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Elon Musk’s Fall to Earth

Why the Silicon Valley titan is lashing out at the press.

Theo Wargo / Getty

Many things are going very well for Elon Musk. He is the closest thing the popular imagination has to Steve Jobs. He just sent a sports car to Mars. He has a cool new girlfriend, the musician Grimes. He is rich on a scale that is unimaginable to most humans.

But many other things are very much not going well for Elon Musk. His car company, Tesla, has hit some fairly serious economic turbulence. The news website Reveal has uncovered disturbing safety issues at Tesla plants. He has been fighting with his investors, who are beginning to question his leadership of the company, and with his workers, who want to unionize.

A company in crisis, space exploration, a new relationship—this is enough to keep anyone busy. But Musk has spent the last couple of weeks posting online about how, among other things, he’s going to start a “candy company & it’s going to be amazing.” Most recently, he said he wanted to start a media company whose purpose is to sort “bad journalism” (i.e. stories Musk does not like) from real journalism. Here was Musk putting on another cap, that of media critic.

These idle musings were written in response to criticism of Tesla’s workplace safety record and to coverage of a recent accident involving one of its self-driving cars, which led to a woman’s death. They are very instructive, revealing not only Musk’s own thinking about journalism, but Silicon Valley’s attitude toward even minimal scrutiny.

Though Musk is considered by some to be a once-in-a-generation genius, his deeply flawed understanding of the way that journalism works is widespread. Musk, like many, sees journalism as transactional and corrupt. He believes that news coverage is directly tied to market pressure and that news outlets provide more favorable coverage to companies that buy advertisements from them. In fact, what Musk is describing is precisely the opposite of a reputable newsroom ethos. As Nate Silver tweeted on Wednesday, his ignorance could probably be cured if he decided to spend half a day talking to reporters and editors about what it is they actually do.

Musk’s ironically named “Pravda”—after the former state news organ of the Soviet Union—would create a market-oriented, crowdsourced solution to this “problem,” allowing users to rate stories and outlets based on reliability and trustworthiness. The flaws of this system are immediately obvious, given the biases of a polarized news-consuming public that is already sorting itself into completely different standards of what makes a news organization trustworthy. Musk ran a poll on his Twitter account asking users to vote on whether or not he should start “Pravda,” and it is a case in point: 88 percent of voters said that he should. Is that a representative result? No, it reflects the biases of his supporters. Now imagine if Musk was asking his readers about climate change or sexual harassment or any number of hot button issues.

Musk’s faith in the power of crowdsourcing is common in Silicon Valley. Last year, Reid Hoffman and Samuel Pinkus announced a new political project, WTF, that would allow participants to “upvote” political ideas that they liked. The ideas with the most upvotes would then be put on billboards in Washington, D.C., so people in politics could see them and presumably do something about them. Like Hoffman and Pinkus, Musk is basically convinced that, if given the tools, Americans will come together and push ideas that are basically in line with the politics of (most) Silicon Valley overlords, who skew liberal on social issues but are very cagey about regulation, workers’ rights, and redistributive policies. There is no evidence that this is true.

What set all of this off? After years of fawning press, tech companies are being asked tough questions for the first time since the dot-com bubble popped in the early 2000s. Not surprisingly, Musk does not like having to answer questions about his labor practices, or the ways he runs his companies. But this is exactly the function of a free press. Musk is sulkily suggesting that these questions are being posed not because he runs factories where people get hurt or because his auto business might need an overhaul, but because he doesn’t buy enough advertisements in The New York Times.

Ironically, it appears the best way to gain favorable media coverage is to make the press stronger. A crowdsourcing platform for news would be a colossal waste of time and money, but Jeff Bezos’s ownership of The Washington Post has been anything but. Under Bezos, the Post has vastly expanded its reach and output and produced a lot of good, quality journalism.

Owning the Post has been a double-edged sword for Bezos. It’s brought Amazon under scrutiny that it probably would not have received otherwise—Donald Trump’s saber-rattling about the company’s relationship with the Postal Service is clearly tied to the Post’s critical coverage of the president. But the credibility that comes from saving a great newspaper and making it better may help him in the court of public opinion when he has to answer tough questions about the treatment of Amazon workers, or when he’s ultimately hauled before Congress to answer for Amazon’s frightening economic power and technological dominance.

Billionaires owning newspapers makes much more sense for billionaires than it does for a healthy democracy. But it’s clear that Musk isn’t interested in ensuring that people have better access to information. His media criticism is linked, instead, to the fact that, after years of being treated as a kind of demigod, he’s now being treated as a human: flawed, greedy, maybe even corrupt. It’s an experience he clearly doesn’t like.