By ANN ZIMMERMAN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The first phase of the Bridgestone/Firestone tire recall centered on
whom to blame for the mounting death toll related to alleged tire-tread
Now, another phase has begun. Who deserves
credit for bringing the problem to the nation's
In May, shortly after the National Highway Traffic
Safety Administration announced that it had launched an official
investigation into some Firestone-brand tires originally equipped on
Ford Motor Co. sport-utility vehicles, several industry periodicals,
including Automotive News and Rubber & Plastics News, credited a
series of Chicago Sun-Times articles that ran in late April and early May
for prompting the investigation.
The Chicago Sun-Times, owned by Hollinger Inc.'s Hollinger
International, reissued the articles on its Web site with an editor's note
pointing out the timing of its articles and the NHTSA investigation. The
Sun-Times articles, though, don't focus on Firestone tires, but on other
brands that suffered tire separations.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration itself early on
credited a researcher at State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.,
Sam Boyden, who spotted a pattern of claims in tread-separation cases
on Firestone tires. He forwarded information to the NHTSA defects
office in July 1998. But NHTSA didn't think that the number was high
enough to take action, according to an NHTSA spokesman.
Then last week, members of Congress and Ford Chief Executive Jacques
Nasser said the real credit for setting in motion the largest tire recall in
history belongs to KHOU-TV Channel 11, the Houston CBS affiliate
owned by Belo Corp. of Dallas.
On Feb. 7, KHOU's three-person investigative team ran an eight-minute
report saying that possibly defective Firestone tires on Ford Explorers
may have been responsible for 30 deaths nationwide.
In the report, Ford blamed driver error, specifically under-inflated tires,
for the tire blowouts that caused the SUVs to roll over. Several days
later, Firestone sent the station a letter accusing it of airing a misleading
report. "This series has unmistakably delivered the false messages that
Radial ATX tires are dangerous," the letter read.
The report originated with a tip from a lawyer to Channel 11
investigative reporter Anna Werner. The lawyer was handling a case
where a Firestone tire's tread had separated and led to a passenger's
death. The story, however, almost ended right there. The victim's family
hired another attorney to handle the case, and the two lawyers wound
up suing each other.
But Ms. Werner learned of other lawyers with similar cases. She and
producer David Raziq contacted NHTSA, which told them it was unaware
of a problem. The report received so much response that NHTSA asked
the station to run its 800 number so complaining parties could contact
it. By the beginning of March, NHTSA told the station it was conducting
a preliminary evaluation of Firestone's tires. Firestone/Bridgestone Inc.
is a unit of Japan's Bridgestone Corp.
Chicago Sun-Times deputy metro editor Paul Saltzman acknowledges
that KHOU was first on the story, but says his reporter, David Skertic,
"focused on a broader industrywide story." His reports focused on
problems with tires made by other companies. The series also
highlighted that tire manufacturers kept problems quiet by keeping
A day after the Chicago Sun-Times series ran, NHTSA announced a
formal investigation. It also sent letters to tire manufacturers asking for
service bulletins on their tires, which they were supposed to have filed
with the agency. NHTSA told the Sun-Times it had meant to do that
ever since the KHOU story aired, according to Mr. Saltzman.