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What Elon Musk and Donald Trump don’t get about journalism

An investigation into Tesla’s factory conditions sent the testy CEO into a rant that showcased a Trump-like misapprehension of how journalists work.

What Elon Musk and Donald Trump don’t get about journalism
[Photo: Dan Taylor/Heisenberg Media/Flickr; Flickr user Gage Skidmore]

I’m going to be late to the bank to deposit a few checks from ExxonMobil and the Democratic National Committee before my evening champagne tasting, but allow me to opine, for a moment, on Elon Musk and Donald Trump’s latest round of media criticism. This afternoon, the thin-skinned Tesla founder and CEO responded to investigative news nonprofit Reveal‘s reporting on safety issues at Tesla factories by emulating the president: attacking the media–and implying that they’re in the pocket of his competitors.

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And then he took it a step further by suggesting a system for rating journalists by assigning them a “credibility score.” (And girlfriend Grimes took to Twitter Monday night to declare Reveal stories “fake news,” borrowing Trump’s favorite phrase, before later deleting the tweet.)

And when Musk was immediately criticized for his tweets, with some comparing him to President Trump (who excoriates the media on an almost hourly basis and seems to think that threatening Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is going to get the Washington Post to soften its coverage of his administration) the Tesla and SpaceX CEO just kept on attacking: “Anytime anyone criticizes the media, the media shrieks ‘You’re just like Trump!’ Why do you think he got elected in the first place? Because no ones believes you any more. You lost your credibility a long time ago.”

Last month, after Reveal reported on safety issues at Tesla’s plant–and that its former safety chief said she can’t sleep at night worrying about problems at the company–Tesla also released a statement slamming the news nonprofit as an “extremist organization working directly with union supporters to create a calculated disinformation campaign against Tesla.”

Well, if Reveal is in the pocket of the unions and “fossil fuel companies and gas/diesel car companies,” it’s not doing a very good job. That’s judging by these tough stories on the Border Patrol union, Exxon Mobil and Chevron, greenhouse gas polluters, General Motors, and the air pollution created by auto emissions. The lauded website and public radio program is the face of the four-decade-old Center for Investigative Reporting, the nation’s first nonprofit investigative journalism organization.

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Musk’s accusations reveal how he and Trump fundamentally misunderstand journalism and its practitioners. Their approach to life, as to business, appears to be fiercely transactional–if you do me a solid, I’ll do you one in return. From that vantage point, it isn’t hard to assume that reporters who write negative stories about their activities must have a reason to be targeting them. They must be paid by their competitors and their enemies. They must be serving someone’s agenda.

They are serving an agenda, but it’s one that seems unrecognizable to Musk and Trump. Their agenda is the truth. That sounds idealistic and it is. (And when the full truth’s not something that can be guaranteed–often, it isn’t–at least the agenda is toward accuracy.) Certainly, many journalists face pressure to get clicks and that sometimes leads to hyperbolic headlines and selective details. And at some news outlets there is too often a confirmation bias–a left-leaning publication might accentuate the negatives about a conservative lawmaker’s new policy while minimizing the potential benefits or adequately representing that politician’s arguments and vice versa.

But I can’t think of a single reputable reporter–and the team at Reveal has a phenomenal reputation and has won the Polk Award, a Peabody Award, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, among many other honors–who would write a story to please an advertiser or a union or a corporate or political patron.

Perhaps this misapprehension is the fault of the media; of course, we can always do better, and perhaps we haven’t done enough to make this clear. But of course, you needn’t listen to a member of the media. Make up your own mind–here are two of Reveal‘s stories about safety issues at Tesla (to which Musk has inadvertently already drawn many more readers)–and decide for yourself where the agenda lies.


Related: To Stop Tyrants, Think Like A Reporter

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