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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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February 1996


Reporters Crash, Viewers Burned
Guest Editorial, by Julie DeFalco

Just when you think reporters couldn't get any more hostile to industry, they do. Consider two mid-January television reports on ABC's Good Morning America and NBC Nightly News. Both stories contain mistakes which often plague reports about automobile safety, and both ignored the trade-offs safety regulations inevitably require.

At issue were federal standards for rear guards on tractor trailers. These "U"-shaped metal rods are specifically intended to keep cars that hit the rear of a truck from riding under it. The regulatory standard for the guards has been set at 30 inches from the ground for the past fifty years, although the voluntary industry standard has been 22 inches for several years. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) merely codified this standard with the cooperation of the trucking industry.

That's the news part. But reporters portrayed this issue as a grand conflict, with industry as a hostile force and supposedly-impartial "consumer advocates" as society's protectors. The question for reporters was how to criticize industry without panning the government in a situation where both agreed. Here's how they answered it:

Neither report mentioned that industry was already producing 22-inch guards. ABC's Lisa Stark, on the January 19 Good Morning America, reported that "under the new standard, rear guards...must be lowered to 22 inches above the ground. They're now at 30 inches." Tom Brokaw stated in his introduction to the January 17 NBC Nightly News segment, "The government is about to take an action that should save lives." Robert Hager was more explicit in the NBC segment, saying that the government will require new tractor trailers "to be made with big rods on the back, bigger than any currently in use." Neither report pointed out that most tractor trailers already have the 22-inch guards -- voluntarily.

Hager employed questionable data. "Nearly 700 [people] a year die in [ride-under] accidents," he declared. But both NHTSA and the trucking industry put the number of deaths at 60 each year. (ABC's Lisa Stark used the NHTSA figure.)

Both reports projected skepticism of the new standard -- but not of the government -- as insufficiently stringent without offering evidence. In Stark's report, Gerald Donaldson of Citizens for Reliable & Safe Highways (CRASH) stated that the new rule "was not selected on the basis of what would really be a big contribution to improving public safety... [but] on the basis of what the trucking industry would buy into."

The ubiquitous Joan Claybrook, representing CRASH in Hager's report, said, "We don't think this rule makes significant enough changes....Very few people are going to be protected under this standard." Hager didn't ask Claybrook why, if she was so concerned, she never acted on the rear guard issue when she was head of NHTSA from 1977-1981.

Neither report was skeptical of these supposedly objective "consumer advocates." The media look at funding only when it comes to industry associations or conservative advocates. That's why we hear about "tobacco-funded groups," but not "trial-lawyer-funded groups." The fact that a group is funded by parties who have a stake in certain outcomes does not necessarily mean that what they say is incorrect. Still, it would have been interesting if the reporters had asked who funds CRASH; they would have discovered that CRASH is substantially funded by the railroad industry.

Regulations intended to increase safety by decreasing one risk often backfire by creating new risks. For example, the risk of keeping the rear guard at 22 inches means that some small cars could still slip under the truck. But making the rear guard lower means that trucks could get caught on railroad grade crossings or have difficulty maneuvering around rail yards and ports, causing different kinds of accidents. ABC touched on this issue dismissively; NBC only mentioned the dollar cost of the changes.

When it comes to government regulation of safety, even the most skeptical reporters become true believers. Too eager to criticize industry, and too receptive to "consumer groups" which invariably advocate more government regulation, reporters often believe that we can have more safety at no cost. But overlooking the trade-offs involved in government regulation does not help anyone, and could, in fact, be deadly. Who pays this price? The very people reporters are trying to inform: consumers.

Julie DeFalco is a policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.


Rich Noyes


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