Knives Out for Ronan Farrow

Why GM’s Safety Calamity, An Utter Washington Failure, Isn’t a Hot TV Topic

The General Motors safety debacle is about everything that’s wrong with Washington.

And yet somehow it hasn’t caught the imagination of television news.

Apparently, at least 13 people dying from a car defect that was covered up by a giant American automaker and has led to a recall of 2.6 million vehicles doesn’t hold a candle compared to, say, a missing Malaysian airliner.

But the federal government is complicit is more ways than one.

GM, you’ll recall, had to be rescued by the taxpayers in 2009, and the federal stake was so large that the company was dubbed Government Motors when it went through bankruptcy. But bankruptcy rules require a disclosure of all liabilities as well as assets. By hiding the defect in its cars, GM may have committed bankruptcy fraud.

Beyond that, the utter failure of the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency to crack down on the defective ignition switch is an embarrassing failure. But regulatory agencies are a journalistic backwater, drawing a fraction of the coverage lavished on the White House, Congress and politics.

Even so, with GM’s CEO and the acting NHTSA chief scheduled to be hauled before a Hill committee today, you’d think there would be a drumbeat on the air. Yet if there have been many great cable segments on the subject, I’ve missed them.

My theory is that in a television culture that thrives on heroes and villains, it’s hard to know who to blame.

You can’t single out President Obama because the government’s failure to act stretches back to the Bush administration, so it doesn’t make for a left/right slugfest.

You can’t fault Mary Barra, the new GM boss, because she didn’t know about the cavalier disregard for safety until she was promoted into the top job.

You most certainly can blame a Beltway culture of coziness between the regulators and the regulated—but that’s an old story and perhaps too abstract.

Let’s drill down here with the help of the New York Times, which has done consistently strong reporting on the subject.

What’s the NHTSA track record?

“Federal regulators decided not to open an inquiry on the ignitions of Chevrolet Cobalts and other cars even after their own investigators reported in 2007 that they knew of four fatal crashes, 29 complaints and 14 other reports that showed the problem disabled air bags, according to a memo released by a House subcommittee on Sunday.

“Then in 2010, the safety agency came to the same decision after receiving more reports that air bags were not deploying.”

Now we get to the mutual back-scratching that corrodes each administration. Many former top NHTSA officials “now represent companies they were once responsible for regulating, part of a well-established migration from regulator to the regulated in Washington…

“When David J. Friedman, acting administrator of the highway safety agency, testifies before House and Senate panels on Tuesday and Wednesday, a central question will be why the agency failed to push for a recall.

“To critics, the agency’s failure to act is another example of how it is not as effective as it could be. One reason often cited is a shortage of investigators. Another is that former agency employees join law firms and help defend automakers and other companies being regulated.”

Why be too aggressive in your job if there’s a bigger payday looming when you leave the government? Some people may die in the process, but hey, that’s the cost of capitalism.

And maybe we shouldn’t let Mary Barra off the hook so easily. She got a ton of good press when she became GM’s first female chief executive after working her way through the ranks for decades. Then came her first major test.

“Only weeks into her tenure as chief executive of General Motors, Mary T. Barra has been increasingly consumed by a crisis over the recall of 1.6 million defective cars linked to 13 deaths.

“Ms. Barra, a trained engineer and an employee at G.M. for more than 30 years, learned of the defect on Jan. 31 — the first time, the company said, that any senior executive had been told of the problem since it surfaced more than a decade ago.

“She has remained publicly silent on the issue and has declined all requests for interviews.” 

In other words, she refused to put herself out there and deal with the media scrutiny in what will likely be her worst crisis, apologizing to GM customers in recorded videos. After learning of the problem on Jan. 31, she finally held a news conference two weeks ago.

So Mary Barra initially didn’t step up. The government didn’t step up.

It’s time for the media, at least, to do their job. 

Knives Out for Ronan Farrow

I don’t usually use items like this, but I want to make a point.

It’s no secret that Ronan Farrow’s MSNBC show is at times painful to watch. Farrow, of course, is the 25-year-old son of either Frank Sinatra or Woody Allen who miraculously showed up in the 1 p.m. slot.

Now the New York Daily News says:

Ronan Farrow’s MSNBC talk show is facing cancellation amid poor ratings, sources exclusively tell Confidenti@l...

“‘He sort of stinks on TV,’ an MSNBC source told Confidenti@l. ‘He hasn’t turned out to be the superstar they were hoping for…Just because someone is a boy genius-turned-Twitter star doesn’t mean they deserve their own TV show.’”

Those are very cheap shots to put in blind quotes, and who knows if the show could face cancellation? An MSNBC rep is quoted as denying the speculation.

Gossip columns are always filled with chatter that this show or that may be dumped. Sometimes they’re right, but if it’s just an off-the-record staffer talking about “they” at the network, it’s just, well, gossip.

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.