Elon Musk’s Latest Brainstorm Takes Aim at Meddlesome Media

Elon Musk (cc photo: Michelle Andonian/OnInnovation)

Elon Musk gazes into the future. (cc photo: Michelle Andonian/OnInnovation)

Elon Musk, the eccentric South African billionaire head of electric vehicle/battery maker Tesla and rocket company SpaceX, is anything but subtle when it comes to marketing his own personal brand of nerd-cool CEO.

Musk’s latest wild business ideas include consumer-ready flamethrowers and a candy company aimed at trolling See’s Candies owner Warren Buffett. His own cutely named Boring Company has announced plans to dig an express transit tunnel from downtown Chicago to O’Hare Airport, and is currently digging a Hyperloop-equipped tunnel under the Los Angeles 405 freeway. It also intends to repurpose the dirt from the Los Angeles dig into Lego-like bricks for purchase by Musk-obsessed consumers.

In a Twitter tirade last month, the billionaire announced his newest enterprise, a far cry from his usual quirky sci-fi tech projects: a website “where the public can rate the core truth of any article and track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor & publication,” which he plans to call Pravda.

While his announcement was possibly in jest, based on the website’s being named for the former Soviet newspaper—and the variant he chose to purchase as domain name, pravduh.com—one of Musk’s employees indeed registered Pravda Corp in Delaware last year. Sharing similarities with Snopes and other factcheckers, Pravda looks to be, among other things, another instance of the time-honored Silicon Valley trope of inventing something that is already invented.

The advent of Musk’s upcoming journalism-rating website comes on the heels of big trouble at Tesla, which is currently the most-shorted stock on the market. The company is bleeding cash and is struggling to meet production quotas to satisfy the 450,000-plus consumer reservations for its latest low-priced electric vehicle, the Model 3.

Musk alleged in a company-wide email that a fire at the Fremont, California, Tesla factory was an act of sabotage by an employee, and the company filed a lawsuit against another employee alleged to have hacked a trove of company data. The CEO also announced layoffs of 9 percent of Tesla’s workforce on June 12, and some Tesla investors have called for him to step down as head of the company. Tesla’s autonomous car prototypes have been involved in more fatal crashes, and media coverage of the company’s woes seems to be reaching a fever pitch.

An odd earnings call, where Musk was antagonistic and dismissive of questions regarding media coverage of Tesla in comparison to other automakers, underscored the concern that Pravda could be used as the billionaire’s tool to hobble and undermine meddlesome journalists.

The Cult of Musk

Guardian: Elon Musk: The Real-Life Iron Man

The Guardian (2/9/18) touted Musk’s “desire to push the limits of what was possible for private enterprise” as a point of similarity to superhero Tony Stark.

Musk’s new war against the media seems somewhat surprising, given that his larger-than-life persona and seemingly revolutionary business ventures have brought him legions of cheerleaders in the mainstream press.

A sample of the many positive longform profiles from leading magazines, websites and newspapers:

  • How Elon Musk Turned Tesla Into the Car Company of the Future (Wired, 9/27/10)
  • Elon Musk: Triumph of His Will (Esquire, 11/14/12)
  • The Shared Genius of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs (Fortune, 11/21/13)
  • Elon Musk: The New It Boy of Silicon Valley (Observer, 5/24/14)
  • Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man (Wait But Why, 5/7/15; reprinted in the Huffington Post, 11/2/15)
  • Decoding Tesla’s Secret Formula (Forbes, 8/19/15)
  • Elon Musk: The Architect of Tomorrow (Rolling Stone, 11/15/17)
  • Elon Musk: The Real Life Iron Man (Guardian, 2/9/18)
  • The Incredible Story of Elon Musk, From Getting Bullied in School to the Most Interesting Man in Tech (Business Insider, 5/3/18)

In these profiles, Musk is usually held up as a Herculean ubermensch, a genius workaholic who will save humanity from fossil fuel–induced climate change, the only person with the sheer will to propel humans to Mars or the audacity to connect the world with super-fast Hyperloop trains.

Profiles such as these have helped Musk’s marketing influence extend far beyond just the mainstream press. Robert Downey Jr. based his portrayal of billionaire military contractor turned superhero Tony Stark in the Iron Man film series after Musk. A whole cottage industry of green tech, electric car and environmental blogs and websites like CleanTechnica, Planetsave and Teslarati track Musk and his projects with unquestioned veneration and praise. He has his own subreddit of devotees, with over 46,000 subscribers, and Musk himself has amassed almost 22 million Twitter followers, making him the 87th most-followed person on the site and the second most-followed CEO after Bill Gates.

Wealth has convinced media of Gates’—and his wife’s—expertise on malaria, hunger and education, but it’s likely no CEO in the past decade has been showered with more unadulterated praise than Musk, both in the media and among employees. His fans show an almost creepy level of reverence towards the tech billionaire, suggesting more a cult of personality than a healthy respect.

For example, when a Musk interview with CBS This Morning revealed that his office at the Fremont Tesla plant had a less-than-comfortable couch, fans led a GoFundMe campaign that raised almost $8,000 for the billionaire. (Tesla later matched the fundraising sum and donated the proceeds to charity.)

Stephen Davis, the project lead at the Boring Company, half-jokingly told his boss during a livestream on the sales of his company’s novelty bricks, “We’re building a pyramid and a temple for you.” Musk has even been floated as a potential technocratic monarch/CEO by some of the wackier online segments of the alt-right.

If there is a temple of Musk, members of the media have been content to act as high priests, and their sermons provide the fuel for whipping up a frenzy of devotion to the “good billionaire,” the only person with the knowledge, spunk and wealth to fix all of society’s ills.

A More Perfect Union

Reveal: Insult to Injury

The Center for Investigative Reporting’s expose on worker safety at Tesla (Reveal, 4/16/18)

Yet Musk has now taken aim at the very press that has lauded his vision and business acumen in the past, and provided him the initial platform for converting readers and viewers into True Musk Believers.

Along with negative media coverage of Tesla’s ongoing production woes and car crashes, a major spark for Musk’s journalism rating website was a report on Tesla’s labor practices by Reveal (4/16/18), an outfit of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting, that found that Tesla was underreporting injuries and had inadequate safety rules. Reveal claimed that Tesla’s Fremont factory underused the color yellow (which is prominently used in factories to denote safety hazard zones) because Musk did not like the color. Musk and Tesla disputed these findings, releasing an official statement saying that Reveal is an “extremist organization” that is “working directly with union supporters to create a calculated disinformation campaign.” On May 20, Musk tweeted that Reveal proliferates “carefully constructed propaganda with a name that would make Orwell proud.”

As this statement suggests, Tesla has fought internal battles with workers over unionization in recent years, over issues such as excessive mandatory overtime and low pay. After workers reached out about joining the United Auto Workers (UAW) in 2017, Tesla employee Jerry Moran put out a Medium post in 2017 expressing dissatisfaction with new requirements for employees to sign a “confidentiality policy that threatens consequences if we exercise our right to speak out about wages and working conditions.” Musk also attempted to placate his workers with free frozen yogurt in response to Moran’s complaint.

Another of Musk’s tweets, where he implicitly threatened to take away employee stock options if they unionized, could actually violate labor law.

In the same thread, the billionaire quizzically claimed that the UAW wants “divisiveness & enforcement of two-class ‘lords & commoners’ system,” going on to note that the “US fought War of Independence to get rid of a two-class system.” He also accused the UAW of having conflicts of interest regarding their former relationship with Tesla, which ended in 2010. In the past, Musk has (both incorrectly and simplistically) decried the UAW’s labor practices as the major cause of the 2008 auto industry crisis and the subsequent industry bailout.

Musk presents himself as the hero in his own story, a plucky underdog, a disruptor taking on the entrenched power of automakers in Detroit, the fossil fuel establishment and the selfish stonewalling of unions. Never mind Musk’s $19.1 billion net worth, nor his wealthy family roots (his father owned an emerald mine in Zambia), nor the fact that his companies stay afloat in thanks partly to piles of money from government contracts and subsidies. Indeed, his companies have received over $4.9 billion in subsidies since their inception, according to the LA Times (5/30/15).

Ad by Subtraction

Despite all his huffing about the press (finally) giving him and his companies a bit of critical coverage on his business models and anti-union views, Musk does have some salient points on the relationship between media and advertising. Just prior to his Pravda announcement, Musk tweeted:

Problem is journos are under constant pressure to get max clicks and earn advertising dollars or get fired. Tricky situation, as Tesla doesn’t advertise, but fossil fuel companies and gas/diesel car companies are among world’s biggest advertisers.

This is a fair assessment of the current dynamic in the media landscape, where pretty much all large media properties are owned by just a handful of corporations.

Those companies, including behemoths such as Disney and Comcast, are large, diversified entities with cross-sector interests that prevent them from taking critical stances on important issues, including climate change. These companies are also beholden to a bevy of advertisers whose ad dollars and “strategic partnerships” they would rather not lose, and so they forgo broadcast or publication of any stories that might provide critical coverage.

FAIR has covered the nefarious outsized influence that advertisers have on media companies’ on countless occasions throughout our history, specifically with our Fear and Favor Series. FAIR has also paid special attention to the media influence of the fossil fuel industry on topics related to climate change,

Time: How to Save the Earth

Time (8/26/02) told readers “how to save the Earth” without involving the auto industry–because the issue was sponsored by Ford.

To use an example straight from Musk’s enemies, the US auto and fossil fuel industries, Time magazine’s 2002 cover story, “Saving the Earth: The Challenges We Face,” provided a succinct encapsulation of the power of advertisers over media coverage. The article (8/26/02) and accompanying pieces in the issue were devoted to tackling the issues of global climate change and environmental degradation… but the issue failed to mention anything related to pollution from automobiles, a major cause of global emissions.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise: Ford Motor Company ran two full-page ads in the issue and was the exclusive sponsor of Time’s ongoing “Heroes for the Planet” article series. Ford is also mentioned in the cover article as one of the many fossil fuel industry players “getting it right on the environment,” along with such noble corporate citizens as Shell and Texaco. Absent in the magazine’s coverage is the fact that Ford lobbied for decades against raising fuel emissions standards.

Although Ford recently started publicly supporting higher fuel standards and hybrid and electric vehicles, they are to this day still members of trade groups like the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Global Automakers that actively lobby the Trump administration for weaker fuel standards or delayed implementation. Time magazine’s relationship with Ford has continued through the present.

US media properties that depend on advertising to stay afloat frequently tiptoe between providing coverage that is just insightful enough to readers or viewers to be provocative, but sanitized enough to not upset or challenge power, especially the power of corporations. As Time magazine’s former international editor Charles Alexander said about his company’s corporate partnerships to the Wall Street Journal (9/21/98), “We don’t run airline ads next to stories about airline crashes.”

Musk’s accusation that the fossil fuel and auto industries have it out for him is likely correct, given the strength of his personal brand in marketing electric vehicles that threaten their core businesses. Yet this battle is indicative of a larger problem with the discourse in corporate-owned media: There only seems to be a reasonable level of debate about important issues concerning economic power when there are multiple corporate interest groups fighting against one another.

Just witness the debate during the Obama administration over net neutrality, a seemingly arcane telecom regulation that is nonetheless crucial in maintaining a free and open Internet. Had tech giants like Google, Netflix and Amazon not provided the corporate backing against telecom monopolies like Comcast and Verizon, there is little chance that net neutrality would have caused the stir that it did in the establishment press, despite vigorous activism and overwhelming public support. (Net neutrality was recently repealed by the Trump administration and FCC Chair Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer.)

Watching the Watchers

Elon Musk (image: PBS NewsHour)

Elon Musk behind the wheel: Any time a billionaire gets involved with media properties should be cause for concern. (image: PBS NewsHour)

In a world where Donald Trump’s boldface lies are taken at face value on Fox News and other right-wing propaganda outlets, a world where the establishment press is so driven to giving equal credence to “both sides” on any given issue no matter what the facts show, or a world where crucial issues like climate change get little mention in presidential debates, it’s no wonder that US trust in the media is at an all-time low. Musk realizes this as well, remarking:

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.

Yet by attacking Reveal, Musk reveals the instrumentality of his media criticism by laying it on a nonprofit organization not beholden to advertisers. Reveal and other investigative outlets fill an important and overlooked gap in the current media landscape: a voice against corporate power, for labor rights, in an era when prominent media outlets have largely abandoned labor coverage. This media neglect reflects and facilitates the ongoing onslaught by large corporations against worker bargaining power–an attack that has contributed heavily to stagnant wages and rising income inequality since the 1970s.

If the goal of the Fourth Estate is to act as a check on power, then Musk’s attacks on labor media likewise betray a lack of seriousness in addressing problems with the press. A critique of media that only engages when his company’s bottom line and his personal brand are threatened displays the same type of hypocrisy he decries.

The idea for Pravda has a number of other obvious faults, the main one being its lack of factchecking impartiality. FAIR has repeatedly explored the many problems of factchecking websites as neutral arbiters. Additionally, in today’s partisan, fractured and bubbled media landscape, readers and viewers define their own truth and narratives, regardless of what the actual facts might reveal. Musk isn’t even a good judge of media truthfulness himself: Last month, he promoted a site with ties to the alleged sex cult NXIVM.

Trusting individuals to decide what is truthful and what is not is a central part of media literacy, but if a journalism rating site like Pravda is used as a cudgel against journalists or outlets like Reveal who might be critical of Musk or his companies, it shows that it is far from some sort of neutral source. Indeed, Musk’s site would likely be used more by his devoted followers than by the general public, resulting in journalism ratings conforming to his own techno-libertarian, anti-labor political lines.

Any time that a billionaire gets involved with media properties should be a cause for concern among the most vulnerable, such as people of color, immigrants and workers. This is especially true if those billionaires have some sort of ax to grind with certain individuals or groups. Musk’s friend and fellow PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel notably orchestrated the destruction of Gawker Media after it outed him as gay in 2007.

Could a flurry of bad Pravda ratings be used to destroy the credibility of media outlets that attempted to go after Musk’s labor practices, or question his government subsidies? Given the widespread harassment of individuals who criticize Musk by his millions of Twitter followers, it is a very real possibility.

Moving humanity away from fossil fuels to halt the impact of global climate change is indeed a noble goal that requires massive and immediate shifts in production, government regulation and consumer tastes, and Musk’s personal brand helps elevate electric vehicles in the eyes of millions of people and the auto industry at large. But Musk’s massive fortune, anti-labor views,  political connections and cult of personality make him a dubious vehicle for a media reform project, and the public should remain wary of his intentions.

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