It’s Sunday morning during Memorial Day weekend, and I’ve just watched Daniel Ricciardo prove yet again how hard it is to pass at Monaco. It used to be that a car with a sour engine couldn’t win a Grand Prix. But as I multitask this dull race while perusing the Los Angeles Times Sunday edition, it also used to be that you didn’t find a full-page ad addressing how to spot fake news, either. This gesture of contrition from Facebook is an attempt to regain public trust following its loosey-goosey advertising ways, listing helpful tips for news consumers (all of us?). Here’s a couple of them: “1. Be skeptical of headlines” and “4. Watch for unusual formatting.” I’ll keep an eye out.
This same weekend, Elon Musk engaged in a Twitter paintball fight with journalists regarding his proposal to fact-check the press with an ironically named website called “Pravda.” Evidently, this is envisioned as some sort of crowd-sourced riff on PolitiFact or Snopes. Such a site would be “where the public can rate the core truth of any article & track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor & publication,” according to a Musk tweet. Pravda means “truth” in Russian. But it was also the name of the mouthpiece for Communist-era propaganda. Is it just me, or is this another inopportune name for a project? First Autopilot, now Pravda.
Going to create a site where the public can rate the core truth of any article & track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor & publication. Thinking of calling it Pravda …
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 23, 2018
Despite the name stumble, it’s not necessarily a bad idea—if executed properly. Between Russia, our professional homegrown truth-twisters, and those just serially mistaken, a mini-industry of dot-coms has sprouted with all having roughly the same, Pravda-like objective: angling to referee the truth. But who’s going to be the referee of all these referees?
This issue is important, based on the recent experiences in the media’s dealings with Tesla.
This whole can of worms got opened during Tesla’s now infamous 1st Quarter Financial Report webcast. I started cringing when Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.’s Antonio Sacconaghi asked his match-to-the-fuse question about the potential need for Tesla to raise additional capital, given its ambitious growth plans.
“Excuse me. Next,” Elon snapped. “Boring bonehead questions are not cool.” Some webcast listeners might have been surprised at Elon barking down a Harvard MBA with 20 years covering Silicon Valley’s hardware industry. But I wasn’t.
I’d seen something similar during the press Q&A following the Tesla/SolarCity presentation of solar roof shingles at Universal Studios last year. A reporter asked about the debt Tesla would incur by absorbing SolarCity. Elon paused, noticeably stiffened, looked up at the sky, and exclaimed, rather loudly, “Stupid. Stupid!” He then asked why anybody would want to ruin a terrific evening with such a question. (Actually, it really was a cool presentation.) The Tesla suits around him exchanged nervous glances; I sat mortified for the reporter put in that awkward position. At every car introduction, there are journalists who notoriously ask deliberately aggressive, strange, or gotcha questions. It’s the rules of the game, to keep corporations and their executives accountable. Generally, these affronts are treated good-naturedly. A financial reporter asking about Tesla’s need for more capital or the financial sense in absorbing SolarCity is just people professionally going about their jobs. They’d be dressed down afterward by their editors if they didn’t.
What popped out at me during that Quarterly Q&A was how abruptly Elon’s mood reversed when he stopped taking questions from institutional investors and began welcoming YouTuber Galileo Russell’s jarringly wrong-time, wrong-place, back and forth about future technology (which noticeably burned up question time during what was supposed to be a call for Wall Streeters only). Whatever. Suddenly it was the old Elon. Bright and chipper.
What was going on? Look, I’m no psychologist (…) but here’s my thinking. I really don’t think Elon is so stressed out and off balance from the rough press that he’s going crazy. This penchant for uncontrollable squabbling with journalists goes way back. What I noticed during those YouTuber minutes is that Musk might really be the sort of real-deal, genuine idealist that crosses our path with Haley’s Comet regularity. Someone who is also an uncontrollable, impulsive counter-puncher with the press. We don’t know how to process this. Elon’s ever-bigger rockets really are about ultimately colonizing Mars in case Earth is destroyed by an asteroid (or humanity). Tesla really is about clean electric cars to slow global warming. The Hyperloop really is about cheaper, faster long-distance travel. And the Boring Company is actually about solving gridlock in our cities (and not a trick to let him privately tunnel from his Brentwood abode to SpaceX in Hawthorne). The “boring bonehead questions” or “Stupid!” eruptions are genuine anger at being drawn away from the big picture and down these wormholes he can’t resist.
Yet if he seems a bit paranoid these days, well, yeah, there really are some people out to get him—just as there are bloggers happy to carry water for the Tesla cause. At press events, I often encounter journalists who excitedly exchange gossip about troubles with Model 3 production, any pause at the Fremont factory, another missed Tesla deadline—with subtle, Schadenfreude-laden smiles. Several months ago I rode on a shuttle bus carrying out-of-state journalists from our hotel to a press event in Santa Clara. Along the way, my enthusiastic row-mate repeatedly tried to engage me in a guessing game as to when Tesla would go bankrupt. I stared at him. When the bus jerked to a stop, another guy shouted out, “Hey, we’re here! In enemy territory!” I shook my head.
The first time I pulled into Fremont’s parking lot, the place looked abandoned (which is how Toyota left it). The empty lobby was festooned with dust bunnies. Now, it’s bustling with people, with mortgages and college educations and day care being paid for by American-built electric cars.
Steve Jobs was at least as arrogant and as prickly as Musk, but we rooted for Apple’s success—while dutifully criticizing its mistakes (remember Lisa?). Since Jobs, however, we’ve descended into some sort of societal zero-sum mentality in how we respond to figures like Musk. Somehow, your loss is my win.
Are Motor Trend and Tesla cozy? Yes and no. Sure, we have often broken bread with Elon and chief designer Franz Von Holzhausen, perhaps due our geographical proximity—it’s 4 miles between our HQ and that of Tesla’s design studio at SpaceX. And we frequently get early access to Tesla cars because we’re among the few car-buff publications who perform instrumented testing. It’s no surprise, as Tesla vehicles are quick, and Tesla regularly picks us to show off those attributes.
So far, Tesla has saved a great deal of money by resisting advertising and relying on deservedly positive reviews (including many of ours). But these are now trickier waters. Times have changed. I remember writing a particularly glowing review of a Model S variant and the next day seeing an email from Tesla PR, responding, “It wouldn’t have been better if we’d written it ourselves!” I started getting chest pain. But that was honestly how I felt: Relative to the automotive backdrop at that time, the car really was that superlative.
And they’re still extraordinary. But the early shock and awe of the Supercharger network, over-the-air updates, Autopilot, a 300-mile range, the Gigafactory, and 2.3-second 0–60 times was stunning for only so long before the stun wears off. The tempo of mind-blowing Tesla feats has slowed. And now, there’s some legitimate criticism of the Model 3—and we’ve weighed in on that, too.
And that’s the key thing: One cannot have selective truths. When Motor Trend names the Model S its Car of the Year but calls out Model 3 for deficiencies, Tesla cannot pick and choose which facts they cite as truths. However, if there is a media outlet whose consistent negative (or positive) drumbeat belies an ulterior motive by the publication (short-selling or self interest), Pravda would be an interesting experiment that might reveal fake news about Tesla.
But by turning this crank, would Musk really win his arguments? He has planets to settle, not grudges, Model 3 production to escalate, not Twitter fights. For us, there’s the unfolding story of the first serious car company since that of Walter P. Chrysler—a rare success in American manufacturing that’s now teetering, and, of course, its fascinating, sometimes flawed cars. So let’s cool the tweets and disperse the lynch mobs milling outside the gates of Tesla and the media. Reset, holster weapons, and see the bigger picture.
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