Dateline NBC aired an investigative report on November 17, 1992, titled “Waiting to Explode”. The 60-minute program focused on General Motors’ Rounded-Line Chevrolet C/K-Series pickup trucks allegedly exploding upon impact during accidents due to the poor design of fuel tanks. Dateline’s footage showed a sample of a low-speed accident with the fuel tank exploding. In reality, Dateline NBC producers had rigged the truck’s fuel tank with remotely controlled model rocket engines to initiate the explosion. The program did not disclose the fact that the accident was staged. GM hired Failure Analysis Associates (FaAA, now Exponent) whose investigators studied the footage, and discovered that smoke actually came out of the fuel tank six frames before impact. Acting on a tip from someone involved in the Dateline crash test, FaAA investigators searched through 22 junkyards in Indiana before finding the charred wreckage of the GM pickups. It was also later revealed that the Dateline report had been dishonest about the fuel tanks rupturing and the alleged 30 miles per hour (48 km/h) speed at which the collision was conducted. The actual speed was found to be higher, around 40 miles per hour (64 km/h), and after x-ray examination of the fuel tanks from the C/K pickups used in the televised collision, it was found that they had not ruptured and were intact. GM subsequently filed an anti-defamation/libel lawsuit against NBC after conducting an extensive investigation. On February 8, 1993, GM conducted a highly publicized point-by-point rebuttal in the Product Exhibit Hall of the General Motors Building in Detroit that lasted nearly two hours after announcing the lawsuit. The lawsuit was settled the same week by NBC, and Jane Pauley read a 3½ minute on-air apology to viewers.
The General Motors lawsuit and subsequent settlement was arguably the most devastating blow for NBC in a series of reputation damaging incidents during the 1990s and early 2000s. Within NBC, Michael Gartner, who resigned shortly after the incident, was the source for much of the blame. Then-NBC News President Reuven Frank stated Gartner was hired in 1988, despite having no background in television news, in an attempt to satisfy then-parent-company General Electric by replacing current journalists with cheaper, less experienced reporters and producers.
Three Dateline NBC producers were dismissed as a result: executive producer Jeff Diamond, senior producer David Rummel, and Robert Read, producer of the report on the pickups. Michele Gillen, the reporter involved in the segment, was transferred to NBC’s Miami owned-and-operated station WTVJ, where she became an evening anchor. Michael G. Gartner, president of the news division, resigned under pressure.