GM vs. NBC, a New Wave of Employee Pride

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Harry Pearce at 1993 February 8 news conference

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Written by William Pelfrey

In the fall of 1992, positive stories about General Motors were few and far between, with the news media microscope focused on the company’s financial problems and negative speculation about its future.

In short, employee enthusiasm was under stress.

On Tuesday, 1992, November 17, the NBC television network went one step too far when its Dateline program aired a feature on GM entitled "Waiting to Explode." The story included dramatic video footage of a so-called "test" supposedly demonstrating that fuel tanks on GM pickup trucks built from 1973-1987 were prone to catch fire in side impact collisions.

General Motors quietly began its own investigation of the facts behind the story. On Monday, 1993, February 8, the company stunned NBC (and the rest of the U.S. news media) with a defamation suit against NBC. This was the first time GM had ever filed a defamation suit against any institution or individual.

That same day, Harry Pearce, GM’s executive vice president and general counsel (later elected Vice Chairman effective 1996, January 1), hosted a surprise news conference in the Product Exhibit Hall of the General Motors Building in Detroit. With an array of physical evidence and video, Pearce demonstrated conclusively that the NBC "test" had actually been rigged.

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Video Courtesy of General Motors Archive, 1993

He told his standing-room-only audience of reporters: "The 11 million households that viewed the program were never told that NBC used remotely controlled incendiary devices to try to ensure that a fire would erupt, seemingly due to the collision" and went on to declare, "We cannot allow the men and women of GM, the thousands of independent businesses that sell GM products, and the owners of these pickup trucks, to suffer the consequences of NBC’s irresponsible conduct and deliberate deception."

The following evening, in a live broadcast, the Dateline program’s co-anchors Stone Phillips and Jane Pauley read a lengthy statement that included the following: "We acknowledge and take responsibility for the problems GM has identified in the demonstration crash. We apologize to our viewers and the General Motors."

This was the first time any television network had ever issued such an apology and retraction on the air.

The next day, GM dropped its lawsuit with no fanfare but NBC News drew wide criticism from the rest of the news media. Even many GM critics lauded GM’s stance against the network.

The Dateline incident and Harry Pearce’s passionate defense of GM’s integrity also sparked a new wave of pride and confidence throughout the General Motors family. To this day, the rebuttal to Dateline is singled out by many employees and dealers as one of the high points of GM’s recent past.

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