Why Is Musk Attacking the Media? We Explain. (Also, Give Us a Good Rating!)

Posted May 24, 2018 3:42 p.m. EDT
Updated May 24, 2018 3:43 p.m. EDT

Elon Musk, the billionaire who has ambitions to colonize Mars and whose companies make electric vehicles and rockets, spent part of his Wednesday criticizing an already beleaguered and much-maligned group of humans on Earth.

Yes, Musk, 46, chief executive of SpaceX and Tesla, could not help unloading on the news media — members of which have written articles, especially in recent months, about the many problems that have plagued his companies. In a series of tweets that ranged from bizarre to pithy, Musk called the media “holier-than-thou,” argued it had lost its credibility, blamed it for the election of President Donald Trump, and suggested that journalists wrote negative stories about Tesla because they seek page views and because companies that make cars that rely on gas and diesel — some of Tesla’s competitors — “are among world’s biggest advertisers.”

“Problem is journos are under constant pressure to get max clicks & earn advertising dollars or get fired," Musk wrote. "Tricky situation, as Tesla doesn’t advertise, but fossil fuel companies & gas/diesel car companies are among world’s biggest advertisers.”

He also proposed creating what he called a “media credibility rating site,” which he suggested calling “Pravda” — the Russian word for “truth” and also the name of a longtime communist newspaper.

Tesla did not respond Wednesday to an email seeking comment about Musk’s Twitter tirade.

The news media, though, is far from the first target of Musk’s ire.

Let us explain.

— An April Fools’ bankruptcy

In March, Musk escalated tensions with Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, by deleting the Facebook pages of both SpaceX and Tesla. Along the way, he aimed a sardonic tweet at Sonos, a maker of wireless speakers, and asked in a Twitter reply, “What’s Facebook?”

Then, on April 1, as Tesla was enduring a barrage of negative news, Musk sent out an April Fools’ joke.

“Despite intense efforts to raise money, including a last-ditch mass sale of Easter eggs, we are sad to report that Tesla has gone completely and totally bankrupt,” Musk wrote on Twitter. “So bankrupt, you can’t believe it.”

— On the defensive about safety

By mid-April, Musk had another problem on his hands: workplace injuries.

In an article published on April 16, the Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization, cataloged a number of serious injuries experienced by Tesla factory workers. The article said that Tesla’s injury rate exceeded the industry average in 2016 and that the company had chosen not to report certain episodes as required under California labor law.

In a blog post, Tesla said the article had incorrectly counted some injuries that actually occurred away from the car plant and had relied on “outright inaccurate information.”

Days later, California’s job safety watchdog said that it was investigating a recent incident at the automaker’s factory in Fremont that left a worker hospitalized with a broken jaw.

More on this later.

— Dismissing ‘bonehead’ questions

By the beginning of May, the negative news had not relented, and Musk was no longer in a joking mood.

Just three weeks ago, Musk took aim at analysts in a conference call after Tesla’s earnings announcement. At one point, he cut off an analyst asking about the company’s need to raise additional money from investors.

“So where specifically will you be in terms of capital requirements?” asked Toni Sacconaghi, an analyst covering Tesla for Sanford C. Bernstein.

“Excuse me,” Musk responded, according to a Bloomberg transcript of the call. “Next. Boring bonehead questions are not cool. Next?”

Tesla’s stock price fell 5.6 percent the next day.

— An attack on ‘messed up’ coverage

On May 11, a Tesla sedan with a semiautonomous Autopilot feature rear-ended a truck at 60 mph, leaving the driver with a broken right ankle and a totaled car.

In a tweet that would foreshadow his complaints to come, Musk said: “It’s super messed up that a Tesla crash resulting in a broken ankle is front page news and the ~40,000 people who died in US auto accidents alone in past year get almost no coverage.”

— A labor union in the cross hairs

Musk has been on something of a Twitter rampage the last few days as well.

Over the weekend, he sent tweets that broke news about two higher-end versions of the Model 3.

Then, he began a Twitter offensive this week in which he railed against the United Automobile Workers, which, according to news reports, is actively trying to organize Tesla’s assembly plant in Fremont, California. In tweets, he said the union wanted “divisiveness” and blamed it for having “destroyed” the “once great US auto industry.”

Musk also began an attack against the Center for Investigative Reporting. In separate tweets, he reiterated that aspects of the April story were “demonstrably false” and appeared to call the primary finding of the story “bs.”

— Calling out ‘hypocrisy’

On Wednesday afternoon, the news website Electrek published an article that appears to have perfectly captured Musk’s mounting frustration with the media.

The article pointed out that “the media has been having a field day with Tesla crashes and Model 3 delays lately, which has affected the company’s stock,” and it highlighted a note put out by an auto analyst for the financial services firm Baird.

The note argued that all the negative reports are “increasingly immaterial” and that because “we have hit a peak in negative coverage/sentiment,” the company’s stock could rally as that sentiment improves.

Musk retweeted a link to the article and commented: “The holier-than-thou hypocrisy of big media companies who lay claim to the truth, but publish only enough to sugarcoat the lie, is why the public no longer respects them.”

Thus began the tweet storm in which Musk made all the remarks mentioned at the beginning of this article. He also appeared to take a jab at journalists for the Center for Investigative Reporting, labeling them “rich kids in Berkeley who took their political science prof too seriously” (the center’s headquarters is about 3 miles from the University of California, Berkeley); got into a tit for tat with an editor; and continued to criticize the UAW.

By about 8:42 p.m., Musk had sent more than two dozen tweets and was still going. But it did appear that he had vented enough to improve his mood.

“For some reason,” he wrote, “this is the best I’ve felt in a while.”