...Raising Issues of Journalistic Ethics and Censorship
Last Tuesday Earl Stewart on Cars, my weekly radio show which ran on Seaview Radio in North Palm Beach for nearly 7 years, was abruptly canceled. Ed Morse Honda had threatened to cancel his advertising on Seaview unless Nancy and I were fired. One of the Seaview broadcasters (William is a pseudonym) sent me an e-mail which you can read below with my response. I chose this as the clearest way to explain both my position and those of the Seaview owners and management. Read both sides and you be the judge. If you agree with me, please email or voice your views to the Seaview executives for the reinstatement of Earl Stewart on Cars.
Seaview Executive Contact Information:
Chet Tart, general manager
Jim Martin, owner
Tricia Woods co-owner
Email Exchange with "William":
Earl: I agree that Chet was not happy about firing me and he told me that last Tuesday afternoon in my office. He told me that “the owners of Seaview, Tricia and Jim” had made the decision and he had no other choice. However, although I believe Chet told you that firing Nancy and me was the right decision to make, I don’t believe that he truly believes that. Chet is “following orders”. At this stage of his life, he can’t afford to be job hunting.
William: I'd just like to give you some thoughts that you may not have considered. While I was not here when you started your show, I believe that it started out as a consumer friendly show, with helpful hints on car buying and maintenance, and other auto news. I enjoyed listening to it. Over time, you got into your "secret shopper" thing, and I think that Seaview probably didn't recognize it as the danger that it was.
Earl: My show started out 7 years ago and was, until my last show, a “consumer friendly” show, but it was never a “car dealer friendly” show. I think this is the false story you’re being fed by Chet and maybe others at Seaview who are desperately trying to hang onto their jobs. Sharing the truth can get them fired. You can ask any one of my regular listeners if my show was ever just “helpful hints on car buying, maintenance, and auto news”. You can also ask the Gary Todd or Dick Farrell, (I’ll provide you with their contact information if you like) who worked with Nancy and me at the very beginning what kind of a show it was at the beginning. They are no longer employed by Seaview and can freely tell you the truth. If you have the time, I’ll send you a recording from some of my old shows. They are every bit as objective and critical of car dealers as all of my recent shows. Yes, the mystery shopping report was not on the show from the beginning but it has been for several years. We tried it one time and it became hugely popular. Listeners would call in to complain when we didn’t have time to get to the mystery shopping report.
William: See, there is a difference between an investigative reporter, and a personality that owns a business. If the investigative reporter spills the beans on some bad practices of a business, he has no vested interest in it. The station might take some heat for it, but they would have made their decision before it went on the air whether to do it or not.
Earl: I should not be banned as a consumer advocate because I happen to own a car dealership. I totally divorce my “car dealer persona” from all of my consumer advocate rolls. My book, Confessions of a Recovering Car Dealer, my weekly blog, my weekly column for Hometown News, my continuous speaking tours at public libraries, Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs, Condo Associations, schools, churches, synagogues, and my former radio show. I rarely ever mention my car dealership and, when I do, it’s only when asked or to give full disclosure. I never, ever try to sell anybody a Toyota when I wear my consumer advocate hat. The media widely accepts my consumer advocate roll. Last week I appeared as a consumer advocate on national TV, ABC News regarding illegal and unethical car practices by car dealers. Over the years I’ve been quoted and appeared in any number of national medium…CNN, Fox News, Wall Street Journal, NY Times, USA Today US News and World Report, The Geraldo Rivera Show, as well as local TV and radio. You say “there is a difference between an investigative reporter and a personality that owns a business”. I totally agree, one difference is that an investigative reporter who also has owned and operated a business for 46 years knows a lot more about that business than an investigative reporter who never sold a car. That’s what makes me unique because I know where “all the bodies are buried”. In fact, I buried a few of those bodies myself and hence my book…”Confessions of a Recovering Car Dealer”. “I’ve been there and done that” and that’s why unethical dealers fear me so. If I wasn’t telling the truth, can you explain why, over seven years, not one single car dealer has sued me for slander? Furthermore, my dealership is a model of ethics and integrity among car dealerships. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone, and he who lives in a glass house shouldn’t throw stones.” I must be without sin because I do live in a glass house and the car dealers of South Florida would be all over me like a cheap Kmart suit if I wasn’t practicing what I preach.
William: With a show hosted by the most recognized car dealer in Palm Beach, you do have a vested interest. When you say disparaging things about Ed Morse or another dealer, the implication is that a customer would never see those things happening at your dealership. That may be true, but it's a viewpoint that certainly is biased. It's human nature. We all think our company is the best. Yours probably is.
Earl: I would be hypocritical not to admit that my radio show brought me tons of business. I’m not sure what you mean by saying that it may be true that my dealership doesn’t rip off customers like Ed Morse but that viewpoint is biased.” How can something be true and biased? Check your Webster’s.
William: In your book, you mentioned that while you have tried hard over the years to weed out bad employees, every once in a while you find a bad one and you deal with it. Now just think if Seaview had the owner of Ed Morse on the air talking about something bad that happened at your dealership. I don't think you'd be happy. You might even pull your ads. I wouldn't blame you if you did. I've had many advertisers over the years who pulled their ads because they didn't like what was on the air or in print. When that happens, the station or paper in question needs to assess the situation and see if the person pulling their ads has a valid point. If you had a column in the Palm Beach Post and you wrote negative things about Ed Morse Honda, I bet they'd have a word with you, too.
Earl: I do have bad employees working for me. I have between 140 and 150 employees working for me and there are always a few rotten apples in a barrel that big. I encourage anyone to tell me about my rotten apples including callers to my radio show. If you were a regular listener, you would know that customers of mine will occasionally call in and criticize their treatment at my dealership. I encourage them to talk and explain in detail their bad experience. I then sincerely apologize and promise to investigate, make it right, coach the person(s) responsible and correct the processes that allowed it to happen. Many are amazed that I, not only allow, but encourage callers to criticize me and/or my dealership. People are also amazed that I regularly encourage car dealers and car dealership employees to call in. I promise to allow them all the time they need and not mute them, talk over them, or disconnect them. Some have taken me up on this but not too many. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it’s very good radio and builds my listener base.
William: I did not hear what you said about Ed Morse Honda, but from your comment on facebook, it's obvious that you don't like their business practices. Knowing you, I bet your instincts are correct. But that doesn't mean that a radio station has to give you the podium to make negative comments about their other advertisers....the ones who pay the bills.
Earl: I said very little about Ed Morse; it was a caller, Frank Nash, who called the show after Ed Morse Honda refused to sell him a new Honda at the advertised price. Ed Morse Honda also added the dealer fee to the price which is a violation of state law. If you would like to speak to Frank Nash, his phone number is XXX-XXXX (redacted). If Frank Nash or I slandered Ed Morse Honda, he has his remedy in the courts, but as you know “truth is the perfect defense against slander and libel”. I would agree that Seaview shouldn’t give me a podium to say negative things about a car dealer if they were untrue. But are you saying that they should censor my efforts to report illegal practices by a local car dealer?
William: The good news is that in this age of new technology, you are not limited to licensed radio and TV stations, or newspapers, to get the word out. You have a blog. You have a website. You are on facebook. You can do a "radio" show online and as a podcast. Someone mentioned a national radio show. I will tell you that everything you talk about EXCEPT the bad business practices of West Palm Beach car dealers is of interest to a national audience.
Earl: William, bad business practices of WPB dealers may not be of interest to a national audience if that’s all they heard every week. But bad business practices by a local car dealer in Minnesota were of great interest to a national audience, ABC Lookout, with Brian Ross. I appeared on that expose and the show had very high ratings. You must know enough about what radio, TV, and all media audiences prefer to understand that “how to properly maintain your car” is trumped by “how not to get ripped off by your local car dealer”. Ask some of your friend what they think about their experiences with car dealers in buying and servicing. Answer this question…Why do car dealers perennially appear dead last on the Gallup “Honesty and Ethics in Professions” survey? There’s nothing the TV and radio audiences would rather see and hear than bad guys being exposed.
William: Someone mentioned that you could buy the radio station. Let's say you did want to buy a radio station here. If you did, how many of your competing car dealers do you think would spend money with you? Zero! They wouldn't want to give you their money.
Earl: Jim Martin and Tricia Woods have asked me to buy their station, but I declined. This may be one more reason they don’t want me on their station anymore. I declined because my objectivity would be questioned if I was the owner of the station that aired my views. I also declined because I know nothing about broadcasting and I didn’t like the potential ROI after looking at the financials.
William: I think you have every right to say what you do about other dealers. But there are consequences when you do that. Nobody is under any obligation to give you the microphone or ink to do it. If you want to continue doing this, you're going to have to find your own podium. Fortunately, in this day and age, it's a lot easier.
Earl: I’m not sure you’re right about there being no obligation by Seaview to allow my show to continue. My show is a community service show. The airwaves are owned by the people and the FCC and FTC have laws to protect the people. The FCC says that radio and TV stations must devote a certain amount of their use of the airwaves to serve the public and the FTC says that when groups of businesses conspire to harm or eliminate another business it is an illegal boycott.
William: If you'd like to talk about this some more, I'd be happy to meet with you or talk on the phone. If you don't like my message, I understand. But you seem like a really great guy, and I wanted you to look at the entire picture. I remember the times my heart was broken buy a girl who broke up with me. It hurts. But after a while, it makes you strong.
Earl: I’ll be happy to meet with you or talk on the phone, but I’ll be very busy this coming week, as you can imagine.
William: Try to hold back your anger, and rise above it. Seaview is a great little radio station, and Chet has been great to me. But the name Earl Stewart is better known in Palm Beach County than Seaview Radio. I can't say that about William. I think you can make this into a positive.
Earl: Thanks for your advice on anger management but Chet will tell you that I wasn’t angry when he fired me last Tuesday. I’m disappointed in the owners of Seaview, but fully understood that Chet did what he had to do. If I were Chet Tart, I would have done exactly the same thing. I also think he’s “following orders” when he denies the truth of why I was fired. I’m getting feedback from my listeners who have called and spoken to Chet, Jim Martin, Mike Balsamo, and others that I’m lying about why I was fired. I believe that even Jim Martin may be misinformed and that Tricia Woods was the architect forcing Chet to fire me. You said in your email that the reason my show was canceled was that it had gradually become more and more anti dealer. This is not true. My show’s theme song is the theme from “The Good the Bad and the Ugly” (Nancy’s idea) and that’s what we do. We tell good stories about dealers when they happen albeit all too infrequently. What is true is that Seaview has found it difficult to sell advertising to car dealers for some time. Braman, Napleton, Arrigo, Schumacher, and Ed Morse have all threatened Seaview and most have canceled their ads. Ed Morse was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I believe that Tricia Woods made a very bad management decision. Looking at advertising revenue from one business group as the most important thing to the survival of Seaview is shortsighted. The heart of a radio station’s long run survival is their listener base. When the smoke settles the listeners will decide if Seaview survives. A lot of those listeners don’t like the way Seaview treated Earl and Nancy Stewart. As the word continues to get out, and this is my main mission over the next few months, more and more of Seaview listener will know the truth. Seaview’s listener base could be even further eroded should negative facts develop and be made public if litigation ensues.