An Orchestrated Campaign Against Toyota in Overdrive?

Let’s be clear: If the company is proven to have seriously erred and knowingly compromised driver and public safety, it should be made to pay an appropriate price. The developments of the past weekend, though, seem much more sinister, supporting the idea that the goal of many critics is really to drive the company’s public perception, and perhaps the company itself, into the ground.

On Sunday, the Detroit News “somehow” got its hands on an internal company presentation from June 2009 that had been handed over to congressional investigators. The News’ David Shepardson, who seems not to have even recognized that the 10 pages he received did not comprise the entire presentation (uh, the broken page number sequence of the documents sort of gave that away, Dave), reported that the presentation’s sterile wording somehow shows that the company had “bragged” about saving money on recall costs. The Associated Press’s Ken Thomas, whose go-to word was “boasted,” picked up on that theme with amazing speed. By late Sunday, the theme had become a meme in the establishment press.

There’s only one problem, which anyone familiar with Japanese culture would recognize: it frowns so harshly on bragging that it almost never happens. If you’re an American making a presentation to a Japanese executive, which was the situation in this case, you don’t brag either -- at least if you think you have a future with the company. Even the word “win,” which was employed several times and which Shepardson and Thomas relied on as evidence of gloating, only means “favorable development” -- and most certainly not “victory” -- to the Japanese.

Monday brought news that Toyota’s government and activist opponents are piling on to a degree the Big Three may never have experienced, as “federal prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into the company’s safety problems and the Securities and Exchange Commission was probing what the automaker told investors.” I don’t recall any Big Three executive or employee being subjected to a criminal trial relating to a product liability problem, but that possibility now appears to loom at Toyota -- just in time to rattle its executives ahead of their congressional testimony.

Finally, it’s more than a little interesting that Department of Transportation spokesperson Olivia Alair was available on Sunday night to tell the press that the Toyota presentation in question was a “very telling” indicator that the company might be placing its bottom line ahead of safety. What’s really “telling” about the kind of people Toyota faces is that as Barack Obama’s Ohio campaign director in 2008, Alair registered to vote in the Buckeye State even though she doesn’t live there, and was apparently ready to cast an election ballot until a county prosecutor threatened to drop felony charges on her and 12 other Obama campaign workers.

I do hope that the folks at Toyota fully appreciate the ugliness they’re up against.