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”:
The holier-than-thou hypocrisy of big media companies who lay claim to the truth, but publish only enough to sugarcoat the lie, is why the public no longer respects them https://t.co/Ay2DwCOMkr— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 23, 2018
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.
Even if some of the public doesn’t care about the credibility score, the journalists, editors & publications will. It is how they define themselves.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 23, 2018
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.
Er, he's not kidding folks. I noticed that one of Musk's agents had incorporated Pravda Corp in California back in October last year. I was wondering what it was all about... https://t.co/y8xGGzwb3M pic.twitter.com/rTazUDUFMb— Mark Harris (@meharris) May 23, 2018
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.
Problem is journos are under constant pressure to get max clicks & earn advertising dollars or get fired. Tricky situation, as Tesla doesn’t advertise, but fossil fuel companies & gas/diesel car companies are among world’s biggest advertisers.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 23, 2018
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.
With all due respect, you're completely wrong about how this works. Negative coverage of Tesla has *nothing* to do with journalists sitting down and weighing the ad dollars their employer gets from various interest groups.— Will Oremus (@WillOremus) May 23, 2018
Sure, if you look at the current business model of a lot of media companies right now - it's subscription based. NYT, Wired, WaPo, etc. Ad rev money is down, sub rev up. Have never been told what to write or do by an advertiser, and if I was I would quit— William Turton (@WilliamTurton) May 23, 2018
And yet, journos are very willing to pursue stories that burn advertisers and other financial benefactors. The @WSJ published the investigation that destroyed Theranos, even though Rupert Murdoch was Theranos's biggest investor ($125M)— daniel nguyen (╯°□°)ノ (@dancow) May 23, 2018
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.
Hi Kara! I’m open to it. Right now, I’m cranking super hard at the Tesla factory, so it depends on how things are going next week.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 24, 2018
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.
Yes, it was material to you -- BS article increased your advertising revenue. Just wasn't material to TSLA, as shown by market.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 5, 2016
One editor noted that this rant felt like just another example of Musk trying to tell journalists how to do their jobs.
I was once invited to visit SpaceX's facility on Kwajalein. Following interviews, I was told @elonmusk had to review all articles prior to publication. I explained journalism doesn't work that way. His current tweets come as no surprise.— Sharon Weinberger (@weinbergersa) May 24, 2018
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.
1/ So before yesterday's investigation came out, @tesla released a statement accusing us of being an “extremist organization” who’s “working directly with union supporters to create a calculated disinformation campaign.”— Reveal (@reveal) April 17, 2018
A LOT to unpack right there. So let’s do it. pic.twitter.com/Yerg8DoWPW
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.
Thought you’d say that. Anytime anyone criticizes the media, the media shrieks “You’re just like Trump!” Why do you think he got elected in the first place? Because no ones believes you any more. You lost your credibility a long time ago.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 23, 2018
Here’s a recent Trump post calling the media “corrupt,” for reference:
Can you believe that with all of the made up, unsourced stories I get from the Fake News Media, together with the $10,000,000 Russian Witch Hunt (there is no Collusion), I now have my best Poll Numbers in a year. Much of the Media may be corrupt, but the People truly get it!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 15, 2018
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.