If the car has a special place in the American psyche then the oft-maligned car critic is the force behind that narrative. In 2004, Brooke reflected on the business of car criticism with the Oscar Wilde of auto reviewers, the Los Angeles Times'car critic Dan Neil, shortly after his Pulitzer Prize win.
BOB GARFIELD: If the car has a special place in the American psyche, then car critics are the vehicle – sorry – which drives – [LAUGHS] – sorry again – that particular narrative. True, car critics tend to be regarded with a certain suspicion in the journalism business, since most newspapers depend on the goodwill of car dealership advertisers.
But Dan Neil is the Oscar Wilde of auto reviewers. We spoke to him back in 2004 just after he won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. In his Los Angeles Times column, cars serve ably as metaphors for our culture. To whit - DAN NEIL: Why do I like the Benz wagon? For me, whose personal life has often resembled the save-my-baby skit with the clown fireman, the station wagon connotes a settled domesticity, peace and stability devoutly to be wished. Singledom has certainly lost its luster.
There's also something deeply appropriate about wagons. They are big enough to enclose my life, but not so big as to suggest a fear of something left behind, as huge SUVs seem to do. Station wagons are kind of like SUVs after years of therapy. [LAUGHTER] So what you - I find myself doing is kind of identifying not so much the mechanical deficiencies and surpluses of a particular car, but how it fits into people's lives, what it says about them, and whether it says something you would like it to say about you.
For instance, this week I'm driving a Chevy SSR pickup. It's kind of a postmodern hotrod pickup truck. It's like a pickup truck from Toontown. I mean, you – you feel ridiculous driving it. [BROOKE LAUGHS] I feel that it's one of those vehicles that you would drive once, park and sell. [LAUGHS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, as you just described, you seem to love cars, but individual cars can frequently leave you cold. And that's difficult, many people say, for car critics, because auto advertising is so important. And, of course, there's a story floating around about you. Could you tell us about the last column you wrote for The Raleigh News & Observer back in 1997? DAN NEIL: Sure. I actually worked in classified advertising when I was working for The News & Observer, and I produced an advertorial auto section, and I wrote the column for them. I didn't ask anybody, and nobody read it behind me. It just appeared in the paper.
And, you know, my column was really crazy. And this one time I wrote a story about having intimate congress in the back of a Ford Expedition. I said at the time, you know, we both had our seat belts on, it was safe sex. [BROOKE LAUGHS]
And actually they didn't think it was that funny at all. So, my boss called me in and said okay, that's it, you are on super-super, double-dutch probation. Basically he was saying to me that I was going to have to be vetted by the advertising boss, and this I declined to do. And so, after a few months of passive resistance, they fired me.
And, by the way, The News & Observer on the other side of the church/state wall, the news side, is a very, very honorable and respectable, you know, operation. At issue though is whether or not newspapers who produce these advertorial sections, you know, whether their hands are clean on this issue overall. BROOKE GLADSTONE: We spoke to Keith Bradsher who's the author of the book High and Mighty, about SUVs - DAN NEIL: Mm-hmm. BROOKE GLADSTONE: - and he says that among critics, auto reviewers are the most likely to be compromised by the industry they cover, that they're often quitting their jobs to take industry PR jobs for big bucks. Do you think that's true? And did that ever tempt you? DAN NEIL: It is absolutely true. The entire environment is incestuous. They introduce new cars. They fly journalists in and put them up at really nice hotels and, you know, treat them to experiences that they would never possibly in a million years - they wouldn't even be allowed in these hotels, ordinarily. [BROOKE LAUGHS] You know, then they let them drive the cars, and then they go away. You know, and that's not supposed to affect their judgment.
What's surprising is not that it does affect their judgment, but that so often it doesn't affect their judgment. I forget who said it, but some politician said if you can't take their money and vote against them anyway, you're no damn good. [BROOKE LAUGHS]
But it is a compromised business, and it is also true that newspapers are under a great deal of revenue pressure on this score, and so yeah, a favorable editorial/advertorial content is often created to satisfy that need. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which you frequently don't provide. DAN NEIL: No, almost never. I'm really ornery. [LAUGHS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does the industry hate you? DAN NEIL: No, no. The manufacturers are tremendous about this. You know, like General Motors, right? You know, this thing that I'm driving that's a just an awful vehicle, this SSR, they know that, you know, I may hate that vehicle, but I may like something else. And I think it's worth it to them. BOB GARFIELD: Dan Neil is automobile critic for The Los Angeles Times and recipient of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. We recorded that conversation four years ago.