Why does the NY Times (and other big media) get Tesla so wrong?
Among people closely following Tesla, it seems that the biggest topic of the past week has been biased and misleading coverage of Tesla, and electric vehicles or cleantech more generally, from major media outlets.
This is a particularly hard topic in this day and age. Independent, world-class investigative journalism is a fundamental pillar of a democratic society. Journalists at the New York Times, Washington Post, and elsewhere have done a tremendous job and deserve much more praise and honor than they get from the public for their political reporting. It seems that Michael Flynn, who was a serious national security threat to the United States, wouldn’t have even been fired if it wasn’t for investigative journalism from top media outlets. In fact, dozens of corrupt, anti-democratic, and harmful actions from the Donald Trump administration would not have become public knowledge (to those who follow this stuff at least) if not for truly admirable journalism.
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” Thomas Jefferson famously said.
Reporters can be highly useful and illuminate important truths for the public when they are dedicated to a topic, explore it deeply, have good sources, and have adequate resources and support to back them up at various levels of the news organization.
Unfortunately, although Tesla is a hot topic and gets put into a lot of headlines, it seems that the people at major media outlets tasked with understanding and reporting on Tesla are lacking most if not all of those key ingredients. Why?
One hypothesis a lot of people jump to is that it’s all about the ad money. Car companies and oil companies run ads, Tesla doesn’t, and media outlets thus feel at least a little inclined to write nice things about the former and attack the latter. Except in some rare fringe cases* (and perhaps automobile media outlets), I don’t buy into this theory. I’m still of the belief that sponsorship/advertising arms of major media outlets and editorial arms of those outlets are kept separate; that journalists mostly don’t think about the sponsors, and even if they do, they care more about their journalistic integrity than puffing up a sponsor; and that editors care deeply about the integrity of their professions and their roles in society.
So, where does that leave us? I’m going to propose a few reasons for the problem. I think it’s a combination of all of these matters. I may be wrong, but no matter the cause, I believe that a proposed solution at the end is an important one that will help no matter what the cause is.
Bad information: First of all, we have to be honest about smear campaigns outside of the media. These are not theories. Some of them have been documented, others are obvious. There are very large industries that are threatened by Tesla, and by cleantech as a whole. There’s the oil industry. There are automakers and auto dealers. There are large utility companies threatened by rooftop solar. All of these industries have a track record of running misleading messaging campaigns, and there’s plenty of evidence to show that they together have formed a large, disconnected Tesla smear campaign. Throw in the very vocal, often wrong, and influential Tesla short sellers and you have a whole wide world of anti-Tesla propaganda. Look left, you can find it; look right, you can find it; look in front of you, you can find it.
It’s not hard to see how this massive misinformation effort misleads journalists, sucks them in and convinces them to spit out Tesla hit pieces. (I think I should emphasize, again, that this is actually a lot of separate efforts with the same overall goal — slow Tesla’s/cleantech’s growth. It’s not one vast and centrally organized smear campaign. And that organic decentralization makes it more effective.)
As one example: One Tesla fan and investor recently took it upon himself to dig through all 484 articles of an extremely anti-Tesla reporter at the LA Times. He was trying to determine where the reporter’s “enmity towards Tesla” originated. Quoting his analysis:
- End of 2016 Russ Mitchell published his first interview with Bob Lutz:
- In this article Bob Lutz outlines the main Tesla short seller thesis, that Tesla is “structurally unprofitable”, because opex appears to scale with cash from operations. (This thesis was forcefully falsified with the Q3’18 and Q4’18 results where opex was mostly constant while revenue and cash from operations soared.)
- In April of 2017 the tone of Russ Mitchell’s Tesla articles changed dramatically with the publishing of the following article of a summary of the TSLAQ short thesis:
- All the TSLAQ elements are there: competition, overvalued, uncertain future, etc.
- The next 2+ years is a barrage of almost exclusively negative articles about Tesla by Russ Mitchell: well over 90% of the headlines are negative.
- Note that shortly before he posted his short seller thesis on April 24, he wrote an article about a random Model S/X recall on April 20:
- Despite him covering automotive topics at the LA Times, out of 384 articles there’s just a single report by Russ Mitchell that identifies a recall by an affected American carmaker by brand: Tesla …
Bob Lutz is a notable name in the auto industry. You may think he was a legend, or you may think he made mistake after mistake, but he clearly rose to one of the highest positions in the auto world. If you don’t know a lot about making cars, the auto industry, or automaker financials, I imagine it’d be very easy to swallow what Lutz served up, think it made a lot of sense, and have your fundamental view of Tesla’s business formed.
A notable point here that probably gets glossed over when it comes to this topic is that Tesla is a disruptor. Tesla is disrupting the auto industry. “Well, duh,” you might think. But let that settle for a minute. Tesla is disrupting the auto industry because traditional automakers didn’t take it seriously, didn’t understand its vision, didn’t understand the consumer appetite for Tesla and Tesla-like electric vehicles, didn’t understand how an electric startup could grow to a large scale in the 21st century, didn’t understand the software potential available today, and didn’t have that entrepreneurial/startup state of mind or experience. “Well, duh.” Yes, duh, but if you are a reporter at a large media outlet tasked with covering young Tesla, what is it your job to do? You have to reach out to “industry experts,” learn about Tesla through them, and report a smart story (or 100 of them) that put that expert knowledge into common language. But since most of the traditional auto industry experts “don’t get it,” they are going to feed you a horribly misleading story (or 100).
Now, if you go back to 2013, 2014, or 2015 comments from auto industry execs and experts regarding Tesla, it’s easy in retrospect to see how wrong they were. These people were often über confident in their opinions of Tesla, certain that Tesla would soon be a short footnote in the diesel-particulate dustbin of history. They were dramatically wrong, yet they were quoted and also used as unquoted sources at the highest levels of auto business journalism. They were regarded as the smart people who really knew about Tesla and Tesla’s bleak future, even though they didn’t. Circling back to Bob Lutz, and only picking on him because I somehow love him, stroll through our Lutz archives to see how hilariously wrong he was almost every time he talked about Tesla.
I’ve been occasionally invited to large expert discussions regarding Tesla for the past few years. Years ago, and still on the last call I was on a couple of months ago, auto industry experts were making a relatively small handful of claims for why Tesla is doomed, and if I didn’t know the company and market well myself, I’d easily be misled by their arguments. Tesla has been facing an “obvious demand cliff” or “demand plateau” at least since I started covering Tesla in 2012, according to the experts, according to people who think they know all about the limits of consumer demand for electric vehicles (“1% of the market max, 3% at the most, for sure no more than 5% …”). The obsession with Tesla’s lack of profits is more of a head-scratcher — the company wants to pump every bit of money it can into faster growth, its whole mission being to accelerate the transition to sustainable energy and transport, yet critics continually think Tesla should be making profits and paying dividends above all else. The company has seen truly shocking growth, demonstrating the strong potential of its approach to the industry, yet critics continue to miss the mountain by focusing on the pebbles on the ground. The point is, if major media journalists have been getting their Tesla worldview shaped by auto industry and energy industry experts (and they have been), they’re as lost as the industries Tesla is disrupting.
Financials is another important topic here. Tech journalists, transportation journalists, and “hey, this company is hot” journalists aren’t necessarily financial wizzes. Again, turning to “the experts” can result in a lot of bad information. For one, you’re dealing with what is often the most shorted stock on the US stock market. There are a lot of people who are financially motivated to make Tesla’s stock price go down. It’s also legal to do so. They can feed all kinds of scary nonsense to reporters and face no consequences. Even without lying, you can make Tesla’s story look very shaky with a little bit of manipulation and omission of fact/context. So, why wouldn’t you? As it turns out, yes, Tesla short sellers are quite vocal and try to influence the media discussion. Some of them have formed a close relationship with reporters at the New York Times, LA Times, Business Insider, etc.
Aside from the short sellers themselves, you’ve got various Wall Street analysts who are tasked with covering Tesla because they cover autos. Like the issue I described further up with auto industry execs, these Wall St. auto analysts have a hard time understanding the company and stuffing it into the normal auto company spreadsheets and context they deal with. It is a unique company, a hard one to understand and analyze. Throwing its startup nature into a world of old, large, established auto company analysis leads to confusion. There are many cases in the past several years of these analysts being wildly off the mark, yet they continue to be trusted sources for insight into Tesla, a company many of them really don’t understand at all.
The next point to talk about to carry forward the discussion of this topic is confirmation bias, but that relates to all of the problems I’m listing, so it’s saved for last.
Narrative hole: Yes, I’m going to put this one heavily on Tesla. When you’ve got a company that pulls in hundreds of thousands of reservations for a $35K+ product within a few weeks — years in advance of its production — there’s tremendous thirst for news about your company. Tesla rarely publishes new blogs or press releases. If reporters are supposed to create the news themselves, they are going to look elsewhere. The news got away from Tesla when it became clear the Model 3 was a big deal but Tesla didn’t have a strong policy for frequently guiding the narrative around the company. It could have done so with shallow and deep dives into the tech, the employees, the mission, improving products, etc., but the approach was instead far too limited and disconnected.
Yes, there’s Elon’s Twitter feed. I’m a huge fan of Elon’s Twitter feed, and I was long before he started frequently tweeting CleanTechnica stories. I think he’s an amazing communicator, hilarious, and truly brilliant. However, Elon’s Twitter feed is a gold mine for absurd news stories. He is at times a Monty Python character (useful or not for Tesla, that’s some damn good entertainment). He is at times a flame-throwing troll. He at times comes across as a college student having an existential crisis. (Great! We should all have existential crises quite regularly in my opinion! But that sure as hell can be twisted into a bad look for Tesla.) Journalists may often have a higher regard for what their career purpose is, but they do also know that their job is to entertain and bring in eyeballs. Many a non-Tesla Elon tweet can be used to write an interesting, salacious, controversial article that is a giant magnet for eyeballs and not a good look for Tesla, so that’s what you get. I don’t think it’s right (wait till I get to the “Fundamental lack of context” section), but it’s also to be expected, especially when Tesla isn’t otherwise doing much to shape the narrative and stimulate more newsworthy stories about itself.
Anti–rich people bias: Some reporters are not going to like this. I don’t like this. I hesitated bringing this up. But I think it’s important. In part because of how extremely large the wealth gap in the United States has become, in part because of how much super rich people can play the system to get richer while others get poorer, in part because of how shitty some rich people are to “lesser humans,” and in part because reporters are not in the top economic tier of society (to put it nicely), many people in the journalism world have a bias against rich people. I’m not picking out any specific reporters here, but I think this bias is part of the culture of the journalism world.
No doubt about it, Elon Musk is one rich mother f*****. The dude is a business genius, extremely intelligent, and has an abnormally large appetite for risk — risks that often pay off. I don’t know of any other person who so consistently succeeded in efforts to launch disruptive startups. In the entrepreneurial world in the US, it’s a good thing to have failed at a startup — because it means you must have learned something and matured, and everyone does. Well, not everyone — Elon seems to have no problem winning with startup after startup.
Whether the wealth is earned or not, though, many people are resentful that Elon is so rich. They are resentful that someone so eccentric, goofy, and sometimes flippantly critical of respected people or norms is a billionaire. That puts a target on his back. I’m a progressive. I think wealth inequality is one of the three biggest crises facing the country. I know some people in “my tribe” take that a step further and inherently equate “billionaire” with “bad guy.” In an industry where you’re supposed to “afflict the powerful,” this often isn’t even a hidden bias.
Naturally, when some reporters hear claims that Elon is a “fraud” or is running a “Ponzi scheme,” they start to salivate and envision their big, shiny Pulitzer prizes for taking him down. It’s easy for people in the industry to want to discover that Tesla is a house of cards, be damned the obvious physical and market evidence.
Lack of depth on Tesla & the industry: Name one reporter at a major media outlet who is 100% focused on Tesla. I don’t know of any and I imagine I’d have to spend a while looking through our Pravduh About Tesla archives to possibly find one such reporter. Generally speaking, reporters are spread out and spread thin. They are expected to cover many topics, many companies, and at a fairly low dollar-per-hour wage. That might not leave much time to adequately dive into the deep history, financials, or customer base of Tesla.
This industry has been crunching, crunching, crunching, and crunching. “Publishing” was democratized, made easy and free, thanks to the internet, easy blogging templates, Facebook, and Twitter. So much free content drives down the value of published content, which means that reporters and editors get more spread out, less specialized, responsible for more tasks (like engaging on social media), and less able to dive deeply and patiently into a single story or topic. Combine that with the matters I discussed above (especially in the first section) and you have a dozen or two Tesla and cleantech reporters who still don’t understand Tesla or cleantech very well yet know enough to cause damage. (A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.)
Backlash to criticism: Elon Musk made a big boo boo last year. (To be fair, I think CleanTechnica may have done so as well.) As someone who follows politics obsessively, I’m deeply disturbed by political attacks on the media, on facts, on truth, on useful investigation, and on the fundamentals of democracy. To put it simply, the USA is facing repeated blunt attacks by a super dull object/person. Unfortunately, being on his last straw in the face of actually illegitimate and libelous media coverage, Elon threw around some harsh media criticism with his Hulk-like Twitter arms and I’m sure deeply offended many journalists and editors. The timing couldn’t have been worse. I don’t think Elon pays very much attention to the political stories of the day or week, so I think this was a case where he had no idea how badly this would be received and how much it might result in long-term backlash. I think that backlash is pretty much a part of the fundamentals of Tesla media coverage now. (And, again, I think we may have fanned the flames a bit with our Pravduh About Tesla reports, one reason why we’ve discontinued them.)
Anti–Silicon Valley bias: Silicon Valley has transformed our lives. From Apple to Facebook to Google to Microsoft, imagining a world in which Silicon Valley didn’t exist is a wild exercise in imagining an alternate universe. No company is perfect, and the vast influence and power of Silicon Valley companies has made the problems of some of those companies especially visible and controversial. The whole culture of Silicon Valley has idiosyncrasies and character flaws that are pretty well established now — even for people who have never set foot there.
Like the anti–rich people bias I discussed above, though, the criticisms sometimes go too far and also become crippling, counterproductive biases. In fact, I know of several people whose whole careers seem to center around nonstop criticism of Silicon Valley companies, and the media as a whole has been “evolving” towards a solid anti-tech, anti–Silicon Valley slant. That carries over into Tesla coverage. Some of the same critical Apple, Facebook, and Google experts are pulled onto TV talk shows or newspaper reports to throw darts and hand grenades at Tesla. The whole thing is far too predictable and thoroughly annoying. Many progressives and conservatives have gathered most of what they know — or think they know — about Tesla from this kind of commentary. It’s unfortunate, because it’s highly influential and typically just off the mark.
Misguided tendency to tear everything down: I said above that it’s common in the media to think your job is to afflict the powerful. The actual quote is, “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” However, I don’t think that’s a newspaper’s or the media’s job. I think the media’s fundamental job is to help the public get as complete a picture of reality as possible. Both democracy and a free-market economy are built on the ideal of complete, perfect truth in the hands and minds of all. The closer to that we get, the more rational and efficient a democracy and economy are supposed to be.
In many cases, yes, important pieces of information or whole narratives missing from the public consciousness are missing because rich and powerful people benefit from suppressing them. This is a big problem and is why so many people in the press do retain that maxim “afflict the comfortable” and make it a central pillar of their work. But that is a hugely inadequate industry mission and leads to its own externalities or market failures if followed too narrowly.
There are many good stories, many uplifting narratives, many “puff pieces” that get excluded from major media outlets for no good reason. It is honestly still shocking to me — despite all that I’ve written above — that more reporters and editors in the mainstream media don’t think it’s useful to highlight the American success story and climate success story Tesla has been creating. There is so much lamenting about lost manufacturing jobs in the US, there is so much concern for the global heating crisis, there is such a dramatic health epidemic from pollution in this country, yet large media outlets don’t think it’s worth highlighting for the American public that Tesla is a major manufacturing success story that has created tens of thousands of jobs and is rapidly cutting emissions from the transportation sector, an absolutely critical task on the to-do list in order to avoid society-crushing climate disruption. Instead, they find it newsworthy to mention Elon Musk taking a short and apparently unnatural puff of weed on a popular podcast hosted by a vocal pothead. Instead, they run what appear to be billion-dollar hit pieces and gloat on Twitter over the drop in Tesla’s stock price. What?
Fundamental lack of context: This is sort of going to repeat things I’ve already said, but it spreads across topics. Time and time again, the problem I see with mainstream media coverage of Tesla, and cleantech as a whole, is that the story lacks important context. This is anything from the full meaning of an email Elon sent to employees to Tesla’s role in stopping climate disruption. This includes negatively misleading coverage of Tesla’s financials as well as harmfully unbalanced coverage of safety-related topics (car fires, Tesla Autopilot, etc.). This includes reporting on Tesla executive departures without putting those into the context of career changes at other automakers or in Silicon Valley tech companies.
I don’t really understand the root of this problem. I just know it’s something consistent and it drives me crazy.
As just one generic example, one Tesla fan recently noted the following about Tesla short sellers (and the same thing applies to much of the media): “Ironically, Tesla shorts, who keep talking about Tesla ‘fraud,’ completely ignore actual frauds committed by legacy gas car makers like VW, Mercedes, Nissan, etc. In fact, executives of those companies are actually in prison.”
The editorial process: At major media outlets much more so than on outside-the-box, freestyle, rant-all-you-want blogs like CleanTechnica, there are often restrictive targets for word count, layers of editorial process that chop an original story up and dumb it down, and abundant manipulation of headlines (by humans and computers) to try to clickbait the hell out of you.
One example of this is reportedly the deeply misleading article recently published in the New York Times about a Los Angeles–Las Vegas–Los Angeles road trip in an electric vehicle. I heard from someone who reportedly contacted the writer and found out that useful information (including about Tesla) was included in the original but then was removed by the editor. Additionally, the headline was written by someone else and was a misleading, clickbaity headline that didn’t reflect the point of the story. This surely happens in various ways with many articles. (That said, it still seems like there were multiple big problems with the article.)
Confirmation bias: Once we’ve formed a somewhat strong belief, we tend to find arguments that support that belief and ignore reasons to doubt it. We’re quite talented at rationalizing beliefs, including incorrect ones. This is not unique to any level of intelligence or education either — very intelligent and educated people can be superbly good at rationalizing incorrect beliefs.
There’s absolutely no doubt about it — many people are wrong about Tesla. There are millions of Tesla bulls/fans and also a ton of Tesla bears/critics. One of those large groups has some fundamental errors in their analysis of Tesla. Confirmation bias is strong on both sides.
Some people have certainly flipped their view on Tesla even after they held a bearish view for a long time. (For example, we’ve reported on a long-time Tesla short seller who turned into a Tesla long and cited 4 of my Tesla sales charts in the letter explaining why. We also recently reported on Bob Lutz shifting his narrative about Tesla.) For the most part, though, we learn a bit about Tesla, form an overall opinion, reinforce that opinion with our tendency toward confirmation bias, and perhaps even get into nasty Twitter flamewars over the company. But, even if we are the ones who are right, is that the most effective way to deal with the conflict?
What to do, what to do?
As with almost all good ideas, this one’s not mine. A few years ago, one of our readers suggested that we start a letter-writing campaign and encourage our readers to get to work writing letters (emails) to local newspapers and larger nationwide newspapers in order to better communicate the story of cleantech — solar energy, wind energy, electric cars, and energy storage. I thought that was a great idea, but we never got to it.
I think it’s time to launch this. We need to pepper newspapers and TV news with a more complete, accurate narrative regarding cleantech.
As you can see if you read this piece or if you read us often, I think Tesla is a critical company/topic to focus on. It is far and away the leader in the EV market, and it continues to push the whole auto industry into the EV transition at a faster pace than if the company didn’t exist. Tesla is also a major rooftop solar power company and stationary energy storage company. It covers most of the cleantech bases and is a market leader in each of those industries.
Furthermore, misinformation and smears are thrown at Tesla much more than any cleantech company — or any company — that I know of. The result is that people are massively misinformed about Tesla and need to have their perceptions corrected.
If you’d like to help us formulate and coordinate such a campaign, drop us a note. Otherwise, anyone can get started today independently.
*Note: Despite my beliefs, there has been some scientific research concluding that advertising does influence coverage of the advertising companies.
- Some Environmentalists Are Being Punked Regarding Tesla
- From Broder To The 2018 Tesla Short Seller Storm To Today — What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been
(Originally appeared at our sister-site, Cleantechnica.)