Elon Musk wants to fix the press, a sentiment that he’s recently made clear on Twitter, while simultaneously demonstrating that he doesn’t yet know how. What’s made Musk angry at the press, and where does it go from here?
First, let’s not pretend there is nothing wrong with the press. Americans are fed a diet of lies daily by outlets like Fox News, which have resulted in such things as the election of Donald Trump, a man with a total disregard for the truth and little competency to hold his office, endangering us all. Internet and broadcast press have fed the people asinine flights of fancy like “Pizzagate”.
The deliberate feeding of lies to the electorate, and thus improperly influencing elections with them, is not a first amendment issue. It’s a treasonous crime and we need to start treating it as one.
Musk really does have a valid complaint: Tesla has been treated unfairly, not only by the press but by the United States Government. It’s clear from U.S. crash statistics that brands other than Tesla are responsible for over 100 deaths per day, every day, 365 days a year. In contrast, a handful of people have died in Teslas. But every Tesla accident, not just every death, is front-page news in the press. And you’ll never hear that someone’s died in a Ford, while it’s likely that tens of people do die in Fords on any particular day.
Tesla is also the most shorted stock at present, with short positions covering more than a quarter of all outstanding shares and perhaps as much as one third. That means a great many investors are desperate to see Tesla’s stock reach a much lower price soon, or they’ll be forced to buy it at its present price in order to fulfill their short positions, potentially bankrupting many of them and sending some out of the windows of Wall Street skyscrapers. These investors are desperately seeding, feeding, and writing negative stories about Tesla in the hope of depressing the stock price. Musk recently taunted them by buying another 10 Million dollars in stock, making it even more likely that there won’t be enough stock in the market to cover short positions. If that’s the case, short-sellers could end up in debt for thousands of dollars per shorted share – as the price balloons until enough stockholders are persuaded to sell. Will short-sellers do anything to give Tesla bad press? You bet.
And of course there’s the interest of the gasoline industry, which will go out of business given the proliferation of fully-electric vehicles that are actually good enough to compete with gasoline ones, a position that only Tesla holds so far. Entrenched automotive manufacturers also have every reason to seed and feed bad press while they fail to build their own battery manufacturing plants. Before Tesla, one could see the obvious activities of these powers in seeding bad news about the Prius.
Then there’s the fact that Tesla does not advertise. Given the queue of Model 3 reservations, Tesla already has all of the sales they need for their next three years of their factory’s production, before they might have any economic reason to advertise. This can’t be comfortable for the press, and no doubt makes them more willing to carry stories seeded by those who would harm Tesla.
Tesla has a self-driving feature, one that the company is very clear is not ready for full autonomy and does not absolve the driver of the responsibility to remain in control of the vehicle. And a Tesla is powered by batteries. So, the NTSB, which is interested in self-driving and batteries, investigates each and every crash, and announces their investigations. They should stop making these announcements, which feed a hungry press, and probably should investigate more conventional vehicle crashes and make pronouncements regarding the hazards of driving without an autonomous system.
And finally, it’s interesting how Musk’s effort to start a rating outlet has inflamed the press, while Jeff Bezos purchase of the entire Washington Post did not provoke nearly so much abuse.
So, Musk is stuck with a press that feeds negative stories about Tesla seeded by short-sellers, business competitors and the petroleum industry, and even the U.S. Government. And paparazzi prey on his personal life, and even the ugly antics of Musk’s father. Sure, he’s annoyed.
Tesla isn’t the only one of Musk’s enterprises being treated this way. Bad press about SpaceX is often deliberately seeded by its competitors and even places that have profited from the old too-expensive and unambitious space programs and their contractors and are threatened by SpaceX’s lower prices.
Musk is far from the only one who suffers from this abuse. I was personally involved while the Linux developers were hounded by bad press for years from Forbes and lesser entities, backed by a large software company we all know (and who is, surprisingly, funding more Open Source these days), based on SCO’s unfounded lawsuit. Time proves them wrong, but don’t expect them to admit it, nor should you hold your breath for an “I’m sorry”.
Musk isn’t without blame in creating his bad perceptions. He’s posted self-indulgent wine-and-ambien-fueled tweets on lots of topics. Smart people before Musk have suffered from posting humor that is a sort of intelligence test, like Richard Stallman’s rhinophytonecrophilia joke. Mundanes and their press don’t understand this (or don’t choose to) and simply see it as weird. So, when Elon says he’s going to build a “Cyborg Dragon” or sells “Flamethrowers” (actually hardware-store lawn weed burners with some bling attached), dimmer lights can’t comprehend, and we get things like Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles, a district that profits immensely from Musk’s industries) attempting to legislate a ban.
Musk has money to back his ideas, and now proposes to start to review the press and post ratings at Pravduh. This could be useful, if it does the right thing. And that is to present factual evidence (not just Elon’s opinion) to demonstrate when the press is lying, and keep score.
For this to work, Musk himself has to completely divorce himself from control of such an entity, or it can never be trusted. He can start it off with a constitution and a staff, and a promise of money for a fixed duration, but it has to be hands off other than that from then on.
What would make this different from other fact-checkers, for example the venerable Snopes, would be that a Pravduh could build, over time, a well-documented quantitative case that press sources like Fox News lie pervasively and with planning.
The world would be a better place if this was done honestly, with integrity, and well. Musk is one who has improved the world by going where conventional wisdom said he’d fail, getting around the deadlock of NASA and pork-barrel contractors blocking less expensive access to space, and providing practical electric cars while other manufacturers suppressed them, provided handicapped versions that hadn’t a hope of competing with conventional cars, or built hybrids that were still tied to the gasoline infrastructure. Can the man who conquered these summits help us to get an honest press that properly informs the electorate before they vote? I sure hope so.