This is a follow up to my earlier post about Tesla Motor’s CEO Elon Musk and his battle against the New York Times, specifically John Broder and his negative review of the Tesla Model S. Initially I applauded Musk for violating the sacred rule of “never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel,” believing as I do that the web changes that rule. But, I criticized Musk for his emotional tone and personal attack and believed that Broder’s calm and very factual-sounding response was winning the day and the argument. So did most others it appeared.
But, the facts win out. My main point in the previous post was that these battles always come down to credibility: who can be believed and trusted. I still think Musk was out of line in his tone and approach. He would have been far more credible to be less emotional and just stick to the facts. But, it appears now that the facts have won out.
Here is what NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan said:
My own findings are not dissimilar to the reader I quote above, although I do not believe Mr. Broder hoped the drive would end badly. I am convinced that he took on the test drive in good faith, and told the story as he experienced it.
Did he use good judgment along the way? Not especially. In particular, decisions he made at a crucial juncture – when he recharged the Model S in Norwich, Conn., a stop forced by the unexpected loss of charge overnight – were certainly instrumental in this saga’s high-drama ending.
In addition, Mr. Broder left himself open to valid criticism by taking what seem to be casual and imprecise notes along the journey, unaware that his every move was being monitored. A little red notebook in the front seat is no match for digitally recorded driving logs, which Mr. Musk has used, in the most damaging (and sometimes quite misleading) ways possible, as he defended his vehicle’s reputation.
While this is quite straightforward, I must say that most of her blog is pretty mealy-mouthed. It attempts to take a middle ground and would have been much better for her to say Broder did not live up to the paper’s high standards of journalistic integrity and we apologize.
As mealy-mouthed as it was, Musk and Tesla are certainly claiming victory and it is right they should.
Other major news outlets are careful to make a fellow media outlet look bad, but tend to confirm that Broder messed up.
Very important lessons here:
1. If you are going to go after someone who buys ink by the barrel, you better have your facts straight.
2. The natural tendency of the news media is to defend themselves and assume their conclusions are unassailable. Ms Sullivan makes it clear it was the high level of public pressure generated by Mr. Musk’s attacks that prompted her to look carefully into this.
3. Tone matters–I and others gave the win earlier to Broder based on our sense that he was being factual and not emotional while Musk was attacking personally and with emotion.
4. A question remains: did Musk help himself or hurt himself by making such an issue out of this? Now far more people know about the impact of cold weather on Tesla’s performance, about the challenges of not having enough charging stations, and the picture of the car on a tow truck is in far more minds than likely would have been. Would it have been better for him to more quietly make his case on his own website, within the trade publications and to all those interested in his vehicles–quietly undermining the bad review rather than blowing it up into a major controversy. Personally, I think so.
5. But Musk has done much to bury the old saw about those who buy ink by the barrel, and that is the biggest lesson for both professional journalists and those they cover. I suspect anyone else who does a review on Tesla (or any other car for that matter following this) will do a better job of taking notes and being able to defend themselves if they decide to give a bad review. And, that is a good thing.