Hey Elon Musk, Let's Talk About The Media

from the bad-press-happens,-attacking-the-media-doesn't-help dept

Hey Elon,

Let’s start this off by noting I’m generally a big fan of what you’ve done over the years with your various companies (Zip2 always seemed a bit silly, but, you know, since then…). Just recently I got a tour of the Tesla factory and I felt like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory, even if I didn’t get to own the factory when it was over. I’ve also been impressed by the way you decide to seriously “just get it done” when you see something that should be done. I mean, half the world seemed to think your idea for the Boring Company was actually a joke and yet a year and a half later, you’ve got a freaking tunnel under LA (in contrast, the 2nd Avenue Subway in NY was proposed in 1919 and just opened partially last year). So, like, I take it seriously when you say you’ve got a new project underway.

And, yesterday you went on a bit of a Twitter rant about the media and said that you were going to start a media truth rating site called Pravda (clever!). And, as with the Boring Company, I believe you’ll do it. I mean, you actually did incorporate Pravda Corp. last fall. So, you’ve got that going for you.

On top of that, I even think you have a general point about how bad the mainstream media is. We’ve been at this for over 20 years, and some of our most successful stories have been calling out really bad reporting by big publications. It’s good to keep them honest.

That said, I have some pretty serious concerns about this whole setup and believe you’ve misdiagnosed the problem. Let’s start with your tweet that suggests the reason reporters get stories wrong is because they’re incentivized by clicks and ad dollars:

I’m curious if you could point to any actual example of that happening in practice today for a mainstream publication? I know that Gawker — who your former colleague Peter Thiel killed off — used to pay writers a bonus based on clicks, but I can’t think of any other news organization that still does that. It’s a nice story that people outside the media like to claim, but actual journalists know is not actually the case. Hell, here at Techdirt, I’ve never actually told any of our writers how much traffic their stories get, because I don’t want them thinking about clicks at all. I want them to write the best stories they can write, and then they can let me focus on how to monetize good content and a good insightful community, rather than just going for scale and clicks.

And, as for the whole “fossil fuel companies as advertisers” bit, it may be true that there are some publishers out there who do worry about offending their advertisers, but I’ve almost never seen that information conveyed to the journalists themselves, and in the rare cases where that does happen, lots of journalists would (and do) quit rather than feel that their reporting was compromised by advertisers. So, blaming “clicks” and “advertisers” for more sensational stories you don’t like is — dare I say it — “fake news” (in the parlance of our times, even if that’s a dumb and meaningless phrase). It’s good to correct the record when the press gets something wrong, but imputing incorrect motives to the reason for the coverage has serious consequences that you really might want to think about.

The reason Tesla gets lots of coverage, both good and bad, is because it’s a fucking fascinating company. You’ve built (1) the first successful new American car company in like a century and (2) done it with an important advancement in technology (electric cars) that have failed in the past. It’s a fascinating story. And, as tech comms guy Aaron Zamost pointed out years ago, there’s a predictable cycle of “Silicon Valley Time” in how all successful companies tend to get covered — for good or for bad. For what it’s worth, it looks like you’re somewhere in the 9 to 10 o’clock hour on Zamost’s clock (which actually means you’re not that far off from hitting 12 o’clock and getting to start the cycle again.)

But, let’s get back to this whole Pravda (again, clever name!) idea (or is it called “You’re Right!” now?). I know it feels like you’re striking back against some recent bad media coverage. But, honestly, you’re really just serving to call more attention to some of the negative stories about Tesla out there right now (including an eye-opening story from the Center for Investigative Reporting, a non-profit not exactly known for clickbait or making decisions based on its non-existent advertisers). Of course, you’ve done this before as well. I wrote about it five years ago, when another instance of you lashing out at the media only seemed to call more attention to those negative stories.

There’s a term for that sort of thing that maybe you haven’t heard about.

But, there is a larger, more important issue here that should be discussed. I know you’ve dismissed a few people who have suggested your anti-media rant does more harm than good, but you might want to rethink that stance. Yes, the media makes mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are pretty serious. And, yes, some media organization are just… terrible. But painting the entire media industry with a broad brush, at the same time that many other powerful institutions who don’t want to be held accountable (*cough* *cough*) are doing the same thing, doesn’t help make the media better or more credible. It just empowers those who seek to discredit the actually good and necessary job of underpaid, overworked reporters who are actually breaking important stories, holding the powerful accountable and speaking truth to power.

Indeed, if you’ve actually read this far (and I know that’s unlikely, but humor me), I would recommend seriously considering the four questions that Alexios Mantzarlis at the Poynter Institute (again, a non-profit known for supporting serious, thoughtful journalism) had for you about this plan — which really lays out all the ways in which your plan can go wrong. Crowdsourcing has lots of benefits. But crowdsourcing “truth” tends to turn into a popularity contest of narratives. And, as we’ve seen, sometimes that leads to some pretty fucked up outcomes.

And you don’t need to encourage that kind of thing just because a few journalists pissed you off. You’re crazy rich and super powerful. The journalists you are maligning tend to be neither of those things. And your plan looks likely to make things not just worse for them, but to make their jobs in actually bringing about truth that much more difficult.

I might not know how to build a cool factory like the Tesla factory or be able to launch my sports cars into space, but I do know something about the media world. And your little tirade and plans to “fix” things, are based on faulty assumptions and will make a difficult situation for the media much worse — doing pretty serious damage to the good work that much of the media actually does. I have no problem with calling out bad reporting, weak fact checking, silly assumptions and the like. You’ve got a powerful soapbox and you should use it accordingly. But, tarring and feathering the entire media and providing tools for everyone else to do the same is going to lead to really bad outcomes.

So, please, focus on continuing to do the impossible with your various companies rather than attacking the media. The Silicon Valley clock will keep ticking, and it’ll be 12 o’clock before you know it. Hopefully, by then, there may even be some Teslas that those of us working in media can actually afford.



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Comments on “Hey Elon Musk, Let's Talk About The Media”

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Ninja (profile) says:

I’d be very surprised if we find out he read it. But I’d be even more surprised if he acknowledges his error and scraps the plans. I’m not judging him specifically but when someone that much powerful and wealthy they tend to get disconnected from reality of most of the population and to think they are infallible.

I’m hoping Musk is better than that because I do like how he is spearheading many awesome efforts.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Re: I'd be very surprised if we find out he read it.

I expect Musk to read it.

I’m a huge fan of his, and of SpaceX and Tesla (even have a Model 3 due to show up here in a few weeks).

But I agree with Mike – I think he’s making a mistake here.

“Truth” and “facts” are terribly difficult to puzzle out except at first-hand. Even for those with the noblest motives. Crowdsourcing seems unlikely to help.

Backwards-looking methods never seem to work, except sometimes on historical timescales (and there’s lots of bias even then).

The only reliable method we’ve found for truth-finding, science, uses forward-looking methods. You make a prediction, and then see if it’s right.

24AheadDotCom (user link) says:

Re: Re: I'd be very surprised if we find out he read it.

Reporters might not be paid by the click, but if the site doesn’t get enough clicks it might shut down. If their articles get many fewer clicks than others’, guess who’s going to get the gravy. The self-mythologizing by reporters is a bad joke: they’re paid by one wealthy group or another to push that group’s line. They’re incurious and unwilling to rock the boat if there are powerful people in it. And, on key political issues (I don’t know about tech), they constantly deceive.

Anonymous Coward says:

fossil fuel companies really don’t need to advertise to get people to use their products.

Our modern civilization is built on fossil fuels… once we burn them all the population of humans may return to the mean.

Tesla uses fossil fuels for nearly every component of the car. Every current form of “green” energy is completely dependent upon fossil fuels.

Anonymous Coward says:

the honeymoon is finally over, and it's about time

It’s funny that Musk had nothing negative to say about the press during all those years when he reigned as the preeminent media darling, basking in all that free publicity worth millions if not billions. But Musk is indeed right (and Masnick is wrong) about the corporate news media being untrustworthy and greedy. They are, as is he.

Anonymous Coward says:

Teaching vs Gossip

There are a lot of automated ratings systems for writing analysis out there. I’m not entirely sure human evaluation is even neccessary to determine credibility.

TD rates highly in my book because when it talks about bench law and the like it teaches as much as it bitches. The rhetorical difference is something that AI should be able to evaluate effectively. Phrasing and compositional structure alone really should give a fairly accurate measure of who is trying to teach, and who is trying to pimp. Which is really the more important thing to know when being critical of journalism.

I think rather than a “credibility” meter, what is needed is more of an “integrity” meter. We all make mistakes. So isn’t the the question more about whether we are lifting eachother up, or putting eachother down? Mass media is mostly the latter, though it sells itself otherwise. It is a function that is integral to the unconsensual behavior modification therapy that is modern advertising.

Anonymous Coward says:

ahh look...

All the “we up in a democracy here” lost boys are against Elon creating a literal democracy of a news opinion site. If as he says anyone can help discredit news then this should be good right?

he he…

There is only one thing humans can’t seem to ever stop doing… and that is building shit that will eventually destroy themselves. My absolute favorites are the people that keep asking for government to save them it is government doing all the screwing of them. BLM for instance. People that constantly run to government for salvation but they wind up getting harmed in their interactions with them a whole lot more.

irony… its not just for mmo swords and armor folks!

Anonymous Coward says:

My feeling is that journalism is in the toilet because the industry is dominated by, and constantly interfered with by, oligarchs, whose interest is the opposite of the “public interest”.

The extent to which a news service is free from the influence of super-rich industrialists seems to be, to a large extent, the extent to which it is credible.

Personally, I think The Conversation does it best. Maybe it is the fact that it has no oligarch owners and no concerns on the top floor about being “attractive” to advertisers. Or maybe it is more about the writers being actual experts, accustomed to getting proper ethics approval for publications and anticipating serious peer review. The properly resourced post-moderation of always-open user comments probably helps too.

Musk would probably be better off just dropping some of his bags of money on a proven service like that – anonymously preferably.

Omydar also did OK by picking winners and backing them – although it’s a dirty way to go about it.

No better, really, than the traditional approach of just buying established old media and stacking the organisations with flunkies (e.g. Bezos).

But I can’t see this initiative doing much harm. If it becomes a stupid popularity contest then it will be obvious that that is what it is and it wont have credibility. Worth a try IMO.

Still, thanks for your thoughtful article, Mike. Hopefully he reads it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

My feeling is that journalism is in the toilet because the industry is dominated by, and constantly interfered with by, oligarchs, whose interest is the opposite of the “public interest”.

What do you expect when all the leftists and even some righties like Trump (who is more left than right, which is probably why he is so hated by the left) are crying and whining about “fake news” and “hate speech”?

Of course these “for profit” businesses are going to change the news and how they report it to avoid getting sucked into all of these little snowflake fights?

I have some hardcore left and some hardcore right leanings, but no matter what… I refuse to become a dog of any of the political churches like the vast majority of people here or in the news.

kyle clements (profile) says:

“here at Techdirt, I’ve never actually told any of our writers how much traffic their stories get, because I don’t want them thinking about clicks at all. I want them to write the best stories they can write, and then they can let me focus on how to monetize good content and a good insightful community, rather than just going for scale and clicks.”

So, because TechDirt has integrity and is thinking beyond the next quarter, other outlets probably have some integrity and brains as well?

Sorry Mike, but I’ll only believe that once I’ve seen it…

Seriously though, the way the media covers things *does* create a heavily skewed image of the world in people’s minds. The world is better now than it has ever been for more people in nearly every measure, yet everyone is convinced the world is going to hell in a handbasket. And I think part of that is because disasters are the most newsworthy events, so that’s what gets the attention.

The news will cover the one person killed by a car in autopilot, without even mentioning the 9,000 people killed that day (and every day) by a human-controlled car. Where is the news coverage comparing the average kilometers per collision of a human vs an AI, because *that* is the real story.

Is the media terrible? I think so.
Is Musk right to criticise it? Yes.
Is Musk’s plan going to work? Not a chance in hell.

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