For media watchers, the very public argument this week between Tesla and the NY Times has been quite fascinating. In case you happened to not be obsessively following each back and forth (what, you have lives?!?), it all began with a NY Times' less than enthusiastic review
of the experience of trying to drive a Tesla S (the company's flagship electric car sedan) between a pair of Tesla's new "superchargers." You can read the full review yourself, but the short version is that it did not get the mileage expected, and at one point a flatbed truck needed to come pick up the totally dead car. I will admit that I'm impressed by the Tesla car in general, and most of the reviews have made it out to be about as close to a perfect car as you can imagine (which is pretty impressive considering that it's the first year of the car's existence and it's the first "mass" produced Tesla vehicle). But this review was less than thrilled, since the whole point was to test out the ability to drive between these "superchargers."
Upon publication, Tesla's famous CEO, Elon Musk, began tweeting up a storm
about how the article was "fake" and that he had the vehicle logs to prove it. The author of the review, John Broder, responded to many of the tweeted charges
, arguing that Musk was misrepresenting things -- leading many watchers to suggest that Musk was making a big mistake in attacking the NY Times.
Then, Musk published a blog post with a graphical representation of the log data they had
, in which he argues that Broder lied and even purposely tried to run the car out of juice in order to write a negative story. Musk claims that after their dispute with Top Gear
, they now keep logs on any media test drives (though it's unclear if they tell reporters that before giving them the cars). And, suddenly, a lot of people flipped sides, arguing that the data won
and clearly the NY Times and Broder had some answering to do. After all, there were charts like this one:
Except... then some people started to look more closely at the data and realize that perhaps Broder's story wasn't so crazy
and Musk made a number of assumptions that aren't necessarily backed up by the data. For example, Musk insists that Broder claimed he turned down the climate control to low to conserve energy at 182 miles, and points to the fact that at 182 miles, Broder actually increased the temperature over 72 degrees. However, as Rebecca Greenfield points out, in her piece (linked above), it really looks like Musk may have simply assumed incorrectly that the point where this happened was 182 miles, and at about 250 miles it's quite clear that Broder does
turn the climate control way down and keep it that way for a while (Greenfield added the purple box below).
Then Broder chimed back in as well explaining away most of the accusations
, including the charge by Musk that Broder drove the car around trying to run it out of energy:
When he first reached our Milford, Connecticut Supercharger, having driven the car hard and after taking an unplanned detour through downtown Manhattan to give his brother a ride, the display said "0 miles remaining." Instead of plugging in the car, he drove in circles for over half a mile in a tiny, 100-space parking lot. When the Model S valiantly refused to die, he eventually plugged it in.
Except, Broder notes, the "unplanned detour through downtown Manhattan" was not "unplanned" and had been communicated clearly to Tesla beforehand, did not actually go into "downtown" Manhattan, was partially recommended by Tesla employees who thought that the "regenerative braking" might help increase the range and only added two total miles to the trip length. Furthermore, as for the charge of driving around in circles in a parking lot?
Mr. Straubel said Tesla did not store data on exact locations where their cars were driven because of privacy concerns, although Tesla seemed to know that I had driven six-tenths of a mile “in a tiny 100-space parking lot.” While Mr. Musk has accused me of doing this to drain the battery, I was in fact driving around the Milford service plaza on Interstate 95, in the dark, trying to find the unlighted and poorly marked Tesla Supercharger.
In the end this is a fascinating story on many different levels. Dan Frommer makes an excellent point that "everyone's a media company now,"
noting that it's possible for companies to speak out on their own behalf if they disagree with a story. That used to be a lot harder. He compares that to the Quirky / OXO story
we recently covered as well.
But, of course, if you're going to rebut charges made in a newspaper review, the information had better hold up, and it's not clear that it does here. Even worse, it really seems like Musk is making a much bigger deal of this than ever needed to be made. Sure, the initial review wasn't great, but it really didn't strike me as that bad. It basically said that if you try to drive it too far, or if you're unable to charge it enough, you might run out of juice. You know what? Same thing is true of a gas-powered car as well. But Musk has called much more attention to the story in a manner that doesn't necessarily lead to Tesla coming out on top. Carl Malmud's summary
Musk was offended that a reporter didn't operate the hardware properly. Blame the manual, tech support, PR, but not the user.
Musk is obviously quite passionate about the companies he runs and their products. And that's something that's actually quite appealing. Having followed his work for a while, you know
that he really is striving to build "insanely great" products. So I can absolutely understand how his first emotional reaction is to lash out at someone who wrote a less than kind review (I've been there myself too many times). But, in the end, it seems like there would have been much better ways to handle this. I'm still a huge fan of the Tesla, and still dream of one day actually getting one, but I'd say that Musk's response probably made me more skeptical of the company than Broder's original article ever did.
When "everyone is the media," amazing and powerful things can happen. And, certainly, the ability to correct the record against questionable stories is something that really changes the game. But, at the same time, everyone is now a fact checker, and that makes for an interesting dynamic for both traditional media companies and those who wade in to respond to them.