BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Dan Neil scored a coup last year as the first ever automotive critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for his writing in the L.A. Times. But General Motors hasn't been nearly as charmed by Neil. Last week, GM announced it was pulling all of its advertising from the Times. The reason, GM said, quote "some factual errors and misrepresentations in the editorial coverage." The move coincided with a Neil review that called for the ouster of GM's chief executive and referred to the Pontiac G6 as a sales flop, and whether General Motors' actions are seen as its only recourse, or a desperate attempt to flex its muscle, the stakes are high - from 10 to 20 million dollars in advertising. Keith Crain is publisher and editorial director of Automotive News and Auto week. He's also chairman of Crain Communications, which owns Advertising Age, which is my day job employer, which leads me to say Mr. Crain, sir, welcome to the show. You look absolutely marvelous. Have you been working out?
KEITH CRAIN: Yes, I have, indeed. And how are you? It's good to talk to you.
BOB GARFIELD: Good to talk to you. So, first let's just establish General Motors' business situation.
KEITH CRAIN: Well, General Motors has been taking their lumps in the last couple of months, and I have watched GM's market share slide precipitously from almost 60 percent now down to something around 25 percent. There was a time when GM was part of the Big Three plus maybe American Motors. Today, there are 40 companies going after their customers.
BOB GARFIELD: So maybe GM is no longer the 900 pound gorilla of the industry, but it's still an 850 pound gorilla with a vast ad budget to use as a weapon, if it decides to shoot the messenger. Is that what's happening here - ad budget as weapon?
KEITH CRAIN: I think it is. When I heard about it, I was a little bit chagrined, and I must say, disappointed. I think that it was somebody down in the middle of the corporation probably did a knee jerk reaction to some criticisms that the L.A. Times wrote, and I'm not sure that they did something with the blessing of the entire corporate staff, and particularly the hierarchy. And it was a mistake. It was a big mistake.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's talk about mistakes, 'cause if I'm not making one, Automotive News has itself been in this very situation, thanks to some stinging commentary from a journalist called Keith Crain.
KEITH CRAIN: In the years that I have published Automotive News, we've lost a considerable amount of money to make sure that we maintain our editorial integrity. Most of the time, sophisticated advertisers understand that journalists deserve free commentary, and, and they will often send a letter to the editor. There are opportunities for them to rebut what we say. But occasionally, there will be advertisers who just say that's too much - I'm going to cancel my advertising. That's the only thing I have to do to let you know how unhappy I am. And they go ahead and they do it.
BOB GARFIELD: Putting yourself in GM's shoes for a moment, I guess you can see how a company might wonder why it's spending millions of dollars with a news organization that is just slinging pot shots.
KEITH CRAIN: But the thing that gets me is that if GM had thought for 30 seconds, they probably could have gone to the L.A. Times and said - listen, we don't agree with what you're doing, and we would like to have the opportunity to counter their criticism, and I will bet you money that the L.A. Times, like any other good publication, would say well, fine - we'll give you an opportunity to answer those criticisms, and they would have been able to do that, and probably gotten a lot more result than by just, in a snit, pulling the ads.
BOB GARFIELD: Once, I did a piece for Playboy, and I went back to find all the original reviews of cars like the original Corvair and the Edsel and the Chevette, and I found out that in the automotive magazines, the buff books, they were uniformly positive, because the buff books have never met a new car they didn't like. And I'm wondering if, because Dan Neil was a critic, if GM's expectation was just, you know, for puff piece after puff piece, and they just weren't prepared for any kind of stinging criticism from this particular quarter.
KEITH CRAIN: The fact of the matter is I think that kind of journalism you're alluding to with buff books that are almost apologetic for all the cars that are coming out, I don't think exists any more. I also think that the L.A. Times probably had to have a lot more articles than just one that were critical of GM before GM's fuse finally got so short that they blew up.
BOB GARFIELD: How do you think it's all going to end up at, let's say, six months from now?
KEITH CRAIN: I think GM will be back advertising in the Los Angeles Times, and busy at the business of trying to sell cars and trucks to people who read the L.A. Times, and I think the L.A. Times will continue to be as critical as they ever were.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, Keith, thanks very much.
KEITH CRAIN: You're welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Mr. Keith Crain is chairman of Crain Communications, publisher and editorial director of Automotive News, and ultimately-my boss.