The Problem with Popular Mechanics’ Love Letter to Elon Musk

The magazine’s editor acknowledged the cover story is a “puff piece,” but stood by his decision to defend the billionaire in dramatic fashion.

Elon Musk holding a microphone
Chris Carlson / AP

On Tuesday, Popular Mechanics magazine put the cover story of its November issue online: A collection of essays titled “In Defense of Elon Musk,” authored by a mix of staff journalists and technology-industry professionals. “The Tesla and SpaceX maestro is under attack for bad tweets, production woes, and strange behavior,” the introduction said. “But we need people who take risks. We need people who try.”

The collection appeared to be a hit with the Popular Mechanics audience and fans of Elon Musk, which is no surprise: Since 1902, Popular Mechanics has covered, in print and then online, automotive, science, and technology news, and Musk and his many enterprises—Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity—fit squarely in the magazine’s territory. For Muskovites, the collection was a welcome and well-deserved respite from recent news coverage that focused not on car specs or rocket launches, but on an expensive lawsuit with federal regulators, dangerous working conditions on factory floors, and struggles with timely car production and delivery.

Other readers, particularly journalists, were flabbergasted, including several Popular Mechanics staffers and contributors who declined to speak on the record because they feared jeopardizing their jobs. “It’s not the job of a magazine to do some PR recovery efforts for somebody exhibiting unstable behavior just because you like that he makes cool cars and rockets,” one Popular Mechanics writer said. (Disclosure: I worked at Popular Mechanics as a web intern for about a month in 2012.) For many journalists, the essay collection was a love letter bursting with unbridled, unfiltered admiration for Musk, a public figure the magazine covers, regularly and objectively. The material reads as if it came straight from the public-relations managers whose jobs are to make their boss look good.

The collection seemed designed to provide a thoughtful argument for supporting innovators like Musk despite their well-documented flaws. That’s a good story idea, and there’s a way to execute it well, through original reporting, with carefully argued explanations, from rightfully skeptical authors—the same rigorous requirements for coverage of any public figure. The Popular Mechanics essay collection is not that.

“Some of the criticisms have merit,” the introduction of the collection said, but the essays that followed mentioned none. Instead of trying to confront and reckon with Musk’s erratic behavior in good faith, the essay collection downplays it. The infamous Tesla tweet that prompted a lawsuit from the Securities and Exchange Commission, cost Musk and Tesla $20 million each, and pushed Musk out of his role as the company’s board chairman is chalked up to Musk being “clumsy in his tweeting at times.”

The collection portrays criticism of this and similar actions by Musk as trivial compared to his accomplishments in the spaceflight and automotive industries, of which there are certainly many. “Zoom out, people,” one author writes. “We’re talking about a guy who thinks on a cosmic scale, who wants to push civilization as far as he can while we still have one. But go ahead and scoff at what he said on the quarterly conference call.”

It even goes so far as to tabulate Musk’s contributions to society and that of his critics and concludes that Musk wins out, which, in their opinion, invalidates those critics’ concerns. “What have these stock analysts and pontificators done for humanity?” the introduction asks, as though contributions to humanity must be weighed up before criticism can be considered.

The editor in chief of Popular Mechanics says that this—a positive piece that argues Musk’s innovation overshadows his mishaps—was the whole point.

“The collection of these little pieces of writing is intended to be a reminder—you know, for all his faults, and for the things that don’t work—a reminder of the things that have and the things that are and the things that might be,” Ryan D’Agostino told me in a phone interview. “He might have tweeted something that the SEC didn’t like, but in the grand scheme of humanity, we kind of need this guy out there doing what he’s doing with his money and his dreams.”

D’Agostino said he decided to do the project after reading a slew of negative press of Musk and his properties, and, as he put it in the final collection, “myopic and small-brained” criticism. He cited as examples news coverage of the misleading tweet about Tesla, the ensuing SEC debacle, Musk’s weed experience on Joe Rogan’s podcast, and the entrepreneur’s relationship with the singer Grimes.

“It seemed to us there were a lot of people who were sort of gleefully piling on or seeing this as an opportunity to pile on Elon Musk,” D’Agostino said. “Certainly he is not above criticism or anything like that, but I don’t know, I thought it was time to sort of say, wait a minute.”

Musk, he said, is a good representative for the Popular Mechanics ethos. “It’s always been a magazine about what’s possible and the people who sort of tinker with things and solve problems with the aim and goal of improving human life and existence, and using technology to make things better,” he said. “When you look at someone like Elon Musk, we kind of think of him as one of us. He’s doing something very Popular Mechanics—you don’t know if it’s going to work, but he tries these things and gives it his all.”

Even if Popular Mechanics’ editors see a kinship between their publication and Elon Musk, it’s unusual for journalists to feel as if they need to speak publicly, and strongly, on behalf of ultra-powerful public figures. These figures, after all, usually have the platform to defend themselves, and Musk rarely passes on an opportunity to do just that. He also has a devoted fan base that will back him up and attack his detractors, especially women. Even in the face of negative press and a federal lawsuit, Musk remains tremendously influential. When I asked D’Agostino whether he thought someone as powerful as Musk was a natural subject for journalists to defend, he said, “I don’t know if I agree that journalists just exist to give a voice to people that don’t have a voice.”

The essay collection seems to buy into a larger narrative in the industry that paints wealthy entrepreneurs and their companies as saviors. “Admit it,” one essay says, “among your everyday pleasures is the possibility that you might pick up an item in the news feed on your smartphone concerning Elon Musk’s next great idea. Electric cars. The colonization of Mars. Tunnels beneath Los Angeles. Brains linked to computers.”

Surely, the essay seems to suggest, we can overlook a securities-fraud lawsuit and dangerous labor conditions and erratic leadership practices if it helps make these thrilling possibilities a reality. It’s akin to saying, “Pay no attention to Facebook’s handling of a Russian propaganda campaign on its pages, the website has altered how we communicate.” Such arguments can be dangerously shortsighted, and rarely age well.

The collection buys into another, far older narrative, one that extends beyond the technology industry, and which my colleague Megan Garber has written about extensively: that of the perceived importance of genius, and the moral compromises that society should be willing to endure in the name of progress. Only Musk alone, the essays suggest, is capable of achieving this progress, and by focusing on his flaws and mistakes, critics are hindering that journey.

D’Agostino said he expected the collection to have its detractors, and he said he understands the risks it presents for the publication and its writers, namely whether they are now able to offer critical and skeptical coverage of Musk and his companies. “There’s lots of glowing pieces in magazines all the time,” he said. “You could say it’s a puff piece. I guess you could say that. I just hope it’s an interesting one.”