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Elon Musk doesn’t know how journalism works — but thinks he can fix it

The tech leader took to Twitter to slam the media, proposing a new platform where people could rate articles on trustworthiness.

Elon Musk Presents SpaceX Plans To Colonise Mars
Tesla and CEO Elon Musk speaks at the International Astronautical Congress in 2017.
Mark Brake/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has turned his ire on the media, including calling for a new website to track the truthfulness of reporters and news outlets. And in doing so, he sure sounds a lot like President Donald Trump.

Following a wave of recent news reports criticizing everything from Tesla’s autopilot-related accidents to the company’s labor practices, Musk went on Twitter earlier this week to lambast “big media companies”:

In classic Musk fashion, he also announced his own solution to what he’s calling the media’s credibility problem, proposing a platform where people would go to rate articles on their trustworthiness. He’s already got a name for it.

As Gizmodo notes, the term Pravda is a nod to Soviet Russia’s state publication (a somewhat chilling instance of apparent Musk humor) — and the company has existed since last fall, something Musk confirmed to the website.

Musk’s argument seems to rest on a fundamental misunderstanding of journalism

In addition to voicing concerns about the evenhandedness of Tesla coverage, Musk offered his take on how journalism operates — a perspective that reflected some real misconceptions about the industry.

The implication of his post appears to be that journalists are shaping their content in order to cater to advertisers, which … isn’t really how journalism works. Sure, publications rely on advertising dollars as a funding source — but journalists themselves aren’t in charge of getting that money or catering content to advertisers.

Plenty of journalists have spoken out saying as much.

Recode’s Kara Swisher has even invited Musk to suss out the issue off Twitter at the publication’s Code Conference next week. He’s said he’ll consider it.

Like many Silicon Valley titans, Musk has a history of chafing against criticism

Musk’s hostility toward the media has been a long time coming — especially as negative coverage of Model 3 production woes and Tesla fatalities have grown. The electric car company has had a rough couple of months in the media following multiple accidents that renewed scrutiny on its autopilot feature, as well as several reports highlighting worker injuries at its factory.

On top of that, the company is grappling with delays related to the production of its Model 3 offering and is currently the subject of investigations from both the National Transportation Safety Board, which is looking into a spring crash involving autopilot, and California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which is probing hazardous workplace conditions at its factory in Fremont.

Musk’s latest Twitter outburst appears to encapsulate viewpoints he’s held for some time now. During an earnings call earlier this month, he used similar language to argue that journalists were putting too much emphasis on the dangers posed by self-driving cars and not focusing on the real story about “how autonomous cars are really safe.”

“That’s not a story that people want to click on,” he said. “They write inflammatory headlines that are fundamentally misleading to readers. It’s really outrageous.”

Back in 2016, when Tesla experienced its first autopilot-related fatality, Musk also made digs at the media. In one instance, he lashed out at a Fortune writer, arguing that his critical commentary on the crash was aimed at driving up the publication’s advertising revenue.

One editor noted that this rant felt like just another example of Musk trying to tell journalists how to do their jobs.

Musk’s comments haven’t stopped there. Reveal, a part of the Center for Investigative Reporting, published a piece in April examining workplace conditions that noted that Tesla “failed to report some of its serious injuries on legally mandated reports, making the company’s injury numbers look better than they actually are.” Tesla issued a statement rebutting the allegations about worker safety and arguing that the story was part of a broader “disinformation” campaign aimed at bolstering unionization efforts at the company.

“In our view, what they portray as investigative journalism is in fact an ideologically motivated attack by an extremist organization working directly with union supporters to create a calculated disinformation campaign against Tesla,” Tesla said in a statement.

Just this week, Musk called out Reveal again. He also cited an Electrek article that discussed the effect of media coverage on Tesla’s business results at the start of his Wednesday diatribe.

This resistance to critical feedback is emblematic of a broader issue in Silicon Valley, which has been wary of accepting opinions that appear to threaten its version of the status quo.

Recall that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg initially derided concerns about the role misinformation on the platform played in the 2016 election, calling such suggestions “crazy.” Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, too, was historically known for blocking tech journalists on Twitter, with some wondering whether it’s because they’ve been critical of his work.

The Trump similarities are striking

“Musk continues his slow transformation into a media-baiting Trump figure screaming irrationally about fake news,” The Verge’s Andrew J. Hawkins tweeted on Wednesday, a comparison Musk appeared to anticipate and even embrace, in part.

Here’s a recent Trump post calling the media “corrupt,” for reference:

This isn’t the first time Musk has adopted Trumpian tactics. When he was confronted with workers trying to unionize at an assembly plant, he accused one of the leaders of the effort of being a paid union plant. (The echoes of “paid protester” remarks are simply eerie.)

And these tactics aren’t the only thing the president and the tech mogul have in common. They also share at least one member of the same fan base.