The Pine Cone's editorial of the week

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Editorial: A tempest in a Prius

Published: August 30, 2013

THE TRUISM holds that when someone else slips on a banana peel, it’s comedy, but when you do, it’s tragedy.

A corollary to the principle, we have now learned, is that when you slip on a banana peel and someone else laughs, you may feel that their response is not only an unforgivable insult to you, but to bananas and to all mankind.

How else to explain the hysterical reaction to our front-page joke two weeks ago, “Tree smashes Prius on Highway 68 — but at least it wasn’t a Bentley”? The woman whose car was hit, her husband, people who listen to her radio show and even people who are just miscellaneous Prius owners reacted with the kind of obscenity-laden vitriol you’d expect them to reserve for something that actually mattered.

According to them, by printing that headline, and making light of the whole episode, we were acting insensitively, offensively, repugnantly, obnoxiously, reprehensibly, etc., etc., etc.

That’s the essence of numerous emails and letters to the editor we received, and some of which we printed last week. One letter writer, who occupies a responsible position with a respected Monterey Peninsula institution and should, therefore, know better, even compared us to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose campaign of smears against alleged Communists in the 1950s has made him one of the most hated figures of 20th century American history. Our joke was that bad?

Come on, people. Have a brain.

First of all, the woman driving the car wasn’t hurt. If she had been, we wouldn’t have made light of her misfortune. The proof of this is that we have covered hundreds of incidents where people were injured over the years and never made fun of any of them.

Of course, the woman was scared out of her wits and upset about the damage to her car, but those things are not that serious. Furthermore, journalists do not write their stories, headlines or captions to suit the people who are involved in newsworthy events; they write them for the general public. Thus, by longstanding principles of journalism, the fact that the driver of the Prius and her family and friends may have objected to our headline is not relevant to whether it should have run. We apologize for offending them, but we don’t regret printing the story.

We were also attacked for not reporting more details about the driver, as though we ignored her out of callousness. However, at the time our Aug. 16 edition was finished, we had no idea who the driver of the Prius was — not even whether she was a man or woman, much less her name or how she reacted and felt. For all we knew, she might have been paralyzed with shock, or perhaps she was thrilled with her narrow escape and gratefully looking forward to the rest of her life. Of course, we would have loved to interview her to find out, but there was no way we could. The police hadn’t released her name, and we were unable to learn it any other way, and that is the only reason our story didn’t include more information about her.

Several random owners of Prius cars also contacted us to let us know about their outrage. We happen to think that the idea of a tree taking aim at a super-eco-friendly Prius is funny, and our joke would have been perfectly good if that had been our intent, but it wasn’t. Here at The Pine Cone, we have long been fans of the Prius; we were one of the first owners of the car in Monterey County way back in 2003, and we trumpeted its virtues in a big, front-page story headlined, “Hybrids make it cool to get 45 mpg.” So while our joke might very well have been directed at the Prius and Prius owners, it wasn’t.

What we were thinking when we saw the photo of the tree leaning on the Prius was that it was really ironic for such a thing to happen during Concours Week. Around here, as locals well know, old Monterey pines fall regularly — karate chopping houses, flattening parked cars, ripping out power lines and sometimes even hurting people. But they almost always do so during winter storms, when they’re pushed over by strong winds. While all trees succumb to gravity sooner or later, and the Monterey Peninsula’s are no exception, it is unusual for one to suddenly teeter over on a summer day. And for a tree to fall right across a busy local highway just at the time when that highway and other local roads are crawling with thousands of rare cars was truly remarkable. That is one of the things our joke meant.

And the other was to indirectly poke fun at the people who drive such unusual and valuable cars. We love Concours Week, of course, but its excesses are something anybody might legitimately joke about. Mother Nature, you see, can drop a tree on a Bugatti or a Pierce Arrow whenever she wants. Since ancient times, poets have mocked humans for their arrogance and vanity in the face of divine will — therefore, it’s perfectly acceptable for The Carmel Pine Cone, which, after all, is named for the very type of tree that landed on the Prius, to join the chorus. (Carmel Pine Cone — get it?)

That is our explanation for our Aug. 16 front page. You may find it acceptable or you may not. But the entire situation was indisputably trivial and will soon be forgotten, so you may as well stop cussing over it.