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Jan Lee headshot

WSJ Editorial Calls Consumer Reports a Sustainability 'Prostitute'

Words by Jan Lee

Them's fighting words, apparently.

A columnist for the Wall Street Journal has taken umbrage with the thumbs-up rating that Consumer Reports gave Tesla last month, accusing the inveterate product reviewer of serving to "prostitute" itself through a top-scoring review.

"Prostitute is not too strong a word," wrote Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., an editorial writer for the newspaper, who points out that the Tesla has been endowed with one other coincidental favor: government subsidies.

"Unfortunately, one product that doesn’t get CR’s withering eye is the public policy of shoveling taxpayer handouts at Tesla," Jenkins wrote last week.

He has a point. Just about every major innovation that has shown to have commercial -- or environmental -- benefit to the United States has been eligible for subsidies of one sort or another: agriculture in Texas; oil and mining in Pennsylvania; aircraft construction in Washington state; cars in multiple states. In fact, some of the most generous selection of subsidies are awarded to film, broadcast and print media corporations, and can be found in 40 of the 50 states in the Union. Successful U.S. innovation is often a public-private partnership that assumes that its success is not only good for the industry sector, but good for the country as well.

And yes, most of us would agree that there is something odd about providing significant subsidies to an industry that caters exclusively to rich buyers (including successful film makers, perhaps) and which is clearly out of reach to the general public. But then, I never expected that I would be entitled to the subsidies Farmer Joe down the road receives for raising cows or irrigating crops, either. And just like wheat once was in this country, electric cars are still a nascent industry that will hopefully excel on the same public-private partnership model that helped other leading industries in this country gain ground.

But back to Consumer Reports, a publication that Jenkins pointed out is known for its "systematic, unbiased product reviews." It's also known for impressive tunnel vision when it comes to consumer interest. When digital cameras first came on the market, Consumer Reports wrote the heck out of them. They sold, and readers wanted the low-down right away. Company subsidies didn't propel that interest. Consumer curiosity did.

What seems to be at the heart of the debate about Tesla's estimated $4.9 billion in subsidies is likely not money, but moxie -- the idea that a virtual nobody can challenge a status-quo industry and, within a decade or two, actually be prepared to compete with the big boys sustainably (with government support, of course). And it doesn't hurt that a magazine that has made a name catering to North America's insatiable love of gizmos and gadgets, actually sees value in promoting that eclectic concept.

Jenkins has a valid point when he wrote about CR's advertisement, suggesting that quotes like "the ratings of this ground-breaking vehicle are too good to keep to ourselves" were overkill. It was also a bit like waving a red flag in front of a line of bulls. WSJ wasn't the only publication that accused CR of being willing to "prostitute" its values. But it's worth noting that the advertisement only lasted as long as CR's free reader access lasted -- which is now gone.

Maybe that's a takeaway for the sustainable consumer market: Too much fanfare makes readers leery of believing the hype and climbing onboard. Great ideas gain momentum not because of flashy reminders, but because backing them makes sense to consumers.

Image credit: Flickr/Steve Jurvetson

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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