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.