March 13, 2010

The Prius Balloon Boy

After being exposed as hysterical, incompetent buffoons by the "balloon boy" story a few months ago, you'd think our media brainiacs would be a little more vigilant in their reporting.

According to however, they've been taken in again by another con artist named James Sikes -- this time doing enormous, perhaps irreparable damage to Toyota (full disclosure, they're a client of mine.)

In a story entitled Toyota Hybrid Horror Hoax, Michael Fumento in says, "Virtually every aspect of Sikes's story as told to reporters makes no sense."

Let's start at the beginning.

Last Tuesday, March 9, Toyota was presenting evidence to reporters at a press conference about testimony that was given to Congress and aired by ABC-TV by professor Dave Gilbert, of Southern Illinois University's auto technology department. Gilbert maintained that he had found a possible source of sudden acceleration. The evidence being presented made it clear that Gilbert was wrong.

In fact, it turned out that Gilbert was paid by a "safety research" company that was working on behalf of lawyers who were in the process of suing Toyota. It also turned out that ABC had doctored the footage in their report.

Toyota had an independent testing firm replicate Gilbert's "experiment."
"We did what Dr. Gilbert and ABC should have done to test the real-world relevance of Dr. Gilbert's findings," said Toyota spokesman Mike Michels. Gilbert's experiment was "completely unrealistic. He rewired and reengineered a vehicle in multiple ways in a specific sequence that is impossible to occur."
This conclusion was shared by J. Christian Gerdes, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford who is the director of Stanford's Center for Automotive Research.

But trying to demonstrate facts to reporters is a waste of time. The news media will take sensationalism over facts every day. And that day, Sikes's sensational story broke and the media flooded the airways with it.

In a call to 911, Sikes claimed that his accelerator was stuck and he was going 90 mph and could not slow down. Furthermore, the Highway Patrol responded and in order to get the car to stop had to pull in front of the car. I'm sure you've all heard this story.

Well, according to Fumento, it's all a bunch of bullshit. You can read about it in this article.

Here's the amazing part.  While repeating word-for-word all of Sikes's claims, and, in fact, amplifying them, no one in the hysterical news media bothered to find out the following:
  • According to Forbes, Sikes and his wife filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and are over $700,000 in debt. At the time of their filing, they owed Toyota Financial Services over $20,000 on the lease of their Prius. When questioned by a website on whether they owed money on the Prius, Sikes denied being behind on his payments.
  • According to Forbes, "Sikes also has a history of filing insurance claims for allegedly stolen items that are slowly coming to light. In 2001 he filed a police report with the Merced County Sheriff's Department for $58,000 in stolen property, including jewelry, a prosumer mini-DV camera and gear, and $24,000 in cash." 
  • According to TV station Fox40 in Sacramento, CA
    • His bankruptcy documents show a 2008 payment of $7,400 for an allegedly stolen saxophone and clothes.
    • "He's been on TV before, and seems to cherish the attention. In 2006 he was on television, winning $55,000 on "The Big Spin." As a real estate agent in San Diego, he boasts of his celebrity clients, including Constance Ramos of "Extreme Home Makeover." "
  • Apparently, Sikes has a reputation as a scammer. William Sweet, who says he's Sikes's former business partner says:  
    • "As soon as i heard the words "Jim Sikes" I immediately woke up out of a dead sleep and thought "uh oh what the hell is this guy up to now?" He's trying to do a scam, and get in on that lawsuit for the Toyota thing, that's immediately what i thought."
    • According to Fox40, "Jim Pernetti with AAA California Document Services says he's also aware of Sikes' past..."I've been warned that he used to do business here," Pernetti told FOX40, "and that I should be wary of anything with him."
  • Sikes operates a website called which isn't exactly a porn site, but isn't exactly Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood either.
I have no way of knowing whether Sikes's story has any validity. But, by any standards, Sikes is not a reliable witness and the news media had a responsibility to examine his claims, not just regurgitate them without even an "allegedly" anywhere in sight before smearing Toyota once again.

As Fumento sums it up in the Forbes story:
"Journalism schools are supposed to teach that skepticism is paramount. "If your mother says it, check it out," goes the old adage.
Yet comments on Web sites across the country reveal that practically everyone thought the Prius incident was a hoax... except for the media. They have been as determined to not investigate Sikes' claims as Sikes was to not stop his car. It's a Toyota media feeding frenzy and the media aren't about to let little things like incredible stories and readily-refutable claims get in the way."
For the latest on this story see Balloon Boy Update
Also be sure to read Kirk's comment below

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