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Feb 21 / King Kaufman

Learning from Tesla vs. New York Times: Everyone is media; data is crucial

You may have noticed a big story in journalism circles this week, a remarkable war between Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk and the New York Times. Musk took issue with a review of Tesla’s electric Model S sedan and the company’s new “Supercharger” charging stations on the East Coast.

The review, by John M. Broder, detailed the problems he had in trying to drive the car from New York to Boston using those Supercharger stations. Broder wrote that the car failed to hold its charge, lost charge overnight and eventually shut down. The story was illustrated with a photo of the Model S on the bed of a flatbed truck. A particularly damning passage:

[Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, speaking at an auto show last month, had said]: “We can’t say this everywhere in America yet, but driving by a gasoline station and smiling is something everyone should experience.”

I drove a state-of-the-art electric vehicle past a lot of gas stations. I wasn’t smiling.

Then came the remarkable part: Musk shot back with a post on the company blog in which he attacked Broder’s review, sharing information from data logs the company keeps whenever a media figure test drives one of its cars.

“In Mr. Broder’s case,” Musk concluded, “he simply did not accurately capture what happened and worked very hard to force our car to stop running.”

As technology writer Dan Frommer pointed out on LinkedIn, that kind of response is new:

Even a few years ago, something like this probably would have required finding a rival newspaper — the Wall Street Journal, perhaps — to collaborate on a takedown. Or maybe an expensive full-page ad campaign in the top five papers, which would have looked defensive and seemed less convincing.

But now that every smart company has a regularly updated blog, Elon Musk has 136,000 Twitter followers, etc., brands can speak for themselves very powerfully. And if the tone is right, they don’t even look lame: Tesla actually looks pretty great right now. The balance of power has shifted.

Tesla started to look a little less great in the days after Frommer’s post as Broder and others responded to Musk, but Frommer’s point stands. It’s a fundamental shift in the media world that the people we write and talk about are part of the media too. Not only are Tesla and other big companies able to speak for themselves, but so are individuals.

As a sportswriter, you may have had to absorb some locker-room dirty looks, a tongue lashing or even threats of violence from that athlete you ripped in print, but your readers might never know about his beef. Now, he has access to the same tools you used to criticize him. He can call you out in front of your colleagues and your readers, not just in front of his teammates.

It’s one more reason to make sure that whatever you say, you’re right, or at least accurate.

Another interesting aspect of this dust-up was Musk’s use of data. His rebuttal to Broder included printouts from the Model S data logs that, according to Musk, showed Broder’s bad faith. It’s a pretty damning argument—until you read Broder’s point-by-point response and an Atlantic Wire piece by Rebecca Greenfield that argues that Musk’s data doesn’t say what he says it says.

I’m not interested enough in electric cars to try to dig into this back and forth and figure out who’s right and who’s wrong, but there’s an important lesson here. Data, numbers, can be used in a lot of ways. They can illuminate or obfuscate. Sooner or later, you’re going to run into a case like this, where your ability to divine the truth will rest on your ability to make sense of some data. Knowing how to handle that situation is as much a journalistic skill as knowing how to conduct an interview or write a grammatical sentence.

If you’re interested, a little more reading on Tesla vs. the Times:

Here’s Times public editor Margaret Sullivan’s take on the matter, and here are interesting think-pieces by Katie Fehrenbacher of GigaOm, Chris Taylor of Mashable and Mathew Ingram, also of GigaOM, writing on Paid Content.