It has become conventional wisdom, for good reason, that the best way to react to trolls is simply to ignore them. “Don’t feed the trolls,” nontrolls say, in response to troublemakers on Twitter or in comment sections trying to get a rise out of pretty much anyone who will bite. Journalists in particular have had to absorb this message, whether they are writing about gender, or race, or video games, or Donald Trump.
And yet, they still haven’t learned—at least when it comes to master troll Elon Musk. Musk has been having great fun over the past couple of days throwing mini–Twitter grenades at the American press corps, to which the only sane response is to sigh, roll your eyes, and go back to doing your job. Instead, America’s most prominent journalists have been falling over each other in their rush to retweet his tantrum to their millions of followers, served up with a bottomless and utterly unedifying accompaniment of puffed-up self-righteousness.
The latest news cycle started around the time that Musk took aim at Reveal, a nonprofit Bay Area website and podcast that has been reporting critically on Tesla’s working conditions.
In an @-reply to three Twitter accounts, Musk called the podcast “carefully constructed propaganda.” Because of the way that @-replies work, almost no one saw Musk’s tweet—until, that is, Reveal’s Al Letson started quote-tweeting him in high dudgeon.
“Allow me to shed light,” tweeted Letson, at his most condescending. “As a journalist, I’ve pretty much won every award for broadcast journalism. From the Peabody to the Murrow to the Duponts. Like you, I’m pretty damn good at what I do.”
Immediately, Musk, who co-founded PayPal with Gawker destroyer Peter Thiel, apologized to Letson, changed his mind about the journalistic profession, and—oh, who am I kidding, of course, he didn’t. As Letson knew full well, a mantelpiece full of journalistic awards impresses Elon Musk about as much as a Matchbox car, or a bottle rocket. Instead, Musk gleefully doubled down. He tweeted about creating “a site where the public can rate the core truth of any article & track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor & publication” and then put up a Twitter poll, which to date has more than 600,000 responses: Some 88 percent of respondents sided with Musk (“Yes, this would be good”), while only 12 percent agreed with the statement that “media are awesome.”
Then there was Musk’s masterstroke:
It was a test: Could the journalism profession prove that it comprises adult professionals who can respond to such provocations by simply reporting honestly and professionally on Musk’s businesses? Or would reporters and editors opt instead to enter into an unenlightening food fight with a billionaire who sells flamethrowers for fun?
Turns out, we couldn’t resist. Ben Smith, the editor of BuzzFeed, weighed in to say that Musk’s tweet was “shocking”—not in an ironic, Casablanca way, but genuinely, in a tweet that got more than 600retweets. MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle felt the need to say that “Some of the best journalists in the world work at @FT @WSJ @barronsonline.” Axios’ Dan Primack bemoaned Musk’s “fundamental misunderstanding of how most media orgs actually operate.” The New Yorker’s Adam Davidson called Musk “stunningly ignorant.” The Washington Post’s Tony Romm intoned that “this is wrong, and it’s dangerous rhetoric.” And on, and on, and on. Look at the list yourself; after a while you get the feeling that it’s going to be hard to find a journalist who isn’t on it.
Journalists have a pretty simple (though not easy) job: to convey information to the public. What information does the L.A. Times’ Robin Abcarian think that she’s conveying, when she quote-tweets Musk while saying that “last year, my column about a couple who survived the Santa Rosa fires by sheltering in a pool was the 86th most read story on the entire freaking internet”? Any normal person, reading that, will see just a lot of insecurity and defensiveness, in a culture where going on the defensive is considered to be a sure sign that you’re losing.
Elon Musk is a CEO whose corporate leadership is not looking great right now. His mass-market car, the Model 3, the car that was supposed to save the company, is being produced much more slowly than anybody anticipated and costs much more than most people can afford. It’s very common, in such circumstances, for CEOs to lash out at all of their critics, be they short-sellers or stock analysts or, yes, journalists.
But most of the time, when a CEO starts attacking critical journalists, it’s the CEO who looks like he or she is on the defensive; the journalists simply put out a statement saying that they stand by their reporting, stand back, and watch the CEO crumble. It’s a very effective move. But for some reason, when Elon Musk starts attacking journalists, we seem to be incapable of responding in a similar manner.
The only winning move, when Musk starts trolling the journalistic profession on Twitter, is not to play. When put to the test, however, we’ve proved ourselves to be losers.