Chrysler Basks in U.S. Praise, but Backs out of Media Event

(AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
This story was filed by CBS News digital journalist Scott Conroy from Detroit


In his opening remarks that kicked off the 2010 North American International Auto Show on Monday morning, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood set an optimistic tone for the beleaguered American automobile industry and was particularly buoyant about Chrysler's prospects of turning around its 2009 misfortunes.

"They're on the cutting edge of developing the kind of products that I think people in this country, and also in other countries, are really going to feel very favorable toward," LaHood said. "Chrysler particularly, the kind of designs they're doing, the kind of innovations that they're taking, is going to really put them in the marketplace like they've never been before."

Chrysler accepted $6.6 billion in financing from the U.S. government as part of a restructuring agreement last year.

At this year's auto show, the company has toned down some of the elaborate displays that it and its competitors had featured in past shows.

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LaHood said that he would allow Chrysler to elaborate further on his sunny predictions, but on Monday, the company's CEO backed out of an opportunity to do just that.

Last Thursday, Chrysler sent an email to members of the broadcast media, including CBS News, who had requested interviews with CEO Sergio Marchionne.

The email, written by electronic media communications manager Ed Garsten, notified the recipients that Marchionne would be made available for "a 45 minute special broadcast availability" at 1 p.m. on Monday.

But minutes before the event was scheduled to begin, the plan had apparently changed.

Senior manager of communications Carrie McElwee stepped in front of the microphone and announced to the more than two dozens journalists already on hand that the event had been canceled.

"He was on the floor quite a bit before, and then it took longer and his schedule changed," Garsten later told CBS News.

But the explanation of a scheduling conflict did not satisfy several members of the local media and automotive press, who aggressively questioned Chrysler representatives about why the opportunity to query their company's CEO about important issues like taxpayer funding and plant closings had suddenly been revoked.

Chrysler countered that the event was not on the official schedule and was never designed to be a news conference, though the two-tier press riser that had been set up in front of a podium on the auto show's floor seemed to indicate otherwise.

"We wanted to give the broadcasters a chance to get Mr. Marchionne on tape, so we arranged this small availability to give them a chance to get something on tape, not in a scrum, so it would look good and sound good," Garsten told CBS News. "Unfortunately, he had to cancel the availability, and that's all it was. It wasn't a news conference."

In his email to reporters last week, Garsten wrote, "The availability will be a news conference format giving reporters ample opportunity to fire questions at Mr. Marchionne."

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.

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