Elon Musk’s Silly War With the Media

The billionaire’s Twitter tirade was so ill-informed it led to a subtweet from his former head of communications.

Elon Musk wearing a white suit
Steven Ferdman / Getty

Updated on May 24 at 4:30 p.m. ET

Elon Musk’s screed against the media began with a story about Tesla.

“The holier-than-thou hypocrisy of big media companies who lay claim to the truth, but publish only enough to sugarcoat the lie, is why the public no longer respects them,” the entrepreneur tweeted Wednesday, with a link to a post on the website Electrek. The author of that post criticized news coverage of recent Tesla crashes and delays in the production of the Model 3, calling it “obsessive” and saying there’s been a “general increase of misleading clickbait.”

Musk followed that tweet with an hours-long tirade in which he suggested that journalists write negative stories about Tesla to get “max clicks” and “earn advertising dollars or get fired,” blamed the press for the election of President Donald Trump, and polled users on whether he should create a website that rates “the core truth” of articles and tracks “the credibility score” of journalists, which he would consider naming Pravda, like the Soviet state-run, propaganda-ridden news agency.

Many alarmed journalists weighed in. So did someone who, once upon a time, held a position that typically involves advising public figures not to do this sort of thing: Musk’s former communications director.

“At a time when Western democratic norms and institutions are being eroded, and journalists around the world face mounting threats and persecution just for doing their jobs, I’m proud to know so many amazing reporters,” said Dex Torricke-Barton, who previously worked at SpaceX, Musk’s spaceflight company, in a textbook-definition of a subtweet. “Thanks for fighting for the truth.”

The chief communications officer at Boeing, SpaceX’s competitors in a NASA program to build a transportation system to send American astronauts into orbit, chimed in on Thursday with a similar sentiment. “There’s a lot of criticism right now on Twitter about journalists. My take? I see a lot of dedicated reporters bringing experience and insight to play a critical role in the aerospace industry,” Phil Musser tweeted. “We appreciate the hard work reporters do to get it right, even though we may not always agree. It’s a two-way street and our team is always ready to engage and help, so call us!”

These tweet sounds like they could be a rebuke to Musk’s Trumpian dismissal of legitimate news coverage. Musk was lumped in with the group of people who wave away stories as “fake news” on social media, and one of the members of that group seemed to welcome him:

Public figures who are unhappy with coverage that potentially makes them look bad have accused journalists of lying for as long as the two groups have co-existed. Musk’s claim—that journalists write about Tesla because of they’re click-hungry, dishonest creatures with nefarious motivations—is not an original argument.

It’s also wrong. The majority of journalists who cover Tesla—and Musk’s other companies—write about the company because it’s newsworthy. Because production delays are newsworthy. Because the firing of 700 employees is newsworthy. Because fatal crashes of autopilot-equipped vehicles are newsworthy.

This week’s tweets are the latest example of Musk’s increasingly antagonistic relationship with the press. In October 2016, several months after a man was killed in an accident in his Tesla Model S in Florida, when the car was in autopilot mode, Musk appeared to blame reporters for potential vehicular deaths. “One of the things I should mention that frankly has been quite disturbing to me is the degree of media coverage of autopilot crashes, which are basically almost none relative to the paucity of media coverage of the 1.2 million people that die every year in manual crashes. [It is] something that I think does not reflect well upon the media. It really doesn’t,” he told reporters. “Because, and really you need to think carefully about this, because if, in writing some article that’s negative, you effectively dissuade people from using an autonomous vehicle, you’re killing people.”

In October 2017, after The Wall Street Journal reported on the state of Tesla’s assembly line—specifically, that it wasn’t quite in operation, and “major portions of the Model 3 were still being banged out by hand”—Tesla attacked the Journal’s credibility. “For over a decade, the WSJ has relentlessly attacked Tesla with misleading articles that, with few exceptions, push or exceed the boundaries of journalistic integrity,” the company said in a statement. “While it is possible that this article could be an exception, that is extremely unlikely.”

Also in October 2017, after The Guardian reported that a Tesla worker was suing the company because he was harassed for being gay by a supervisor, penalized for reporting the situation to human resources, and then fired, Tesla similarly criticized the publication. “We are disappointed that The Guardian, a corporation that ironically [does] have a track record of proven discrimination, is displaying a complete lack of journalistic integrity by misrepresenting this matter to generate clicks,” Tesla said in a statement to Jalopnik about the Guardian story.

In November 2017, Musk shouted “shame!” at journalists who covered layoffs at Tesla during a conference call with investors and press.

But none of this is likely to change people’s perception of Musk for the worse. That hasn’t been the case for years. “When Musk publicly took on The New York Times over an unfavorable review, for example, he kept the feud in the news for days while managing to galvanize the Tesla faithful on his behalf,” The Mercury News reported as early as 2013. Back then, Musk had only 176,000 followers on Twitter. Today, he has nearly 22 million.

The same thing has happened this week. At the time of this writing, Musk’s poll on his proposed media-credibility rating site records 88 percent in favor (“yes, this would be good”) and 12 percent against (“no, media are awesome”) out of more than 630,000 votes.

A day later, Musk is still tweeting through it. And there’s a chance that his media-rating website, Pravda, may soon exist. Mark Harris, a reporter for IEEE Spectrum, shared a document that showed a Musk agent filed a notice to create “Pravda Corp.” In October 2017, the same month that saw multiple Tesla statements attacking news organizations for their coverage. “He’s not kidding, folks,” Harris said. Musk responded to him with a hugging emoji.

The idea that yet another tech billionaire may soon be wading into the complicated swamp of modern-day newsmaking may be exhausting, but that it is Musk should not come as a surprise. Musk has made his career out of creating companies to fill gaps he perceives in various industries, and now he thinks he sees one in the news business. If only he knew the first thing about journalism.