critical question the team faced was: What does this mean? Is it statistically significant? After all, Firestone had manufactured 14.4 million of the radial ATX, ATX2 and Wilderness tires and they only had two dozen cases with ATX and ATX2 radial tires. What caught their attention was that the ATX came as standard equipment on Ford Explorers.
"Having done transportation investigations before with ABC, I knew these statistics could be illuminating or deceptive," says Raziq. Werner contacted consumer advocate and presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who encouraged her to call Joan Claybrook. As head of NHTSA during the Carter administration, Claybrook had ordered the recall of Firestone 500s, the second largest tire recall ever. Claybrook now heads Public Citizen, a Nader-founded consumer group that focuses on automotive safety.
That phone call proved to be a turning point.
Werner and Raziq share an office and collaborate closely, sharing strengths and expertise. In mid-January, Werner called Claybrook and told her about the two dozen cases and the 30 deaths. "I saw the blood drain from Anna's face and her jaw fell open," recalls Raziq.
Werner hung up the phone. "You know what she just said?" declared a stunned Werner. "She said, 'The problem is enormous. If you have found this many cases, the real number is probably 20 times as many out there.' She said she was fairly certain the government wasn't tracking them."
It was then that they knew the story was much bigger than they originally thought. They headed for Mike Devlin's office.
"Never in the whole process were we setting out to get a recall," says Devlin, "or to damage a company or to have tire employees lose their jobs or the stock lose an enormous amount. We never anticipated what happened. We just said, 'Let's do a story and raise this question. We have 30 or perhaps a few more deaths. What's going on?' "
While the journalists were researching the story, KHOU's general manager, Peter Diaz, mentioned a piece competitor KPRC-TV had aired on three crashes involving Firestone tires and Explorers. In a June 1996 accident, Stephen Gauvain, a reporter for yet another Houston station, KTRK-TV, died when the tread peeled off his Firestone ATX and wrapped around the axle, bringing his Explorer to a screeching halt. It skidded and flipped. Gauvain, who wasn't wearing a seat belt, died at the scene. KPRC-TV reporter Brette Lea did a story on the accidents and quoted Firestone as saying it would begin an investigation. Lea left in 1997, and the station never followed up.
Rather than feeling discouraged that someone had already done a piece of the story more than three years earlier, the team felt that there was much more to be reported. "We were doing a national profile by this point," Raziq says. "Besides, if it's still happening four years later, there was more of a reason to do the story."
They already had emotionally wrenching tape of Cynthia Jackson. They had tape of other victims or their families. They had experts who regularly testify against tire companies. But they needed Claybrook and they needed someone inside Firestone to take the story up to the national level.
WERNER AND HENAO FLEW to Washington, D.C., for an on-camera interview with Claybrook on February 2. They had tried to arrange an on-camera interview with someone from NHTSA, but the agency wouldn't cooperate unless KHOU told the agency what specific information it had ahead of time, says Rae Tyson, NHTSA spokesman. "It's a legal issue. We are very cautious about what we will say about any investigation. In this instance, there was no investigation. We saw nothing at the time to be gained by giving an interview."
The pair interviewed Claybrook in the morning, then had to dash to Baltimore/Washington International Airport to catch an afternoon flight to talk to a former Firestone employee, Alan Hogan, in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Hogan, who had worked at a North Carolina Firestone plant, said workers were under intense pressure to meet quotas. Sometimes, Hogan said, workers would use rubber stock that was too old.
Hogan apologized to the family of Daniel Van Etten, a 22-year-old Floridian who had dreamed of becoming a professional football player. He died when the tread separated from a Firestone ATX. "I'm sorry you lost your son," Hogan said. "Sorry people like me were building rags your son was driving on."
When they got back to Houston, Werner and Raziq began writing the piece. It aired on Monday, February 7. "That night the phones rang off the hook at the assignment desk," Raziq says. "We were not at all prepared for what happened."
E-mails poured in. And by the next day, Werner's voice mailbox was full. "What really surprised me was the number of calls where people were saying, 'Hey, this happened to me, too,' " Werner says.
Devlin brought in additional reporters to interview callers and to do stories about demand for replacement tires that was overwhelming dealers. "Virtually every newscast that week had something to do with Firestone," Werner recalls.
By this time, NHTSA was getting calls, too. The agency asked KHOU to run its 800 hotline number and the URL of its Web site. Before March, NHTSA had received 46 complaints about Firestone tires during the 1990s. Between March and May, the number of complaints doubled.
"After their piece, there very definitely was a blip in the number of complaints, and virtually all of them came from Texas," Tyson says. "We saw an increase in complaints and began investigating fairly soon after that, based on the influx of complaints from the KHOU series."
While NHTSA kept a database of complaints, it was not complete. In some cases, if an Explorer was involved in an accident, the tire brand might not be included. NHTSA investigators had to unearth more details before the agency could open an official investigation.
Meanwhile, Ford and Firestone were denying responsibility for the accidents. The fact that Ford had begun replacing Firestone tires in February 2000 on 1997 Explorers in Thailand and Malaysia came out later. Neither company was required to report such details to NHTSA, and since most lawsuits had been settled out of court, the agency had no way of knowing about many of them.
Although NHTSA began looking into the Firestone-Ford combination and fatal accidents in March, no major national media outlet took an immediate interest. "Nothing much happened after our story until June," Raziq says.
AS THE KHOU TEAM put its story together, Chicago Sun-Times reporter Mark Skertic was also exploring the problem of accidents caused by tire tread separation. Like the Texas station's story, Skertic's investigation began with a local lawyer mentioning an unusual lawsuit, this one filed eight years earlier involving a Chicago family whose van rolled over after a tire popped. Then a general assignment reporter in the Sun-Times' south suburban office, Skertic knew little about tires. He figured he'd look into a story on tread belt separation in his spare time. "At the time, I didn't even mention it to my boss, for fear he would say: 'Sounds good. Could you do it for this Sunday?' " recalls Skertic. "I kept working on it on the side."
His reporting led him to a small group of attorneys handling tire separation cases. Not surprisingly, he began crossing paths with Werner in January; they were calling some of the same people. "I also figured out pretty early on that Anna was focusing on just Firestones. People were telling me that was all she was asking about," wrote Skertic in an e-mail. "I knew my story would be different, because the local examples I had involved fatal accidents on other tire brands."
He worked on the piece for a month and a half before he said anything to his editor, Paul Saltzman, a new boss who had come from the Miami Herald. By January, Skertic had built a database of cases he'd discovered involving about 100 accidents in which 43 people had died.
Skertic called NHTSA on January 24 and was told it didn't consider tread separations a major worry. " 'If there were a problem,' " Skertic says he was told, " 'people would report it to us. We barely have any complaints.' "
On April 30 and May 1, the paper ran a two-part series. Skertic's first-day story focused on tire tread flaws, "and how no one was talking about the defects and the government wasn't keeping track of them." The second day concentrated on how tire companies keep information secret. "The Sun-Times pieces did cause a little ripple in complaints," says NHTSA's Tyson.
But still no national interest. A KHOU tape on tread separation was sent to the CBS network, and Werner called a network producer since the story now had national ramifications. But, she says, there was no network follow-up.
Raziq contacted ShopTalk, an electronic newsletter and Web site focusing on the television industry produced by consultant Don Fitzpatrick, and that alerted other local stations. The CBS Miami affiliate, WFOR-TV, weighed in with a piece on tread separation. Then the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles, KCBS-TV, ran a piece in June alerting consumers to the dynamic occurring between a brand of Firestone tires and Explorers.
A flurry of attention came after the May 22 issue of Rubber & Plastics News, a Crain trade publication, reported that NHTSA had opened a preliminary investigation into Firestone tires--the first step toward a recall. The probe began May 2. Automotive News, another Crain publication, picked up the development. KHOU also did a story after learning about the investigation from a lawyer. But still the story stayed below the radar of major news organizations.
That was about to change.
ON FRIDAY, JULY 28, Sean Kane of the research and advocacy group Strategic Safety received an e-mail indicating Ford might be replacing Firestone tires in Venezuela. Kane, whose organization specializes in motor vehicle safety issues, spent the weekend trying to track down information on the Internet. He hired a translator and eventually learned through an industry Web site and the newspaper El Nacional in Caracas, Venezuela, that Ford was recalling Firestone's ATX and Wilderness tires on its Explorers in that country. Ford was calling the recall a "customer satisfaction initiative." ###
On Sunday, July 30, Kane called Raziq. The two had talked before, although Kane was not a source for the original story. "Guess what Ford's been doing in Venezuela," he said to Raziq.
"You're kidding," Raziq replied.
This time, Raziq was going to have to handle the story without Werner. She and her husband were in the wilderness near Banff National Park in Canada. "I'm on horseback 12 miles into the wilderness on a four-day trip when David discovers this Venezuela thing," Werner recalls. "He tries to find me, but this was a place where no cell phones or pagers worked. Period. "
Raziq and Henao scrambled to put the story together. Henao was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and is fairly conversant in Spanish. He got on the Internet and found the story in El Nacional. "There was this story for the Venezuela media, but nobody in this country knew about it," says Raziq. "But in this era of Matt Drudge, I'm not going to rely on a Web site for information."
Henao tracked down El Nacional reporter Carla Lombardi, who had written the story. She gave him contacts and phone numbers. He made several more calls and confirmed the story, learning, too, that Ford was doing the same thing in Colombia and Ecuador.
Raziq tracked Claybrook down in Chicago and got a sister station to interview her; he relied on a Boston affiliate for help, too. "We actually had a lightning strike that day, and we couldn't get the animation of the globe edited into the piece," says Raziq. "Everything went wrong. We had problems with the crews. One station in Rhode Island was supposed to do one of the interviews for us and didn't do it. At the last minute, I had to find somebody else. I just basically begged."
Despite the misadventures, the piece got on the air July 31. Later that night, Raziq discovered Ford was carrying out similar "customer satisfaction initiatives" in Malaysia, Thailand and six Persian Gulf states.
That same day, Kane sent out a press release about the Venezuela recall. He also began calling newspapers and television stations, he says, but initial interest was minimal. "The recall overseas is the part that tells you something huge is happening," Kane says. "It was frankly very frustrating to communicate something to the press on July 31 and see very little happen. I'd call people and hear this yawn on the other end."
But the foreign recall ultimately struck a nerve and got more journalists interested, says Claybrook. "When the discovery was made that Ford had done a recall abroad, and that was blasted on the news," says Claybrook, "that's when Ford was forced to go to Firestone and ask for all its data claims and study them."
August is typically sweltering in Washington, D.C., and politicians generally leave town for a long summer break. It's a notoriously slow news month. When USA Today reporters James R. Healey and Sara Nathan put together a package of articles on Firestone tread separation that ran August 2, their findings stirred interest.
Healey and Nathan reported that Firestone had been actively investigating crashes since 1992, and didn't share that information with Ford. The national daily, which credited KHOU for its pioneering work on the story, was the first major news organization to delve into the Firestone tire problems. "The federal government has known for at least 10 years of suspicions that certain Firestone tires suddenly lost their tread and caused crashes, according to documents on file at" NHTSA, wrote Healey and Nathan. Yet, NHTSA had just begun an investigation in May.
At last the story was developing serious momentum.
The USA Today report caught the eye of Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Consumer Protection. Media attention prompted Tauzin to hold hearings on the blowouts and ensuing accidents in September. Says Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson, "I credit the press for being the first to try and connect the dots."
The USA Today articles turned what should have been a slow August into a tornado for NHTSA. "When USA Today ran that story, it triggered an avalanche of interest in the issue," says Tyson, who fields press calls. "For me, August became a blur." He and a coworker were getting 75 to 125 media calls a day that month.
By this time, the story had mushroomed into a public relations nightmare for Ford and Firestone. Ford was publicly pressing the tire maker to take some responsibility. The number of complaints had jumped to more than 250 and involved 43 deaths. Press attention was enormous, especially since tapping into NHTSA's database could easily localize the story.
Heightened media attention, Ford's recall in Venezuela, lobbying by auto safety advocates and behind-closed-doors pressure from NHTSA combined to place enormous pressure on Firestone and Ford. On August 8, the companies decided to act, suddenly announcing they would hold a press conference at the National Press Club the next day--six months after KHOU's first story.
Ford and Firestone would carry out a voluntary recall. Although 14.4 million of the suspect tires had been manufactured, Firestone said only 6.5 million were still on the road. The rest had been replaced due to normal wear and tear. Raziq started getting phone calls from sources relaying rumors of a recall. "Right before the 6 o'clock news that day," says Werner, "David confirmed there was going to be some kind of recall. We did a quick script, did a live bit in the studio. Then we got on a flight to Washington."
And after four or five hours of sleep, Henao and Werner were tired but wired. And ready. "The recall validated everything they did," Devlin says.
And when the New York Times published a story on September 11 on KHOU's role in the recall, there was more affirmation. "When it got in the New York Times," says Devlin, "we had made it. That was the final arbiter that we had been the ones who had done the story."