How ABC News' Brian Ross Staged His Toyota Death Ride
Brian Ross, America's Wrongest Reporter, has been credited with owning the Toyota recall story, including one memorable report with Ross behind the wheel of an out-of-control car. He did it by splicing in staged footage to make it look scarier.
UPDATE: ABC News "fixed" the video by making it even faker.
Last month, Ross paid a visit to David Gilbert, a professor of automotive technology at Southern Illinois University who claims to have diagnosed a Toyota design flaw and found a way to reliably recreate uncommanded acceleration in its cars. To prove it, he let Ross drive around a car he'd rigged to suffer from the defect, and sure enough, it took off without warning! Scary. Here's the video:
One of the things that makes it look scary is that when the acceleration occurs, Ross' piece cuts to a close-up shot of the Toyota's tachometer spiking up to 6,000 RPMs in the course of a second—the whole car is outfitted with cameras, and it looks like they planted one right on top of the dashboard to record the RPMs. Wow! That's fast.
But, as some commenters at YouTube and various message boards have discovered, the tachometer footage is faked. Take a look at these screenshots of the shot of the RPMs surging, one taken at the beginning of the acceleration and one at the end, just before Ross' piece cut back to a shot of him at the wheel:
As you can clearly see, the dashboard lights indicate that the car's doors are open and its parking brake is on. The first shot shows the tachometer beginning at below 1,000 RPMs—or idling speed, as opposed to the 20 mph that Ross said he was driving when the acceleration began. On the right of the images, the speedometer appears to show a reading of zero miles per hour. And to top it all off, the transmission indicator shows that the car is in park. In other words, Ross took footage of a parked Toyota's RPMs taking off and falsely portrayed the shot as having taken place while he was driving the car.
ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider confirmed to Gawker that the tachometer shot was indeed taken from the parked car and spliced into Ross' death ride. But he says the shot wasn't just taken while someone stepped on the gas pedal—it was filmed while Gilbert performed the same test that caused the acceleration while Ross was driving. "We isolated the tachometer during tests while the car was parked, in neutral, and driving," Schneider says. "The shot of the car while driving was very shaky, so a choice was made in the editing suite to use the shot of the parked tachometer."
Schneider says ABC News is re-editing the online version of Ross' piece to sub in the shot of the tachometer while Ross was driving, which he says shows the car's RPMs going from "2,000 to 6,000 or 7,000," and will post the following editor's note explaining the decision:
We have changed a two second insert shot in this video report, showing the tachometer meter during Professor Gilbert's demonstration.The original insert shot was taped when Professor Gilbert demonstrated how an induced short circuit could cause the acceleration as the car was in park. As you will see, the insert shot of the tachometer taped as the car is rolling is extremely shaky, which is why it was not originally used. The readings of the induced surge are comparable. A question about the original shot (which clearly shows it was taped while the car was parked with the doors open) was brought to our attention by a writer at the Gawker.com website, John Cook.
We got credit and everything! Schneider claims that the editing trick didn't undermine the point of Ross' piece, which was to show that Gilbert was able to recreate the flaw, prove that Toyota's failsafe brake override system didn't work, and that the glitch didn't generate an error code that mehcanics could use to diagnose the problem. "The tachometer shot of the car driving as an even more accurate portrayal," he says. "But they're both accurate." If it's true that the swapped shot actually took place while Gilbert was performing the same test he performed while Ross was driving, then we could conceivably be inclined to believe that this was a careless error rather than a deliberate attempt to deceive viewers by using the most damaging shot of the tachometer Ross had. And maybe if he didn't have a lengthy and documented history of shamelessly hyping cooked stories—from the Iraqi connection to the 2001 anthrax attacks to former CIA agent John Kiriakou's lie that the agency only waterboarded one person one time to Nidal Hasan's attempt to "reach out to Al Qaeda" to the Yemeni terrorist who plotted the Christmas bombing attack from Saudi custody and so on—we would believe that.