Tesla/NY Times lessons

I think the lessons I mentioned earlier on Twitter about the New York Times vs. Tesla pissing match controversy are about the only things we can learn from the whole thing: Most problematic stories are journalists getting sloppy, not making up facts whole cloth, and that Elon Musk is a dick1.

I assume most people have read Musk’s takedown, the Atlantic Wire’s takedown of Musk’s takedown, along with John Broder’s response and the Times’ public editor’s overview.

From the outside, it seems like Broder’s notes weren’t the best (I’m spitballing on that, I’ve never met Broder or even heard of him before this, and I’m guessing most of you hadn’t either. I bet he wishes it had stayed that way.), and he thought his memory was more precise than it actually was. But in his defense, he’s probably not very familiar with electric cars because 1) they’re still quite rare and 2) unlike gasoline cars, there are big differences between how each brand handles things like recharging or maximizing battery life, because each brand uses different battery technology.

But I don’t think there was some kind of institutional bias against Tesla, or that the piece was motivated by personal animus—at least as much as any car review that leaves the tester stranded and in need of a tow truck can be free of such animus.

The idea of a “hit piece” is appealing to outsiders, but people who’ve spent time in news organizations know that most examples of bias are really examples of laziness, sloppiness, poor fact checking or poor editing. And the public editor’s findings seem to back that up in this case, as well.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, including, as Marco Arment noted, Tesla’s own tech support, which offered contradictory advice to Broder several times.

It seems like Musk has a skin much thinner than you’d expect from an experienced CEO and founder. I’m sure he’s feeling extra sensitive after Top Gear’s faked breakdown, and a positive review in the Times would go a long way toward assuring the public—or at least the portion of the public that can afford a $60,000 sedan—that electric vehicles are usable for more than just short commutes. But as the reaction to Broder’s piece showed, Tesla owners aren’t just owners or fans; they take criticisms of the car as personal attacks. So maybe Tesla walks away from this about square with what it is now–a moderately expensive car with a niche market.

And the Times walks away with people even more skeptical of journalism and a reminder that sloppy work can get uncovered, embarrassing the reporter and the organization he or she works for.

1: I’m going ad hominem against Musk here, but 1) I’d say the same thing were he to ask me for my opinion, which he has not and likely will not, 2) he started it he went ad hominem against the reporter, and it rankles my sense of fair play when a super-rich person decides to take on someone who displeased him with all his resources, even if that person has the resources of the New York Times behind him, 3) he could have offered a critique without acting like a dick, and 4) I assume I’m beneath his notice (though I’m always up for a feud, Mr. Musk).


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