The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Elon Musk’s meltdown makes perfect sense

Tesla’s CEO lashed out at analysts and the media during a wide-ranging earnings call. (Video: Tesla via Earningscast)

Elon Musk has lost his cool. And the tale of his transformation from media darling into spurned lover out to make the press pay encapsulates a key part of the Silicon Valley mindset.

Musk’s story started out well: He’s an immigrant from South Africa who moved here to pursue the California dream, earned a fortune on PayPal and then instead of sitting pretty on his success decided to start manufacturing spaceships. He was Iron Man in this universe, and though he hadn’t built an army of weaponized suits, his fleet of electric cars seemed poised to take over the streets.

But recent months have been less kind to Tesla and the man behind it. Autopiloted cars are crashing; the mass-market Model 3 has “big flaws” in braking and controls. Tesla stock has started to tumble. Then there’s the burgeoning push for unionization at Tesla factories, and investigative reporting revealing that some safety hazards have gone ignored and that injuries have been left off the books. All of this coverage has made Musk mad, and he has taken to Twitter to decry “the holier-than-thou hypocrisy” of the media.

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

Follow Molly Roberts's opinionsFollow

That, obviously, is not the problem at all. Journalists don’t sit down and calculate which stories are likely to draw certain advertisers to their site — the idea is anathema to their mission of objectivity. In fact, the article that has apparently dug the deepest on Tesla factory safety came from the Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit. The real problem is that it’s impossible to craft Earth-altering technology without running into snags, and because altering the Earth is an enterprise relevant to all Earthlings, those snags deserve attention.

Perhaps even more alarming than Musk’s diagnosis was his proposed cure. “Going 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,” Musk announced. He says he’ll call it “Pravda,” and it seems he isn’t messing around — Pravda Corp. was certified as a corporation in October.

This is peak Silicon Valley. The industry’s most powerful players want to build things that will fix the world, which is an inherently narcissistic desire: The most ambitious technological enterprises rely on a single individual’s vision of what society should look like, and a single individual’s belief that he or she is the right person to surmount seemingly intractable challenges.

Some of the issues that Silicon Valley leaders set out to resolve are larger-scale than others: Google pledges to “organize the world’s information,” while Facebook wants to “bring the world closer together.” But even companies that serve a narrower purpose for a narrower set of clientele manage to cast their missions in monumental terms. Uber’s aim isn’t to help urbanites get around the city, but to “make transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere, for everyone.”

Of course, not everyone everywhere has access to running water — which is a clue-in to how blinkered Silicon Valley solutions can be. Building a better world, to these thinkers and creators, often means building a better world for themselves. It’s easier to notice problems that affect us, and easier to find the smartest ways to change what’s already familiar.

Musk has taken this ethos to the extreme. He shares his peers’ belief that no obstacle is too big to engineer around (or under), and now he has identified an obstacle — negative press coverage — that is making his own personal world a worse place. In his effort to “solve” this “problem,” he’s trying to tackle a conundrum central to the human existence and define truth. And his method is laughable in its simplicity: crowdsourcing.

This, of course, would not work. More likely than not, a media-rating site will attract a particular crowd of mainstream-media skeptics. And even if Musk’s site did draw in a more diverse possible slate of reviewers, their opinions wouldn’t create a reliable metric of accuracy. You don’t get the truth by adding the people who think Alex Jones is an addled conspiracy theorist and those who take his words as gospel and dividing by two.

That’s why fact-checking sites such as Snopes and PolitiFact are run by professionals. It’s why Facebook is struggling to figure out which news stories to promote on its platform and which to let languish unliked. It’s why one man in, say, rural Ohio sees an entirely different America from a woman in midtown Manhattan, or southwestern Atlanta.

Musk didn’t seem to mind the media when it was churning out fawning profiles of him. Now, he has posted a Twitter referendum on the Pravda concept with two options: “Yes, this would be good” and “No, media are awesome.” His 21.8 million followers, many also his fans, weighed in overwhelmingly on the “yes” side. To him, perhaps, that’s the only truth that matters.