Assault And Battery: Dissecting the New York Times Attack On Elon Musk
No one is going to like the pravda behind Bret Stephens' blistering column.
If all press is good press, Elon Musk has had an amazing week. And month. And year. And decade. One could write a book about it. I'd call mine Assault & Battery: The Tesla Story. But how many times was Tesla supposed to go bankrupt? How many crises can they weather? How much scrutiny can they withstand? And yet Tesla persisted, its rise largely dependent on Musk's hero mythology and near-total mastery of modern media.
And then Musk—unhappy with a week of totally survivable negative press—foolishly bit the media hand that fed him, suggested launching a media-rating site called Pravda, and attracted a blistering opinion piece in the New York Times.
(My usual Tesla OpEd disclaimer, shortened: I don’t own any $TSLA or get paid for traffic. I've been on both sides of the Tesla debate. Snowflakes should stop reading now, because neither side comes out well.)
What inspired Bret Stephens to write Elon Musk, the Donald of Silicon Valley? How many of his facts are correct? What does he omit in building his argument? What does it tell us about Musk? And what does it say about its author, and the media whom Musk thinks are arrayed against him?
Let's go through Stephens' opinion piece line-by-line:
"He is prone to unhinged Twitter eruptions. He can’t handle criticism. He scolds the news media for its purported dishonesty and threatens to create a Soviet-like apparatus to keep tabs on it."
True. True. Mostly true. If what Musk says about Tesla having no advertising/budget is true, then he has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of free media in history, the overwhelming majority of it positive. He's one of the most popular and influential human beings in the world, and to suggest otherwise is absurd. How would one deploy a media ratings platform, even if only for automotive, or just Tesla? Remove all bots and there remain vocal groups of pro and anti-Tesla fanatics. If the organ of output is also its subject, self-bias must be built-in or it must destroy itself to survive. To call it Pravda — or "Pravduh" — as Musk suggested? Ironic. But not in a good way.
"He suckers people to fork over cash in exchange for promises he hasn’t kept."
Half true, half false. Has Musk suckered people? Musk is famous for missing deadlines. Just last week Tesla settled a class action suit over delays in their rollout of Enhanced Autopilot functionality. Clearly someone felt suckered. But a lot of people — including a majority of those who still have $1000 deposits on the Model 3 — don't seem to care. Do they feel suckered? Apparently not.
"He’s a billionaire whose business flirts with bankruptcy."
"He’s sold himself as an establishment-crushing iconoclast when he’s really little more than an unusually accomplished B.S. artist."
True and false-ish. Of course Musk is an establishment-crushing iconoclast. Without Tesla, EVs would still be in the stone age. So would charging infrastructure, direct sales, wireless updates and—although Autopilot is no more than a driver assistance system—public awareness of self-driving cars.
If those are true, how can Musk be a B.S. artist? Because for everything he's done, he's exaggerated something else. What is the line between B.S. and aggressive salesmanship? It's a matter of opinion. Musk is obviously more than a B.S. artist. He's a master of human psychology, a salesman of the highest order, whose fans forgive exaggerations because what he does deliver is more than anyone else can, for now. Musk isn't just selling vision—or even visionary products—but hopes and dreams, for which there is no tangible metric of delivery, and even a flawed product and sense of belonging satisfy true believers.
Case in point: Tesla Autopilot, whose history deserves its own book. The Autopilot brand trades as much on perception and misunderstanding as it does on its transient functionality. Is it good? Is it bad? That depends on you, where you live, your expectations, when you bought it, and how you use it. If technology is only as good as our understanding of it, then Autopilot's depiction—among fans, foes and most of the media—is a reflection of vast ignorance.
"His legions of devotees are fanatics and, let’s face it, a bit stupid."
True and false-ish. Whatever your feelings about Tesla and Musk, this type of loyalty is priceless. It isn't a sign of weakness, but of strength. Are they stupid? Some of them are, but no more stupid than Apple fans (like myself) who hung on during the dark years in the late nineties. There is a growing schism between fans who love the products and diehards who live for the vision. The first demand better, the second will forgive worse. It's a free market.
The dark side of overly enthusiastic fans? Gamergate level abuse of legitimate journalists, especially women. Not good.
"I speak of Tesla chief executive Elon Musk, the Donald Trump of Silicon Valley."
Half true, half false. Musk and Trump are the yin and yang of forward-leaning narratives. Trump's future is the past. Musk's future is one that never was. Trump's is inherently negative: look what we lost. Musk's is positive: look what we can have. That Trump sees enemies everywhere — and often invents them — is the foundation of his mythology. That Musk claimed no enemies was core to his, until Musk blew that up by declaring war on a straw man. Live by the media, die by the media.
Trump-like messaging? No. Trump-like strategy? A fresh and possibly tragic yes.
"Not long ago, a wise friend with an enviable Wall Street reputation wrote me to describe his astonishment with Tesla, calling it “a situation unlike anything I have ever seen.”
This happens to me almost every day.
“The stock market valuation of a well-known company is stratospheric,” he said, “while at the same time its bonds are viewed as junk.”
“Meanwhile,” he added, Musk “plays to his audience with constant tweets of claims that go largely, repeatedly and visibly unfulfilled. And the S.E.C., which is supposed to prevent companies like this that raise money from the public on false pretenses, sits idly by.”
"Strong words — too strong, if you ask the satisfied customers of Tesla’s Model S (base price, $74,500) and X ($79,500). But Tesla is supposed to be the auto manufacturer of the future, not a bauble maker for the rich."
Musk did promise a mass-market car, as far back as 2008. Clearly there are a lot of Model 3 deposit holders waiting for the $35,000 version, and this recent tweet tells the story of how long that's going to take:
Ask Musk anything, and the answer is often 3 to 6 months, but do the fans care? Does Musk? Does it matter? Not as long as Tesla holds enough deposits, and collects enough new ones for the upcoming performance version of the 3, to run $78,000. Rolling out your middle model, then your performance version, then the cheap one? It works for Porsche. It may yet work for Tesla.
"The company has rarely turned a profit in its nearly 15-year existence. Senior executives are fleeing like it’s an exploding Pinto, and the company is in an ugly fight with the National Transportation Safety Board. It burns through cash at a rate of $7,430 a minute, according to Bloomberg."
True. True. True. True.
"It has failed to meet production targets for its $35,000 Model 3, for which more than 400,000 people have already put down $1,000 deposits, and on which the company’s fortunes largely rest."
True, and maybe. Tesla has missed production targets, but does their survival depend on those deposits? Based on the psychology of investors long accustomed to missed deadlines, Tesla need only slightly improve production to increase their stock price, against which they can raise more money.
Crazy, but hey, it's worked before.
"Also, the car is a lemon. Like the old borscht belt joke, the food is lousy and the portions are so small."
Is it a lemon if people forgive the flaws? The Model S has had problems since the beginning, and yet enough people seem to love it for Tesla to have survived. Will the Model 3 be any different? The New York Times seemed to like it — even though I think their review got Autopilot wrong — and I wrote a mostly positive review this past January. I wasn't alone. Can Tesla make the necessary quality improvements before they run out of diehards willing to overlook them?
Nobody knows, but the 3's braking problem raised by Consumer Reports a few days ago is allegedly being resolved this week by wireless update. If true, it's a customer service triumph that FCA would kill for. It still doesn't explain why a single 3 went out with brakes inferior to a Ford F-150.
"So much, then, for Elon Musk solving climate change or everything else he has promised to do, like building cities on Mars or (much more preposterously) solving L.A. traffic."
Here's where Stephens starts to go off the rails. Can anyone, or any one company, solve climate change? Of course not. But even if one could, Bret Stephens doesn't believe climate change matters, which makes this a cheap shot. What about Mars? It's my personal opinion that anyone who doesn't believe in the inevitability of humankind's expansion into space is an idiot. I'd say Musk is among the few human beings alive taking steps in that direction, even if it doesn't pan out in my lifetime. How about The Boring Company? I think this is a dead end. I can be wrong, but so can Musk. It wouldn't be the first time for either of us.
"At this point, it would be enough for Musk to save his company and the jobs of its 37,000 or so employees. For them and their families, saving the world first requires that Musk turn a profit on his existing business, not spin tales about his future ones."
Snarky, but who can disagree?
"I’ll leave it to market analysts to figure out whether that can happen (some actually think it can), though the solution will not come from finding the next John Sculley to discipline Musk’s Steve Jobs. The Apple of the 1980s was a brilliant idea with a terrible leader."
"Tesla, by contrast, today is a terrible idea with a brilliant leader. The terrible idea is that electric cars are the wave of the future, at least for the mass market."
Huh? Even if you think Musk is an idiot, the management of every car maker on Earth disagrees with Stephens, and almost entirely because of Tesla. So do the governments of China and India, and the European countries and cities moving to ban internal combustion (ICE). Does anyone believe they are all fools? We've spent more than fifty years fighting and propagating wars over oil. Future wars will be fought over the natural resources needed for EV batteries, and the world's militaries — including our own — are already planning for it.
"Gasoline has advantages in energy density, cost, infrastructure and transportability that electricity doesn’t and won’t for decades."
True, and false-ish. EV technology is improving at increasing rates. Mass adoption of ICE cars 100 years ago occurred with range and infrastructure far inferior to EVs of today...pioneered by Tesla, and Renault-Nissan, who deserve more credit than they've gotten. Maybe Stephens hasn't heard about the massive Chinese investments in affordable EVs, all predicated on market expansion in the near term. To suggest EVs aren't inevitable on even a mid-term timeline is absurd.
"The brilliance is Musk’s Trump-like ability to get people to believe in him and his preposterous promises. Tesla without Musk would be Oz without the Wizard."
True, but Musk also gets people to believe in the promises he keeps. Can it survive without him? Many believe Tesla would do even better without him.
"Much of the blame for the Tesla fiasco goes to government, which, in the name of green virtue, decided to subsidize the hobbies of millionaires to the tune of a $7,500 federal tax credit per car sold, along with additional state-based rebates. Would Tesla be a viable company without the subsidies? Doubtful. When Hong Kong got rid of subsidies last year, Tesla sales fell from 2,939 — to zero. It may be unfair to describe Tesla as Solyndra on wheels, but only slightly."
True and false-ish. How much of Stephen's argument is anti-Musk, how much is anti-government/subsidy, and how much is anti-EV? Hard to tell. Of course the federal tax credit helps Tesla, and of course it will impact them when they reach 200,000 cars sold and it goes away, but states like California offer additional ongoing credits, and I'm unconvinced that the credit had that much of an effect on the S and X. How many people bought them not because of price, but in spite of it? Based on my experience, more than even their fans want to admit.
So yes, Tesla's going to suffer to some degree, but US car sales aren't taxed like Hong Kong. Besides, the US isn't Tesla's only market, nor is Tesla the only EV on sale here or abroad. If Tesla can't move EVs sans subsidies, there is a universe of car makers whose entry-level, price-subsidized EVs will arrive here just as Tesla's prices spike. Tesla would have to fight them off with or without subsidies, whose loss is nowhere near as big a threat as the combined EV manufacturing prowess of the Germans, let alone the Japanese.
"But the Tesla story isn’t just about the perils of misdirected government-led development and clever rent-seeking entrepreneurs. And it isn’t about the virtue signaling of those who like their environmentalist bona fides to come with vegan-friendly upholstery. It’s about hubris and credulity — the hubris of the few to pretend they know the future and the credulity of the many to follow them there."
Missing the forest for the trees. Stephens obviously hasn't spent a lot of time talking to rank-and-file Tesla owners. Most of the ones I know don't care about the environment at all. They do hate gas stations, however, and car companies, and especially car dealers. I've met as many from the extreme right as the extreme left, a vast and fascinating cross-section of Americans which says more about Musk's appeal than Stephen's criticism, and greatly differentiates Musk varied "base" from Trump's.
And what of Stephen's opposition to the vision of a potentially better future? Many visionary inventors had their skeptics:
Stephens hails from the right, and therefore should be a supporter of entrepreneurship, innovation and job creation. Set aside Musk's mistakes and exaggerations, and Tesla remains the most innovative car company since Toyota invented lean manufacturing. Tesla didn't spring out of thin air, nor do the subsidies account for demand. Tesla filled a need, born at the confluence of trends other nations see, and both Stephens and our current administration does not.
Would any self-proclaimed pro-business patriot be happier were Tesla French? Or Korean? Or Chinese? Musk is ours, love him or hate him, and we are better off if he succeeds rather than fails.
"Electric vehicles were supposed to be the car of the future because we were running out of oil — until we weren’t. And Musk was supposed to be a visionary because he spoke in visions, for which there will always be a large receptive audience. Casting about for a cause and a savior to believe in is what too many Americans do these days, perhaps as a result of casting off the causes and saviors we used to believe in."
True, but the arguments against oil and for electricity aren't merely tied to oil supply. Oil dependency has brought war, pollution and a global order many no longer want to live with. Is there anything wrong in casting off old ideas and reaching for new ones? Is that not the nature of learning, discovery, and innovation? Oil is the devil we know. What price the one we don't? Can it be higher than the last half century? Or even the last 17 years of The War On Terror?
"Donald Trump long ago figured out that truth is whatever he thinks he can get away with, a cynical kind of wisdom he rode all the way to the White House and whose consequences we live with every day. With Musk the consequences are hardly as serious, but the essential pattern is the same. Maybe he’ll next try to sell us on a time machine and promise rides to anyone willing to make a $10,000 deposit. Tesla could surely use the cash."
Yadda yadda. Musk exaggerates. If you don't like his tactics, don't buy the stock. I know lots of people who can't stand him — some even on a personal level — who still love the cars. Personally, I'd love to own a Tesla, but I live in downtown NYC where charging sucks. Actually, so does refueling. Trying getting gas on a weekday south of Harlem. Also, I drive a Morgan, which is worse than the worst Tesla, and I love it.
As for a Tesla time machine, a $10,000 deposit would be a bargain if it showed up anytime during my lifetime. That's the nature of time machines; you can always go back. Maybe Stephens is onto something.
Sadly, Stephen's doesn't appear to have done any research into Tesla's actual problems, especially those around manufacturing, Autopilot development, and what I consider an inexplicable lack of a Driver Monitoring System, which would likely have prevented the spate of Autopilot-related crashes.
But that would require actual reporting, which is not what he does. Too bad, because that's exactly what Musk was complaining about. Unless an opinion piece is labeled satire, it should be based on facts, and Stephens comes up short. Sure, Musk is a piece of work, but his behavior would be called quirky and charming if he had solved Tesla's real problems.
Is it over for Tesla? I doubt it. GM weathered the ignition switch scandal. VW weathered DieselGate. All Musk has to do is keep his head down. Can he? Good news for Tesla fans and stockholders. Deflection, thy name is concept car reveal:
Unless the Y catches fire onstage, and probably even if it does, $TSLA is likely to go up. Maybe even long enough to raise enough money and keep going. How long can this go on? Not forever. If I were Musk, I'd follow up the Y with another rocket, and broadcast from the nose in 360 video. That should divert everyone's attention just long enough to get 3 production on track. From the sounds of it, it can't get any worse.
P.S. The optics of this subtweet by Musk are very, very bad:
Dear Elon Musk: You're Elon Musk. You're in the big chair. If you can't see why this looks like a dogwhistle, you need some media training. And a reality check.
Alex Roy — Founder of the Human Driving Association, Editor-at-Large at The Drive, Host of The Autonocast, co-host of /DRIVE on NBC Sports and author of The Driver — has set numerous endurance driving records, including the infamous Cannonball Run record, in a variety of vehicles, including a Tesla Model S and 3. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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