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Unleash the Hounds 

Using the media is not the same as controlling it

Rob Lee spent $30,000 for a truck that, during its first few hundred miles, belched smoke, made strange noises and had balding tires. Because that's not expected of a new vehicle, for months he haggled with the dealer, finally leaving the truck at Bo Beuckman Ford and refusing to pick it up until it was fixed or replaced. When he couldn't get satisfaction, Lee did what lots of unhappy campers do -- he shopped his story to the local media.

Typically, that's where the Lee story would have ended. Most news outlets think "consumer reporting" is no longer in vogue, and when they do air such a piece, the incident has to be sufficiently strange to break through the logjam of other sob stories.

But Lee's attempt to air his tale succeeded ever so briefly, making it onto a KMOV-TV (Channel 4) newscast on Nov. 28. Julius Hunter even introduced the segment by describing Lee's truck as a "lemon," and the report was sympathetic to Lee. But sometimes getting what you want gives you something you didn't expect. Lee made the 10 o'clock news, but his success blew up in his face. Last week, Lee was pitching a different story.

Rob Lee, who runs his own North County auto-repair shop, bought his diesel-powered, extended-cab F-350 series truck from the Beuckman dealership in March. He ordered the four-wheel-drive, 1-ton truck without a bed, planning to add one later. When he noticed unusual wear on the tires after only 160 miles, he called the dealer. He had also noted strange noises and an inordinate amount of exhaust. The dealer's mechanics put in a new clutch, but that didn't solve the noise problems. When they called on April 22 to have Lee come get the truck, Lee refused and said he wouldn't take it back until it was fixed.

After months of back-and-forth, a "dispute-settlement board" recommended in August that Ford offer Lee a replacement vehicle. But Lee balked at paying $1,500 for options on the new truck that he says were included on the first truck, and he wanted to be reimbursed for the insurance, interest and personal-property taxes he had paid on the first truck. That amounted to about $4,700. Ford and the dealership said no.

That's when Lee started trolling the media, hoping to snag someone's interest. He hooked John Mills at KMOV, a reporter who takes himself so seriously that he has his own Web site. The report by Mills, all 180 seconds of it, was complete with five views of exhaust belching from the truck and on-camera comments by Lee about how Ford "wants to pawn some junk off on me" and how "Ford doesn't care" and, finally, "I wonder how many other thousands of people get blown off and jerked around by dealerships." Gee, what a contrast to the car commercials during the newscast.

Viewers that night didn't know what had transpired in the hours before the newscast. Lee says Beuckman's general manager, Larry Perez, called and offered to settle as long as the Channel 4 piece didn't air. Because giving Lee what he wanted seemed to remove the trigger of the story -- a wronged consumer -- Lee called Mills to have him kill the story.

By then, it was too late. Lee says Mills told him that to not run the story at that point would be tantamount to giving in to extortion -- killing a story because somebody paid somebody else some money. For Mills' version of what happened, news consumers will have to wait: He is on vacation, and Short Cuts couldn't reach him. (Surely on his return Mills will discuss this nettlesome topic on his Web site.)

Marty Van Housen, KMOV news director, says he got the impression from Mills that Lee did not want to stop the piece from being broadcast. Van Housen says Mills told him the dealership had made Lee another offer and that they didn't want the segment to air. "The impression I got was that (Lee) didn't object to the story airing on television," says Van Housen. And what if the truck owner had wanted to stop the piece because he had accepted a last-minute offer? "It didn't get to that point of a conversation," says Van Housen. And if it had, he says, "I would have sat down and had a conversation with my reporter about it and then decided."

That didn't happen. What did happen was that the settlement offered by the dealer before Mills' piece was yanked off the table once Lee's sad saga was aired to 175,000 viewers. Larry Perez confirms that. "No, my offer does not currently stand. We're trying to negotiate another way out of this, another resolution," he says, adding that Ford was less than thrilled about Lee's going public with his gripe.

"Ford is not going to be as flexible as if the segment didn't run. Obviously they just got blasted by the media," says Perez.

Lee could be viewed as collateral damage in this media war story, but he seems to accept it as just another episode in his firefight with Ford. He says: "It's been nine months of humiliation, nine months of being lied to, nine months of the story changing every day, nine months of them acting like they're doing you a favor coming to the phone to talk to you." Lee is talking about Ford there, not the media.

As it turns out, Lee aggressively courted the media to cover his story, a TV reporter covered it and, in part as a result of the impending media exposure, the Ford dealership offered Lee the settlement he wanted. He took the bait, but -- for ethical or more mundane all-the-news-that-fits reasons -- KMOV ran the story anyway. As Lee says, "We're back to zero again. It's weird."

Lee's gambit may have backfired, but he hasn't given up. On Saturday, he picketed outside the dealership, getting their attention and another settlement offer. But no TV crews showed up.

The media, having writ, have moved on to the next newscast.

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More by D.J. Wilson

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December 1, 2021

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