As Peter Forman, aka Papafox, eloquently wrote in an article published on CleanTechnica early this morning, “The Billion-Dollar Tesla Hit Piece,” a recent New York Times article based in part on an interview with CEO Elon Musk was a masterpiece in framing — but not in a positive way.
The article was published a day after an hour-long phone interview with Musk, but for those of us quite familiar with the man and the legend, we could tell that important segments of the interview were ignored. Useful context and commentary from the chat were surely left out of the story in order to maximize the message, a message that Musk was bad, broken, and on the verge of some kind of personal crisis. The New York Times article did not explain the bigger picture that we can be sure Musk tried to paint.
Interestingly, the interview took place on the same day as this video interview MKBHD conducted with Elon Musk. Despite the similar timing, you get a strikingly different picture of Elon from the two pieces.
The New York Times article was also reportedly based on some unnamed anonymous sources — “two people familiar with the board,” as it was put. What exactly does that mean? These people know who’s on the board? They are acquaintances of board members? They iron the board members’ clothes?
Papafox explored the topic as well. He wrote, “Well, I have found my own unnamed source close to the board and my unnamed source says that your unnamed sources greatly exaggerated the intensity of the COO search. Who is right?”
According to Tesla, Papafox’s source is right. “While we are always looking for highly talented executives at Tesla, there is no active COO search,” a Tesla spokesperson told CBS this week. By the way, Musk also said in the interview with the New York Times that, “to the best of my knowledge,” there is “no active search right now.” But how can you believe him, right? (Hint, hint.)
There are two core matters at hand here, so I’ll briefly handle them one at a time.
The first matter is that people intent on smearing Tesla — whether because they are short TSLA, work in a competing business or industry, or have some other bias — have been running out of problems to pin their flags on. Tesla Model 3 production is up to a high level and Tesla is reportedly on the verge of being cash flow positive and profitable. I cannot find the comment now, but someone else deserves credit for pointing out that one big narrative critics are now pushing — in what seems like a last-ditch effort to tear Tesla down — is the narrative that Musk is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, or something like that. They can’t credibly say demand isn’t there. They can’t credibly say Tesla can’t produce the Model 3 (or the Model X or Model S for that matter). They can’t credibly say Tesla can’t produce thousands of Model 3s a week. But they can try to convince people that Elon Musk is about to lose his mind. Some people have actively tried to shape this narrative, while others have just come along for the ride. Either way, the New York Times article fit perfectly into this messaging effort.
The other smear attempt — fully conscious or subconscious — is the attempt to portray Musk as inept at leading mass manufacturing. I think this idea is absolutely absurd, and the report that Tesla is not actively searching for a COO backs that up. But this narrative is a popular one, which I find surprising when you consider that Tesla started producing cars approximately 10 years ago and is already producing 6,000–8,000 per week. That’s 312,000–416,000 cars per year. I’m sorry, but you don’t get up to such a high production rate in such a short time without a CEO who is superbly talented at scaling production capacity. (Also see: “Tesla Production Now Passing Up 2017 Jaguar Production — #CleanTechnica Report,” “Tesla On Track To Pass Porsche In Annual Vehicle Sales In 2018,” and “Tesla USA Sales Might Be Higher Than BMW USA Sales In August.”)
Additionally, while Musk may take an unconventional approach to manufacturing, as Maarten Vinkhuyzen recently explained, it is an approach that relies on a high degree of experimentation and continuous modification. Tesla is obsessively making its manufacturing processes more efficient. It may not always be peaches, cream, and roses, but I’ll repeat: Tesla has gone from an annual production rate of 0 to an annual production rate 312,000–416,000 in approximately 10 years. Musk’s leadership and superb skill set for leading a manufacturing outfit is a key reason Tesla is as big, efficient, successful, and highly valued as it is.
To end this piece, I’ll add that I do think Tesla has hired and tried to groom certain people from the auto industry and from the Silicon Valley tech industry in order to move them into the COO role. Unfortunately, it appears they never quite got the job done as expected, which is a core reason why Musk had to step in on a few occasions — especially this year — to help Tesla reach important production targets. The New York Times writers (who probably know too little about Tesla to cover it well) ended their piece with an excellent summary quote from Musk: “if you have anyone who can do a better job, please let me know. They can have the job. Is there someone who can do the job better? They can have the reins right now.” However, instead of trying to understand and explain what Musk was talking about, they stuck it onto the end of a personality hit job in a way that I think was meant to imply that Musk had some kind of personality disorder. Who is this guy? Does he think he’s really so important?
No, the issue isn’t that Musk should just get someone else to do the job. The problem is that Tesla has so far been unable to find someone who could do the difficult — nearly impossible — job of scaling Tesla up so quickly. But maybe the company will find its Olof Tusk someday.
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