On “The Media” — Why Elon’s Right, Why He’s Right Again, Why He’s Wrong, & Why He’s Super Wrong & Being Boneheaded

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Look, believe it or not, Elon Musk has more followers than I do. He has more expertise in electric drivetrains, batteries, big-ass rockets, and building multi-billion-dollar companies. In a “who’s more credible when it comes to cleantech” poll, there’s a solid chance the cleantech king would win — and win big. As it should be. I expect him to have more nuts & bolts expertise than me!

I’ve covered cleantech for approximately a decade and get paid to give presentations and moderate panels on this stuff all around the world, so it’s super humbling to consider how much more Mr. Elon knows about EVs, batteries, solar panels, and fluffbots (fluff bots?) than me. He has done a tremendous job translating some of his knowledge to the public and the media, but sometimes he also does a bit of a crappy job translating processes and challenges.

By and large, when members of the media* get the story wrong, we can indeed just put the blame on them. If there seems to be a lazy or ulterior motive, that’s extra easy to do. (*Remember, the media is not one single entity, and treating “the media” as good or bad is a pretty horrible thing to do if you make any use of good media and don’t want to throw it in jail with the bad guys. I know you know this, but there’s a tendency toward simplification in all of us and it can quickly lead to throwing great people under the bus.)

On the other hand, we should be honest with ourselves and realize that many reporters have to cover a large variety of topics — even more true after the “democratization of publishing,” which has flooded the world with “media outlets” (like CleanTechnica) and thus lowered the value of published work. If you can get free news from a million sources, why pay for news? But if you don’t pay for news, how do you expect news organizations to have enough money to do a tip-top job?

Of course, this lack of cleantech expertise in the mainstream media in the midst of super fast-growing cleantech industries is what opened the door for CleanTechnica to sprout, thrive, and get to where we are today. We have a place in the world because major media outlets didn’t feel it fit their focus, readership, or expertise to publish dozens of stories a day about cleantech topics.

It’s also why major media outlets much of the time still don’t get the story all that right compared to cleantech sites. They don’t typically have people on staff who have been obsessively following Tesla, First Solar, BYD, SunPower, Proterra, ChargePoint, and EVgo for a decade or so. Even the people who cover them closely today probably have to cover a bunch of other topics, and tweet, and share on LinkedIn, and engage in comments, and yada yada yada, so they may not catch every single bit of information that comes out from Tesla or CATL or EVBox and be able to piece it together into a beautiful, perfect puzzle.

Am I getting to a useful point? Yes, I hope so, but hold on a minute.

Before I was in the media, I was director of a small nonprofit. Being interviewed many times during that tenure and then later in my role as the director of CleanTechnica, I have been frustrated many times by how one or two lines have been lifted from long interviews, inserted into narratives that it seemed the writers were set on making no matter what I said, and often missed the key points. My frustrations with such media coverage has guided my approach here quite a bit.

But let’s be frank — we’re not perfect! No journalist, editor, or media outlet is. By and large, I think they are trying to understand a story and convey useful information and overarching points to readers. We make mistakes. We make a lot of them. As any new writer has learned, it’s much easier to learn the mistakes you make and be humbled on a daily basis when thousands or millions of people are reading your work. Many mistakes are small. Some are big. Some are not factual, specific mistakes, while others are mistakes in the framing, mistakes in context, mistakes in the overall picture you’re passing along to others.

But here’s the point in the form of a rhetorical question or two: Should cleantech companies expect reporters to have enough expertise to get the full story right? Should they expect reporters and editors to not be swayed by seemingly compelling arguments from other experts in the field?

We at CleanTechnica have launched a Reality Check feature and now a similar Pravduh feature specifically aimed at getting more reporters and editors in the mainstream media to understand common errors in this field — including errors of omission, errors in framing, imbalance, false equivalency, and common factual errors. We did this because we could see certain problems popping up repeatedly in mainstream media coverage. Some of these media mistakes might be nefarious, but we actually think far more are due to these non-experts not having a clear enough picture of the story. But how much of that problem is due to cleantech companies not giving them enough of the story?

How much could Tesla have avoided bad press by more clearly explaining to the media what its approach is to business & growth? How much could Tesla have avoided bad press by explaining to them what its financial situation means (in normal, basic English — not accounting speak)? How much could Tesla have avoided bad press by getting Autopilot stats out to the media preemptively, not simply getting reactionary when a death occurs, claiming (with no evidence provided before the news breaks and very little evidence provided immediately after) that Autopilot saves lives? How would media coverage have been different if Tesla had published more about factory conditions, labor practices, and unionization campaigns before respectable outlets like The Guardian introduced the topic to the public based on a number of seemingly compelling reports from people closely connected to the factory floor who may or may not be credible?

Unfortunately, it seems no mere mortal is immune from mistakes. Elon deserves a lot of respect, imho, for acknowledging certain mistakes he has made and trying to correct them. He does this far more than probably any other CEO I can think of. He definitely doesn’t get enough credit for that. But I’m concerned that he sometimes is blind to some of his bigger errors, and I’m especially concerned that he’s missing the validity of some critical feedback this time around.

There’s a certain syndrome successful people easily develop. With much success, you tend to think you have “the answer”  much more than anyone else … no matter the subject. If you learn about a new problem and then think, “Hey, this seems like a solid solution,” it may be. Or it may not be. But if people who have worked on this topic for decades come along and say, “Actually, no, this is not a solution, and you’re actually causing more problems than helping by pursuing it,” instead of the normal tendency to accept that and move on, Successful Man is more likely to think, “Well, actually, I’m smart and super successful — I know better.”

Now, when you have millions of Twitter followers and you are super highly revered for good reason, how likely do you think it is that you would get a ton of support for any idea you tweet? Let’s be honest — Elon could tweet that we should blow up Florida and a ton of people would support him. When he decides, instead, to run a poll on Twitter asking his supporters if they should support his idea or not, who’s going to bet that the poll would ever end up with a vote against him? And this is where it starts to get a little concerning.

I’m hugely hopeful that his recent poll pitting his own idea against the media was treated 100% as a joke by him, and not actually as a signal of what the right answer is (as some of his subsequent tweets implied). For sure, Sir Elon knows how to run a proper poll, the various forms of polling bias, and how boneheaded/trolling that poll was as an actual data collection point. But it actually doesn’t matter that much PR-wise — Elon tarnished his image with a certain number of people who believed that he believed that his poll was useful validation of his idea. “How could he run with such a scientifically poor methodology? For sure, Elon Musk is not as bright as people say he is.” I don’t expect he considered the data useful, that he was just trolling, but even I (someone who gives Elon the benefit of the doubt probably 97% of the time) am not really sure in this case.

More seriously, I’m concerned that he lost a huge amount of support from his base in these recent smackdowns — or tantrums, depending on how you view them. For sure, A TON of people viewed them as tantrums, as a billionaire acting like a teenage 4chan troll. There were enough comments in response saying as much right there on Elon’s Twitter feed. However, when you’ve fought naysayers, cautious critics, pointless establishment norms, and bullies for a lifetime — and when you have a ton of supporters pushing back against those criticisms/concerns — it might be easy to brush off such responses. But there’s no doubt about it in my mind — Elon’s approach to debate in recent weeks has made him look bad, has made Tesla look bad, and all for no real benefit. I mean, what did he actually gain from these tweets attacking a wide range of reporters, scientists, and even some basic people tweeting their legitimate concerns in response to Elon’s surprising change of focus? Yes, most supporters will still support him, and many may love it, but that doesn’t mean that he and Tesla didn’t take a serious self-inflicted hit to their brand in the process.

Brand schmand, he may think, and so be it. Perhaps the products speak well enough for themselves that his businesses never take a hit — let’s hope so! But a number of legitimate cleantech fans, Tesla supporters, and SpaceX enthusiasts have genuinely felt that their faith in Sir Elon was misplaced and will forever have a different perspective and approach about him and his companies. Word of mouth is powerful, and just as the narratives that have made Tesla and Elon so epically popular came about over time from a tremendous amount of word of mouth, so can a tarnished, negative image of the company and the mere man.

How much new support did Elon and Tesla gain from these attacks on journalists and critics? How much did the man and the company lose? How much did this instance contribute to a positive image that will bring more people in?

Elon’s broad-brushed attacks on the media were the big problem in my eyes, though. They seemed to be completely tone deaf to the global attack on democracy and the dramatic domestic attack an independent, investigative press. Yes, I get it that Tesla has been unfairly slammed and there’s misleading story after misleading story about the company, but there’s also a tremendous tsunami or positive stories and those have been a ginormous help to Tesla’s growth. Heck, CleanTechnica alone has surely had tens of millions of views on Tesla stories and they’ve almost entirely been positive — and we’re just one small corner of the pro-Tesla press. Why engage in broad-brushed attacks on the press when you’re on top of the world?

Donald Trump has specifically told people why he attacks the press. He doesn’t want people to believe the press when they write bad things about him. It seems more than clear that Donald has been involved in corrupt dealings for decades — he has something to worry about. His closest allies have been convicted of serious crimes and more are around the corner. It may be immoral, but it actually makes sense for him personally (not as “leader of the free world”) to attack the media — just as it does for autocrats and dictators who don’t want exposed corruption to be believed. But for Tesla? For Elon? Attacking the press makes him look similarly guilty, makes it look like bad news is around the corner, makes it look like the pressure is getting too high. Accepting that some press is going to miss the mark, correcting the record, and doing a better job of preemptively shaping the story would be a better approach than attacking a core democratic institution. Yes, I get it, he had some notes in there about how wonderful good journalists are, but there were enough broad attacks on journalism and entire journalistic outfits that the overall effect was clear.

The big issue here is that there have been decades of assault on journalism and democracy. Elon not only plays into that, but he seems to have been fooled by it. The assaults on Tesla have been limited, tiny, and practically inconsequential in comparison to the attacks on journalism and democracy. I’m sure Elon doesn’t follow US or European politics and policy as much as I do and as much as I have in the past few decades. Good! He has better things to do with his time! But he stepped into the arena in a super careless, counterproductive, anti-democratic way. He attacked people and the profession rather than their actual work and mistakes. Actual experts in this field spoke up, and they got tossed ad hominem attacks as well. He repeated several of the mistakes in logic and debate that he’s upset other people make about him and Tesla. It’s unfortunate, it’s rattling, and to an über supporter who has been called a Tesla fanboy more often than all but a small number of individuals, it made me drop my head in disappointment a bit.

Yes, call out the mistakes in certain articles or even the bias from certain outlets. We do that ourselves! But don’t bash journalists and the media so generally. The media as a whole is the greatest check on power we have in a democracy. Making broad-brushed attacks on the media is super harmful to democracy. If you followed this space closely, you’d know that we’re in a horrible time for respect for the media not just because of media mistakes but because of concerted, conspiratorial, political attacks on the media and the core columns of democracy. These have been going on not for months or years, but for decades — by powerful people who know the full truth is not their friend in a democratic society. They are one of the reasons the press isn’t having one of the best decades of its existence. The broad-brushed attacks are like kicking an injured player on the ground instead of helping them up.

It’s not Elon’s beat. I get it. He thinks he knows more about the media than journalistic experts on the subject do, just like some journalists think they know more about Tesla than they do. It’s easy to back up this broad assumption with a handful of examples of bad media coverage. But it’s ridiculously wrong to contribute to incessant anti-democratic attacks on journalism as a whole.

I understand that Elon has qualified a few times now that he loves and respects great reporters. Cool. But he has been too careless with his broad attacks on the media and journalists, and that was clear in the many tweets that followed his. A ton of people (or bots) emphasized their disgust for the media and for journalists. These journalists legitimately spend their careers trying to uncover important information for society and present it in a useful way. They may not always do a great job, but the ridiculous attacks on their intentions and humanity are not only harmful to the Tesla brand — they are harmful to society as a whole.

Here are a handful of responses from what seem like genuine Tesla/Elon fans who were disturbed and disappointed by this recent approach to “PR”/societal discussion:







To recap and clarify the title:

Elon is right that there are plenty of errors in media coverage of Tesla, as well as other topics. Those should be responded to and corrected.

He’s right that there are fairly widespread narratives out there now about Tesla, about EVs, and about other cleantech that are misleading and harmful.

He’s wrong to put all the blame on the media and not recognize how much of this is due to Tesla’s own mistakes and missed opportunities to frame the narrative and explain the nuances of the story. Acknowledging those mistakes would have been a much more effective way to respond to mistakes in reporting and growing media narratives.

He’s super wrong & ridiculous to turn all of the above into broad-brushed attacks on the media and journalism. (And, yes, that is definitely part of what he did — whether Pravduh will be a super cool and useful tool or not.)

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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