Elon Musk's Tesla has had some tough headlines recently. Model 3 production problems. Cash burn. NTSB investigations of crashes, some fatal, involving Autopilot and intense battery fires. And this week, a big diss from Consumer Reports over emergency braking and other safety issues.
There has also been plenty of positive, gee-whiz coverage. We were all pretty giddy about Starman. But the tough stuff, coming at a critical time for the company, has stood out.
Nobody except perhaps Elon Musk ever thought scaling up production of a new car, without the benefit of a century of manufacturing expertise, would be easy. He's doing a bold thing — that's why it's a great story. Outlets from the Wall Street Journal to Autoblog have covered the neat parts of Tesla, we've conveyed plenty of self-promotion served straight-up from Musk, and yes, we've covered the adversity. And in what great story does the hero not have to overcome adversity?
But Musk, clearly feeling picked on, vowed Wednesday to enlist an army:
Going to create a site where the public can rate the core truth of any article & track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor & publication. Thinking of calling it Pravda ...— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 23, 2018
Problem is journos are under constant pressure to get max clicks & earn advertising dollars or get fired. Tricky situation, as Tesla doesn't advertise, but fossil fuel companies & gas/diesel car companies are among world's biggest advertisers.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 23, 2018
These tweets and many more from him blew up Twitter, where the responses didn't quite add up to the sympathetic reaction Musk might have hoped for.
Some noted that Musk's operation has actually made plans for a site called "Pravda." But this may be as fleeting as the candy company he proposed, with which he would school Warren Buffett on how Silicon Valley innovation can improve already popular and delicious candy. And does he not understand that the world laughed at the original Pravda (translation: truth) for the irony of the "news" it contained? Or is he saying the entirety of American journalism is a mouthpiece for, what, the old-guard car companies? Or will the crowdsourced raters be the Pravda to his Khrushchev? He sure was pounding his shoe Wednesday.
Nor does his premise about clicks and advertisers make sense. Rarely, an advertising rep will drop an awkward hint about topics their clients kinda wished the newsroom covered. But no advertiser has ever asked, "Hey, we give you a lot of money, so would you mind kneecapping this guy for us?" Nor has an editor ever said, "Hey, that jerk won't advertise with us. Let's destroy him!" (Until Musk said so, I was unaware Tesla doesn't advertise. As they say, not my department.) He fails to mention that those fume-belching car companies are all scrambling to implement EV initiatives, in no small part because of him. And if publications desire him as an advertising client, dreaming up negative stories would be a poor strategy for coaxing him into an ad buy.
Suppose he does create a website to rate journalism. Crowdsourcing's great in some situations, but also prone to manipulation, bullies and trolls. And set aside the fact crowdsourcing isn't actually logical. It violates argumentum ad populum, for one: Just because lots of people say something's good, bad, true or false does not mean it is. Also, the fallacy of false authority: Just because someone is asked for an opinion does not mean his opinion is meaningful or informed.
But the biggest problem with asking the crowd to rate journalism is how our brains are wired.
There's this concept in the social sciences called the "third person effect," and it drives reader discontent: When people consume news coverage of an issue, they're biased to see it as too critical of their own views and too favorable toward opponents' viewpoints. (The name "third person effect" comes from the worry that some third party will be convinced you're wrong and the other guy's right.) Are you a Hillary Clinton supporter? Then the media have it in for her. Donald Trump supporter? The media have it in for him. Admire Elon Musk? Mentioning a problem with Tesla is an affront to a visionary. Does something about Elon rub you the wrong way? The coverage, to you at least, is too worshipful.
One story, different "truths." It's a big part of why people complain about coverage and say they don't like journalists. (And why some buy into repeated cries of "fake news.") And so instead, we seek out the information sources that feed us what we want to hear, not what might challenge our beliefs, and we proclaim it "good journalism." The web makes fulfilling that confirmation bias easy.
And people are quicker to complain than to praise. In my newspaper career, we handled complaints from readers who thought the paper was promoting "the liberal agenda," and just as many others who thought we were doing the bidding of the establishment and our conservative publisher. As long as you got about the same number of complaints from each side, you knew you were playing it down the middle.
This view of journalism isn't likely to be any more charitable on a ratings website, particularly if Tesla enthusiasts band together to game it. Musk's Twitter poll was running 88 percent in favor of Pravda on Thursday, in a demonstration of why Pravda won't be meaningful for anybody but Musk.
Musk in a tweet Wednesday said, "If you're in media & don't want Pravda to exist, write an article telling your readers to vote against it ..." Instead, this article is meant to say this: Have Pravda, don't have Pravda, Pravda doesn't matter either way. Sure, sometimes journalists make mistakes, like other human beings. But like everyone else, we genuinely want to do a good honest day's work, to be fair-minded. And we tend to be critical of ourselves. Probably more than Pravda will ever be.
If Tesla succeeds — and recent improvements in Model 3 production rates indicate it might — we'll be here to cover the good times too. And that, all taken together, is the full and true story of Tesla. Stay tuned.