Elon Musk Forced To Defend “An Incredible American Success Story” On 60 Minutes — Shame On You, CBS

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60 MinutesErratic, unstable, reckless, operatic. Those are some of the descriptors that Leslie Stahl used to describe Elon Musk during his guest appearance on the Sunday, December 5, 2018, episode of 60 Minutes. The Tesla CEO, who has led the all-electric company from obscurity to profitability and higher valuation than every auto company except Toyota and Volkswagen, spoke to Stahl about how this year was the “most painful year” of his career. The discussion covered manufacturing, Twitter, robotics, and childhood. Importantly, Musk used the mainstream media appearance as an opportunity to contest how business is done in the US — from General Motors to the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC).

In order to understand the give-and-take that Stahl and Musk experienced, let’s zoom in on what they said and the power of media to frame language for particular purposes. In doing so, we can uncover the methods that CBS used to put Musk on the defensive rather than to celebrate a US business that is positioned to lead the world to the all-electric transportation future that is essential to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate. Also keep in mind established reputation as an iconoclast who prides himself on not adhering “to some CEO template.”

Musk as Person & Business Model: One & the Same?

“Let me embrace thee, sour adversity, for wise men say it is the wisest course.”
— William Shakespeare —

60 Minutes, according to show’s website, is “the most successful American television broadcast in history” and began its 51st season in September 2018. The planning, design, and execution of each 60 Minutes episode is extensive, taking many months and costs to move the textual narrative from outline to broadcast. It’s interesting to look at the language that Stahl drew upon during this particular 60 Minutes interview with Tesla CEO Elon Musk in order to understand CBS’ intentional programmatic choices, including conscious persuasive and lasting effects on its audience from the framing and questions alone.

Each element of the Musk interview was consciously designed and intentional. Each element chronicled a particular view and explanation of how everyday people in the particular circumstances of today’s US business world are expected to live and act. Musk has clearly disrupted what doing business in the US today can look like. By identifying the roots of what the media depicts as “normal,” we can identify challenges to them.

Stahl, as interviewer, set the narrative tone for the ~14 minute published interview. The conversation began with Stahl’s observation that, over the past year, Musk “began acting, well, weird” and moved into a question-and-answer conversation about his tweets.

Next, the two discussed Musk’s removal from the chair position on the Tesla board by the SEC and his handpicked replacement, whose role Stahl captured as “like a babysitter.”

She then transitioned to a glimpse of Musk’s childhood and used it as a metaphor for his adult self as “a fighter, determined to succeed and prove everyone wrong.” Stahl editorialized that Musk “complained bitterly about all the naysayers and critics who were gunning for his failure.” Bitterly. Reviewing Tesla’s sometimes tenuous 2018 financial journey and then taking a ride in a Tesla on Autopilot, the two forecast how the Model 3 might, indeed, become what Stahl termed “a car for the everyman, which is what you set out to build.” The interview ended with an overview of investigations into conditions inside Tesla’s factories and notes about GM’s recent business downsizing announcement.

  • Words that Stahl used to describe Musk in voiceover: “genius, a visionary, self-inflicted wounds, capricious, guided by a dream, bleeding cash, weird, picking needless fights on social media, smoked weed during a podcast, warzone tweeting, had to relinquish his position as chairman of the Tesla board, there’s something larger than life about Elon Musk, has a cult following, one of Silicon Valley’s most successful and versatile entrepreneurs, built powerful rockets with reusable boosters, digging a tunnel deep underground to deal with traffic congestion, in each case he started a company, fighter, determined to succeed and prove everyone wrong, waged a battle this year,  complained bitterly, naysayers and critics who were gunning for his failure, failure was imminent, lightbulb moment, pushed his workers hard, pushed himself even harder, supposed to be a “wow” was the price, had to deal with complaints about conditions inside Tesla’s factories, there’ve been other concerns, string of senior managers and engineers left, company is still billions in debt.”
  • Words that Stahl used to describe Musk during the actual interview: “the company cannot survive without you, impulsive, un-CEO-ish, erratic, unstable, reckless, operatic, tweet a lot, you use your tweeting to kind of get back at critics, You kind of have little wars with the press, tweets censored, your tweets are not supervised, put in to kind of watch over you, like a babysitter, grew up in South Africa, a happy childhood, are you serious, bullied, father as emotionally abusive, so you didn’t have a happy childhood, story is how he set and met the production target of 5,000 Model 3s a week, made Tesla profitable, nearly bankrupted the company, last minute push, champion of automation, robots kept breaking down, notorious, naysayers say that you lie, that’s the way they interpret it, charges of unreported injuries, excessive hours, abusive conditions, nonsense, drummed up, several investigations by the press and by regulators, you’ll sleep at night.”
  • Words that Musk used in response to Stahl’s statements/questions: “I am somewhat impulsive, I don’t know how to smoke anything, honestly, under insane stress, the system would have failed if I was truly erratic, I use my tweets to express myself, Twitter’s a war zone, nobody’s perfect, I do not respect the SEC, I do not respect them, I respect the justice system, not realistic, I am the largest shareholder, terrible, violent, almost beaten to death, if you would call that bullied, father has serious issues, relentless criticism, relentless, outrageous, unfair, an incredible American success story, that’s the story that really should be told, you have to bet the company, it was life or death, scary, pretty miraculous effort, they just did not count on this unconventional situation, people are way better at dealing with unexpected circumstances than robots, however hard it was for them, I would make it worse for me, pretty wild, not like some promise, punctuality’s not my strong suit, because I’m like dumb at — at predicting dates, does not mean I am untruthful, never made a mass-produced car, there’s been an aggressive campaign by the UAW to absolutely attack Tesla with a load of nonsense in — in order to try to unionize the company, I don’t think that’s correct, somebody’s making some pretty great cars.”

One method of media textual analysis that is often used is called “content analysis,” in which terms are counted and qualitatively categorized. It’s a pretty basic analytical approach, but it does uncover some interesting initial data. Applying content analysis to the 3 discourse sections above with the descriptor connotations, we see the following content results:

Positive connotations that Stahl used to describe Musk / Tesla: 18

Negative connotations that Stahl used to describe Musk / Tesla: 47

Opportunities for Musk to respond with positive connotations: 11

Negative connotations Musk used in response to Stahl: 26

Thus, as a ballpark percentage, about 9% of Stahl’s descriptors about Musk/Tesla were positive connotations, while about 72% were negative. Musk is known for brutal honesty, even when about himself, and not for spinning stories in a typical corporate PR way. In response, Musk’s responses were 30% positive and 70% negative.

We can deduce as a result of this content analysis that the CBS 60 Minutes Musk interview was framed to put Musk on the defensive, to describe his leadership role as occasionally remarkable but generally unreliable, and to situate Tesla as a startup US automaker without gravitas.

“The Story that Really Should Be Told:” Making Meaning of the Musk 60 Minutes Interview

“You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say.”
— Martin Luther —

Our social worlds necessarily rely on interpretations and explanations of events, and the language we use to describe those events can transform our social lives in various ways. Musk and the Tesla Dream have shattered traditional versions of how business is done in the US. Electric vehicles, automation, and renewable energies are disrupting entire industries — and it’s happening quicker than most people realize. The energy transition is happening in real-time around us, not in some far-off future.

Through critical discourse analysis like this article, we see social and linguistic practices as part of a larger rhetorical strategy in which societal power relations are established and reinforced through language use. Considering the sociopolitical contexts of a moment in time, we examine the language exchanges within the 60 Minutes segment as political speech acts and highlight the meaning-making that is used to persuade an audience.

Consumerism as social life: The focus on consumer societies is not only because capitalism is the dominant economic system in the western world, but also because the character of the economic system affects all aspects of social life. Capitalism has changed in the last 30 years and has entailed major changes in politics, in the nature of work, in education and healthcare, in social and moral values, and in lifestyles.

Tesla in general and Musk in particular have disrupted the US auto industry, which is not giving up easily. The California company strategized so as to enter from the high-end market with a premium sports car, the Model S, with a high price that was aimed at a very narrow target. Then it moved incrementally to the Model X SUV and, most recently, to more mass market appeal with the Model 3 compact sedan, priced in line with the competition. The electric vehicles are marketed through the Internet, by word of mouth, and via media articles. Importantly, with no intermediary dealer, Tesla introduce the customer through its galleries (stores), which are strategically located in high-end shopping areas and invite in potential customers as part of their everyday routine.

Stahl acknowledged none of these details in her interview, instead asking Musk in a variety of ways to answer to critics’ claims.

Elon Musk (EM): “There’s been relentless criticism, relentless and outrageous and unfair. Because what actually happened here was an incredible American success story. All these people work their ass off day and night to make it happen. And they believe in the dream. And that’s the story that really should be told.”

→ Related: Why The Tesla American Success Story Ain’t Gettin’ No Love

Tesla represents a coalescing of forces that pose an existential threat to traditional US automakers. Tesla is leading a massive disruption to the automotive industry, and the industry is lagging badly.

Freedoms: Critique looks at what is “normal” and steps back, focusing on values — in particular, views of the good society and of human well-being and flourishing. It is based on evaluation of existing societies and possible ways of changing them. For instance, many people would agree that societies ought to be just or fair, ought to ensure certain freedoms, and ought to provide for certain basic needs of their members. Many around the globe argue that we need to take drastic and immediate steps to battle climate change. For example, fuel efficiency standards for vehicles (like the Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards in the US) save drivers money because the higher upfront cost for a more efficient car is more than offset by all the years of less gasoline consumption.

EM: “The whole point of Tesla is to accelerate the advent of electric vehicles. And sustainable transport and trying to help the environment. We think it’s the most serious problem that humanity faces.”

People have very different ideas of justice, freedom, and need. Tesla’s ability to manufacture a fleet of all-electric vehicles sets the example for and assesses what exists, what might exist, and what should exist on the basis of a coherent set of values about zero emissions.

Media platforms: Analysis of dialectical relations can occur between discourse and other elements or moments, as well as analysis of the internal relations that people experience through language. Multimodal analysis of the different semiotic modes, including language, visual images, body language, music, and sound effects — and their articulation is appropriate in an era in which YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook comprise typical reading platforms where ideas about all-electric vehicles, especially Tesla, takes place.

EM: “The only tweets that would have to be, say, reviewed would be if a tweet had a probability of causing a movement in the stock. … I want to be clear. I do not respect the SEC. I do not respect them.”

This is where ideology comes into the picture: interpretations and explanations about Tesla marketing are as ideological, as is the Big 3 influence on Michigan to prohibit Tesla from selling its vehicles directly there. CBS, by suggesting that the SEC censure of Musk is not just inadequate but also necessary — keeps in place particular relations of power. Tesla is pushing transportation into a clean, zero-emission, electric future more than any other company. But we also need leadership from large automakers that weren’t born electric, not attempts to weaken Tesla’s multimodal messaging.

GM vs. Tesla: A Social Discourse Event

The conclusion to the Musk 60 Minutes interview is interesting to analyze specifically. It was all over the web a couple of days before the segment even aired, whetting the appetites of the Tesla fans as well as media members hungry for All Things Tesla. We have a story coming later this evening on it.

Having Musk walk Stahl through the Tesla assembly line offered the audience a visual representation of US manufacturing that is both efficient and forward-thinking.

Elon Musk walks Leslie Stahl through a Tesla electric car factory. He reaches with palm outward to demonstrate a facet of the loud and vibrant production line while Stahl speaks in voiceover. Tesla is expanding, adding to its workforce, while rival General Motors announced it’s planning to lay off some 14,000 employees and idle plants. In the background, young sinewy men of color unload Tesla doorframes from an assembly line.

With GM’s recent announcement about downsizing, Stahl offered Musk and Tesla a brief nod that symbolized, yes, legacy automakers have a dilemma on their hands. Transitioning to electric cars is hard, but Tesla is doing it, right here in front of us. They’re getting so good that they might save some Detroit manufacturing by buying empty GM plants.

The scene turns to an exchange of talking heads. Musk has removed his Tesla baseball cap and is listening intently to Stahl’s question. LS: Would you want to buy some of those plants, those factories? Musk nods twice before she has finished her question. That they’re closing down? He nods slightly again, twice. You’re shaking your head yes? 

EM: It’s possible we would be interested if they were going to sell a plant or not use it that we would take it over. He nods again.

Tesla has accomplished what many said never could be, and now it is inviting other automakers to join in the celebration of electric vehicles.

The scene switches to a helicopter flyover shot of a gold-paneled GM tower. LS: GM also announced that it will double its investment into developing electric cars. And Elon Musk is celebrating. High metal factor girders frame a claw as it moves a gold-hued car overhead. Next, we see a line of cherry red Chevy Bolts ready to move off the factory floor. A white-front Bolt bumper fills the next screen, its charging portal prominent. Why do you want the competition? 

Some companies are moving quickly and innovating within the automotive industry, but others are stuck in the past. Tesla is building Gigafactories all around the world and turning itself into the role model for fully electric, automated vehicles.

EM: The whole point of Tesla is the advent of electric vehicles (pause) and sustainable transport. He shakes his head from left to right. We’re trying to help the environment. It’s the most serious problem that humanity faces. 

The Tesla website states its policy on patent infringement: “Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”

Stahl looks on now while Musk talks. I’m not sure if you know it, but we opened up all our patents. So if anybody who wants to use our patents can use them for free. LS: Your patents are open-sourced? Her eyes grow wider and her head nods forward. EM: Yes. If somebody comes and makes a better electric car than Tesla, and it’s so much better than ours, that we can’t sell our cars, and we go bankrupt, I still think that’s a good thing for the world.

Final Thoughts

This has not been the only 60 Minutes interview that the Musk has had. In 2008, an episode titled, “The Race for the Electric Car” found the now-famous Musk outlining the reasons why electric cars were not only a good investment but transportation of the future. Then, as now, Tesla has acknowledged that other companies are and should be making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving ideology that electric cars are necessary for a sustainable future.

If only mass media channels like CBS would give Tesla its due so that it can accelerate its capacity to transform aspects of the environment and life. That’s what this kind of article has intended to do — to make transparent the dialectical relations between discourse and other social elements with respect to the aims of critique to not merely interpret the world but contribute to changing it.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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