Published on May 27th, 2018 | by Zachary Shahan0
NYTimes Coverage Of Elon Musk Twitter Outburst Regurgitates What Pissed Him Off In The First Place — #Pravduh
May 27th, 2018 by Zachary Shahan
I just published a long piece on why I think Tesla CEO Elon Musk was so wrong in his reactionary, broad-brushed response to certain media coverage. But as a great reminder of what has been raising his blood pressure for months or years, the NYTimes coverage regurgitated the narratives that have pushed Elon over the edge — without putting them in proper context. Ugh.
Do you have to do such a poor job responding to his criticisms when we need to convince Sir Elon to keep away from generic media bashing?
(And, yeah, I’m talking about the journalistic coverage, not the horrible, horrid, idiotic, misinformed NYTimes op-ed from an often thoughtful, intelligent, but somehow science-denying person who I think is wonderful on some matters but is absolutely abhorrent when it comes to understanding cleantech and climate change. I’m not even going to link to that op-ed it’s so bad, and I’m not going to pick it apart because 1) it’s too idiotic and 2) it’s not journalism — the topic of the day.)
The NYTimes coverage of the controversy from Matt Stevens was okay in a simplistic “this is what happened and here are the tweets” way. And there’s even a bit of useful insight and fun humor peppered into it. But it pretty clearly misses a whole verse — or a few verses — in explaining the overall story to readers.
Again, though, this is also a problem of Tesla PR, imho. Putting the blame solely on the media distorts the story as well. The mass media has done a poor job of understanding Tesla’s financial and technical position, but Tesla has done a poor job of explaining it to them.
Right in the second paragraph of the article, we have this gem: “the many problems that have plagued his companies.” The framing is already set, and it is set wrongly. It tells the reader Tesla is having a ton of problems. Hmm, not so much, but one problem it is definitely have is a PR problem, and part of that is just about false expectations fueled by communications mistakes.
The third paragraph just a short rundown of these supposed problems with links (that I’m removing) to NYTimes coverage of these topics.
1. “delays in the production of Model 3s”
As our own Maarten Vinkhuyzen has clarified, the Tesla Model 3 production ramp has been superb, but it has also been a PR disaster. Yes, it could have been better if everything had gone flawlessly, but no one should have expected everything to go flawlessly … unless that was the inherent message with the production forecasts and company communications.
The “delays” have been due to an overly ambitious, accelerated timeline aimed at delivering cars to ~450,000 Tesla Model 3 reservation holders as quickly as possible. The biggest “problem” here is that there are 450,000 people eagerly awaiting a brand new product being built on brand new production lines and taking the industry “where no automaker has gone before.” (Note: I stole the clever subheading “450,000 problems” from EVANNEX.)
The NYTimes article just framed it as a negative “delays in the production of Model 3s” instead of adding useful context regarding the original Tesla production timeline, the insane 450,000 reservations, the accelerated effort at mass production, or the wrong terminology for the different stages of the production ramp (this latter issue really being Tesla’s fault).
2. “a deadly crash that occurred when a Model X’s Autopilot system was engaged”
Again, it is simply framed as Tesla’s problem, as if it might be an existential problem to the company. It isn’t clarified that this is really “just” a PR problem for Tesla (and a horrible tragedy for one family). It implied that Tesla’s problem is a serious technical problem, not a communications challenge.
Later on in the article, coming back to this topic, the article notes: “In a tweet that would foreshadow his complaints to come, Mr. Musk said: ‘It’s super messed up that a Tesla crash resulting in a broken ankle is front page news and the ~40,000 people who died in US auto accidents alone in past year get almost no coverage.'”
So, the article gave some voice to Elon’s criticism that coverage of the crash didn’t put things into perspective and that Tesla crashes are overly represented in the media compared to their relative frequency. However, the reporter didn’t acknowledge that this is indeed ridiculous and that Tesla gets an abnormal amount of coverage — whether with regards to positive news or things like crashes. Again, though, I have to say that I think Tesla could have done a much better job preparing for such incidents and leading the media to more sensible coverage before they happened. (That said, the spice of “Tesla Autopilot crash” may have overridden outlets’ better nature nonetheless, and that is an inherent media problem that is hard to see getting solved.)
3. “questions about Tesla’s ability to pay off its debt amid continued quarterly losses”
Ugh, really? Tesla [TSLA] has a market cap of $46.23 billion right now. That’s more than Ford’s $45.05 billion. Tesla wouldn’t have such a high market cap and so much institutional investment if there were serious questions about Tesla’s ability to pay off its debt.
The “Tesla Bankwuptcy” hype is perhaps the most annoying for me at this point — and perhaps for Elon as well — because it skips over the obvious point that the only reason Tesla hasn’t been making quarterly profits is because its pouring all of its revenue + some extra cash into accelerated, aggressive, important growth. How can reporters and editors at serious media outlets like the NYTimes continue to ignore this obvious point?
That said, I think they do continue to ignore and and spin tales of “cash burn” because Tesla has done a really poor job of explaining it to them. Perhaps it’s because it seems so obvious. Perhaps it’s because it’s been a core of Tesla’s long-term plans for over a decade. Either way, though, I think Elon and Tesla haven’t done enough to frame the discussion and guide the media in order to both understand this better and communicate it better.
So, again, like I wrote in my previous article, while these are indeed major issues with media framing and reporting, I think that much of the blame also squarely lands on Tesla communications and PR.
In a section further down, the NYTimes report briefly referenced a few lines about “bonehead questions” from the last Tesla financials call and then ended that section with “Tesla’s stock price fell 5.6 percent the next day.”
The reporter didn’t explain why these were considered “bonehead questions,” which would have added great context that would have much better explained the overarching story to readers. He also didn’t include any reference to Elon’s warning that a massive TSLA short squeeze is coming, which totally goes against the narrative that Tesla is in trouble.
That said, Tesla also has only haphazardly explained these things, often in short splurts on Twitter, so it’s a little hard to expect a reporter who doesn’t obsessively follow Tesla to frame the story more completely.
“Tesla Goes Bankrupt”
The “bankwuptcy” stuff is perhaps the most intriguing to me. The NYTimes report mentions Elon’s April 1st joke. “Then, on April 1, as Tesla was enduring a barrage of negative news, Mr. Musk sent out an April Fools’ joke,” it started — again, sticking to a framing of negativity and company problems. Next:
“’Despite intense efforts to raise money, including a last-ditch mass sale of Easter eggs, we are sad to report that Tesla has gone completely and totally bankrupt,’ Mr. Musk wrote on Twitter. ‘So bankrupt, you can’t believe it.’”
NYTimes reported it correctly as a joke. It was a funny joke to those of us deeply in the know. It was the kind of informal, funny trolling that has helped make Elon such a sensation and Tesla so popular. But there’s no supplemental information to explain to everyone else why hype of Tesla bankruptcy is a joke. The stock price dropped after that joke (probably due in large part to automatic/robotic trading). Instead of resolving the misunderstandings, it fed into them for some people.
Part of the message seemed to be, “Hey, we don’t really care about the false narratives about our finances. We’re having fun and we’re certainly not going bankrupt anytime soon.” But then Elon was irritated on the financials call when pressed on related topics, and he was irritated enough by various media coverage that this recent tweet tsunami came about accompanied by attacks on the media. So, it seems he does care?
If he cares about the narrative, lashing out at the media and various individuals in the media (them, not their work) isn’t the way to go. Tesla should guide the narrative better if it doesn’t want this kind of reporting, reporting that notes an April 1st joke about bankruptcy but then doesn’t go anywhere beyond it because the reported probably doesn’t feel comfortable pretending to be a financial analyst and doesn’t have enough guidance from Tesla to write more.
The factory safety story is one that I have actually always felt challenging to cover. We don’t actually know how valid certain complaints about workplace safety are. The reports we’ve seen from various investigative media outlets now seem compelling. Some points seem to be damning. On the other hand, Tesla’s responses argue dishonesty, misinformation, and smear campaigns are behind it all. Elon has cited certain positive safety metrics — Tesla factory safety relative to the broader auto industry, worker incidents at the Fremont factory now compared to when it was a GM & Toyota factory.
I honestly would like much more information — quantitative and qualitative data. But even without that, Tesla could have done much more to get ahead of the story. It has some cool videos and photos from its factories, but it could have much more in the way of worker interviews for the public (even simply through Tesla’s YouTube channel), behind-the-scenes show & tells, press releases about Tesla’s superb rankings in staff satisfaction and support for the CEO — which do exist.
The reporter framed the story too narrowly, but who helped him to see the bigger picture?
Will there be more media reports like this NYTimes one that briefly repeat the same negative narratives about Tesla that have been irritating Elon Musk for months or years? Will there be more media reports that miss Tesla’s highly attractive financial position? Will there be more media reports that neglect to dig up historical Tesla production plans and vehicle demand forecasts and remind readers that Tesla’s production ramp and actual consumer demand are better than almost anyone thought possible a handful of years ago? Will there be more reports on Tesla workplace safety that discount Tesla’s statements on the matter as biased spin and reactionary PR damage control?