There is no evidence that Musk actually cares about high-quality journalism. There is no evidence that Musk is motivated by anything other than his own sense of vulnerability, or ego, or his well-documented trollish instincts.
Musk was indignant at comparisons to Donald Trump—another infamous journalist-hater of the moment—but he has clearly invited such comparisons through his behavior. Both men lack restraint in self-publishing. Both appear to be thin-skinned beyond reason. And both use Twitter as a way of bypassing—and engaging with—what they see as an unruly press corps.
The veteran television journalist Lesley Stahl recently shared an anecdote about how Trump responded when she asked him, in 2016, why he bashed journalists so. “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you,” Stahl says Trump told her.
“Journos hound me constantly for interviews, but I do almost none these days,” Musk tweeted last week. “♥ Twitter as it allows me to bypass journo bs.”
Musk loves a spectacle, which is a useful quality in a person with his résumé. He has complained about journalists in the past—including fixating on seemingly inconsequential inaccuracies. “Bloomberg article today also has oddly false details,” he tweeted in 2014. “I don't eat breakfast at Tesla and drink coffee, not juice.”
He has been compared to Howard Hughes and Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the Bond villain parodied as Dr. Evil in the 1990s Austin Powers films. Musk’s showmanship is well documented. So, too, is the delight he takes in provoking people. “Musk has burned through public-relations staffers with comical efficiency,” Vance wrote. “He tends to take on a lot of the communications work himself, writing news releases and contacting the press as he sees fit.”
Musk often tells of an epiphany he had in the early days of SpaceX, when he realized that people had not given up on truly ambitious space travel. “If you can show people that there is a way, then there is plenty of will.” It is hard to imagine a better line—where there’s a way, there’s a will—to encapsulate the techno-populism upon which Elon Musk built his success.
Here is a detail that any journalist thinking of accepting Musk at his word alone should remember: At one of Musk’s internships at a start-up in Silicon Valley, he’d overheard a disastrous visit from a Yellow Pages spokesperson who couldn’t articulate what the company was doing to adapt to the internet age. Consider how Kimbal, Elon’s brother, described the way they came to Zip2, from Vance’s biography: “Elon said, ‘These guys don’t know what they’re talking about. Maybe this is something we can do.’”
In other words, Musk wasn’t called to the media industry because he was passionate or even particularly interested in journalism, or the role of an independent press in a functioning democracy. (“The arguments journos are using against the public are word for word the same arguments despots use against democracy,” he tweeted on Saturday, apparently without irony.) Musk is typically far more interested in tearing down institutions and reinventing them, than fixing them outright. He can see that the journalism industry has been slow to adapt technologically and culturally to the technologies and rising populism of the political moment. He’s right that the public’s faith in journalism is faltering. And given that Musk has shown so much imagination in remaking entire industries, why shouldn’t he take a big swing at fixing the media?