The Industry

Elon Musk Is Gaslighting Us

His attempt to discredit the media is dangerous, even if he’s joking about the whole Pravda thing.

Elon Musk listens at a press conference following the first launch of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Feb. 6.
Elon Musk listens at a press conference following the first launch of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Feb. 6. Joe Skipper/Reuters

A pedestal isn’t always a comfortable place to sit, and Elon Musk is getting antsy. The Tesla and SpaceX CEO’s brand of utopian serial entrepreneurship has earned him a legion of fans—an army he has sought to activate this week as he has felt increasingly irked by another of his constituencies: the press.

Musk’s electric-car company has been the subject of a string of negative headlines recently, including a bombshell report last month from Reveal, a project of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting, that detailed how the Tesla plant in Fremont, California, has underreported serious injuries on its factory floor, dismissed worker concerns, and left injured employees to live off of compensation payoffs, with one who even ended up sleeping in his car. In response, Tesla called the Center for Investigative Reporting an “extremist organization.” Then, this week, there was a frosty review in Consumer Reports of the highly anticipated Model 3, Tesla’s first mass-market car. Because of problems with its braking and handling, Consumer Reports concluded, it could not give the vehicle its “Recommended” designation. On top of that, the company has been scrutinized because of crashes that involved Tesla’s Autopilot feature and delays with its Model 3 assembly line.

On Wednesday, Musk ratcheted up his criticism of his critics, sounding not for the first time like a certain press-hating president: “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,” Musk tweeted above an article from the site, which covers the electric-car industry with a generally friendly touch, about how Tesla stocks could rebound despite “media negativity.”

When Andrew Hawkins, a transportation reporter at the Verge, pointed out that Musk was behaving like President Trump by trying to undermine the credibility of the media rather than addressing its reporting, Musk didn’t exactly disagree:

Hawkins isn’t the first to make the analogy, but it’s spot on: 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl even said this week that Trump told her in 2016 that he tries to “discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.” It’s hard to see how Musk could be doing something different right now. He’s doing what people in power often try to do, though rarely so audaciously: deflate an unflattering story by making it about the people who reported it. He’s gaslighting us.

Gaslighting takes a few forms, and it would be a stretch to say Musk is an abuser and journalists are his victims. But he is in a relationship with the press, and instead of engaging with it on the even playing field of reality, he’s seeking to alter the terrain. When someone with more power than you tells you you’re overreacting when you say they’re hurting you, that’s gaslighting. When a famous billionaire responds to journalists reporting on real-world harms caused by their companies by saying the media isn’t trustworthy, that’s gaslighting too.

It may have sounded silly when Musk tweeted on Wednesday that Reveal’s reporters are just “some rich kids in Berkeley who took their political science prof too seriously,” but that was gaslighting. It’s disingenuous, casually dismissive, and dangerous—not because journalists may begin to doubt themselves, in this case, but because a number of Musk’s millions of followers might.

Musk didn’t stop there. He went on to note that he has plans “to create a site where the public can rate the core truth of any article & track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor & publication.” For a name, he wrote, he is “thinking of calling it Pravda.” Pravda was the official paper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for most of the 20th century. The paper notably followed orders by Josef Stalin to perpetuate anti-Semitic messages; it also justified the Great Purge, the campaign of political oppression that led to the state-sanctioned deaths of hundreds of thousands of Russians.

That wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment joke, it turned out. The investigative reporter Mark Harris pointed out that Musk had one of his associates incorporate a company called Pravda Corp. last October. In his next tweet, Musk posted a poll asking if he should “Create a media credibility rating site (that also flags propaganda botnets),” to which, as of Thursday morning, 88 percent of the more than 679,000 repliers had clicked, “Yes, this would be good.”

Whether or not Musk will actually do this (he also recently tweeted he’s starting a candy company), people are defending him. One verified entrepreneur on Twitter, Scott Wainner, made the point that the media has “constant coverage of every Tesla crash … while no one covers the 1000’s of daily crashes of any other car,” a recent talking point of Musk’s. This complaint doesn’t exactly square with how the press has covered other car companies’ problems. As Daniel Nguyen, a visiting journalism professor at Stanford, responded on Twitter, other big-name “automakers have made orders of magnitude more cars than Tesla, over many more decades,” pointing to years of critical coverage of automakers, like when Toyota was sued in 2010 following a fatal crash, leading to a recall of 8.5 million cars worldwide. Then there was the 2016 death of Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin in 2016 after he was crushed by a Chrysler, which led to the recall of 1.1 million cars and a class-action lawsuit. There was the tremendous reporting of sexual harassment at Ford manufacturing plants in 2017 by the New York Times. No one can seriously argue that problems with automakers are undercovered by the press.

Musk is one of the most popular businessmen in the world. And his dream of building a future in which cars are less environmentally damaging is an important one. It’s possible to support his overall goal while critically examining how he’s getting there and urge for iterations, improvements, and driver and worker safety along the way. Media organizations certainly aren’t infallible; they can make errors of both substance and emphasis. But they do follow standards of conduct and practice and make corrections when they’ve erred. Anyone as intelligent and successful as Musk ought to know that.

Musk is of course free to say whatever he wants about whoever displeases him—and some of the bones he has picked with the media’s coverage, like the emphasis on Autopilot deaths over normal vehicular fatalities, may indeed be worthy of respectful debate (though I disagree with him on that point). But when Musk makes ad hominem and categorical attacks, he deserves to be shouted down, because the doubt he’s trying to sow could rob the public of their right to know—and impact people’s lives for the worst. Take the “extremists” at the Center for Investigative Reporting whom he would no doubt prefer remained silent. Their story on the poor working conditions at the Tesla factory helped a local paper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, to report on how Tesla’s solar panels installed at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, malfunctioned and led to what appears to be the company’s largest Occupational Safety and Health Administration fines yet, for more than $110,863 following the finding of nine serious safety violations. We clearly need more reporting on Tesla, not less.

As a public figure running a public company, Musk should think carefully about what he tells his 21.9 million followers, especially when he frames his beef with the tech and automotive press as one with the press in general at a time when the media is also facing an executive branch that isn’t exactly concerned with respecting the cornerstones of a functioning democracy. Instead of responding to the press on the merits of its reporting, he’s asked his followers to place their faith in him instead. That might work until it doesn’t: If he continues to deny bad news every time it comes out and attacks the people who write it, he’ll probably start to lose credibility.

And actually, it’s already happening with Wall Street. On an investor call earlier this month, Musk refused to answer questions from analysists about his company because “boring questions are not cool.” Tesla’s share price took a nosedive after the call.