Editorial: OEM Shills Among TTAC’s Best & Brightest – If It’s News Now Why Wasn’t It News Then?

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Regular readers of Cars In Depth know that I’m a fairly longtime contributor to The Truth About Cars. My former editors at TTAC, Ed Niedermeyer and Bertel Schmitt, recently launched a new automotive news and commentary venture called the Daily Kanban and they decided to start their public launch with an explosive story, one that got so much attention that it crashed their servers. It appears that over the years General Motors employees, usually not identified as such, have posted thousands of comments at TTAC, most likely in violation of GM’s own rules. Ford and Chrysler employees have also posted at the site without disclosing their employment. Bertel Schmitt says that he’s known about it for more than six months, dating back to when he was still managing editor of TTAC.

Now the management at TTAC, ever since site founder Bob Farago’s days, has always encouraged comments from informed industry insiders, and nobody wants anybody to get in trouble on the job for sharing that information with TTAC’s other readers, but many of the comments referred to by Ed and Bertel were obviously not there to inform but rather to praise their employers’ products and criticize, often unfairly, the competition. I don’t know what the term is in German, but in English we call that shilling, a term that literally dates to carny sideshow snake-oil salesmen. Ed and Bertel are both very smart guys who have a lot of knowledge and understanding about the automotive industry and I wish them both long and healthy lives. They earned a lot of respect from me and they both gave me a forum and a lot of latitude as a writer when they didn’t really have to. Still, Bertel’s report of OEM shills among TTAC commenters is very disturbing, and so was the manner in which it was reported.

TTAC has always been known for the high quality of our comments. Bertel’s “news” should be disturbing to TTAC readers and really to anyone who cares about open debate about cars and the auto industry. So disturbing and attention getting that I can understand why Niedermeyer and Schmitt would want to use the story to get a lot of publicity for their new enterprise. I’m just not sure why Bertel left other TTAC editors and all of our readers in the dark for months about the OEM shilling once he knew that it was happening while he was still in charge of the site. If it’s worthy of note and get a link to their new site from Matt Drudge now, why did Bertel spike the story when he had the chance to run it at TTAC then? Even more curious is the fact that Bertel is now taking TTAC to task for not reporting on the same story that he spiked six and half months ago.

In Bertel’s latest post on his new *soapbox about the matter, former TTAC moderator Jeff Puthuff says that he discovered the matter accidentally on the very date that year that GM filed for bankruptcy, June 1, 2009. Why this was not shared with the TTAC staff or readership I don’t know. Puthuff says that he started flagging the comments by appending “ofGM”, “ofFord”, etc. to users’ names when he noticed particular IP addresses, but he never made a public announcement and Bertel says that he discovered the matter six months ago. Why he didn’t share this with the TTAC staff, or with TTAC readers, I also don’t know. I do know that if the story is as big as Herr Schmitt makes it out to be, then I must ask why wasn’t it published six months ago on TTAC? Why did Bertel sit on the story and only wait till he needed the publicity at a new site before he revealed this “holy grail” and “firestorm” of a story (Bertel’s words, not mine)?

The reason why I ask those questions is because Bertel has seemingly decided that getting a big splash for his and Ed’s new online digs isn’t enough and I see that he’s now grouping TTAC in with other automotive sites that have have disappointed him by not amplifying his big story and presumably linking to it. He’s also implying that we’re keeping quiet about the matter to curry favor with the automakers. I guess that link love from Drudge and Instapundit just doesn’t get the Shibari enthusiast and former TTAC EIC’s juices flowing.

My former employer (I am using that term very loosely) Thetruthaboutcars.com had all chances to be the center of the attention which they crave. Playing their traditional anti-GM part, they could have written that yes, it’s true, and here are the timestamped transcripts. Or, just to be ornery, and perhaps to win a few points in Detroit (good luck with that), TTAC could have written that I am full of excrement, and here are the time stamped transcripts that prove that all alleged GM commenters were in fact innocent private citizens who posted from home. TTAC did neither and kept quiet with the rest of the embarrassed blogosphere that hopes to sell “sponsored conversations” to automakers. Good luck with that, they already control the conversation without paying.

The former editor in chief who spiked the story then is calling us to account for not running it now? I’m not so sure that it’s thetruthaboutcars.com that’s craving attention. Not being the Editor in Chief or the Managing Editor of The Truth About Cars, I can’t say for sure why Jack and Derek have not yet commented on the topic. Perhaps they felt that helping Bertel make money by tarnishing the reputation of his former colleagues and employers isn’t their role (or very seemly for the matter). Or, more likely, perhaps they were taken aback by our former colleague’s sitting on the story only to make a big deal of it now at our expense, complete with disingenuous concern about ‘others’ smearing TTAC writers that made sure to repeat the smears verbatim. I do know that it makes absolutely no sense for Schmitt to excoriate TTAC for not hyping what is now his signature story, after he deliberately kept TTAC readers, our staff, and the general public in the dark about the exact same matter for months when he was at the helm here.

Oh, and in case it’s decided that it’s now considered newsworthy over at BS and EN’s new place, no, I didn’t dry-hump anyone while building a Corvette engine.

*I’ll just note that Eiji Toyoda got the idea for kanban, just in time, from someone else too, in his case, American grocery stores.

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