Elon Musk may be an expert at many things (technology, innovation, shooting cars up into space), but journalism, clearly, is not one of them.
This week, Musk used his immense brain power to engage in a Twitter tiff after Reveal (a public radio show, podcast, and website) published a report on worker injuries at a Tesla plant, which, reporters found, the company has gone to great lengths to hide. And some of these injuries, which include workers getting "debilitating headaches from the fumes of a toxic glue," are both serious and avoidable. "Concerned about bone-crunching collisions and the lack of clearly marked pedestrian lanes at the Fremont, California, plant," the report reads, "the general assembly line’s then-lead safety professional went to her boss, who she said told her, 'Elon does not like the color yellow.'”
Elon also does not like Reveal. On Monday, Reveal published another report, this one about a contractor who is suing Tesla after he was severely burned in an electrical explosion that, he alleges, could have been prevented if the company hadn't refused to cut the electricity to the equipment he was working on because they didn't want to momentarily halt production. Soon after, Elon took to Twitter to whine about the media, much like one Donald "FAKE NEWS!!!" Trump.
Yeah, “Reveal” was carefully constructed propaganda with a name that wd make Orwell proud. Workplace injury rate of our factory when it was UAW w Toyota/GM was twice as high as today’s non-union.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 21, 2018
Propaganda! Reveal, for the record, is part of the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting, which has conducted award-winning investigative journalism for nearly 40 years. Both the CIR and Reveal are highly respected among journalists and media watchdog groups. Reveal has won numerous awards, including a Peabody, a Murrow, and a MacArthur. They've also been nominated for an Academy Award and have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize three times. They are the real deal, and have done stories on African migrants fleeing persecution, where criminals get their guns, and a particularly memorable episode on how those bins you throw old clothes into in 7-11 parking lots (and the U.S. government) fund a Danish cult. You may also recall a viral story from last year after Reveal's host Al Letson, who is black, saved a white supremacist from a beating at a protest in Berkeley. Letson was also the host of the award-winning public radio show State of the Re:Union, and in his spare time, he hosts the podcast Errthang, acts, writes poetry, makes comic books, is a father to four kids, and is excellent at schooling people on Twitter, which is exactly what did to Elon Musk. Here's the start of his thread (check out the rest here)
1/@elonmusk respectfully, we can have a disagreement about the reporting that’s cool. I stand by every bit of information those stories. But as the host of @Reveal, I take the being called “propaganda” personally. I realize tho, you might not know me or our work. https://t.co/VCmx2HYdbx
— Al Letson (@Al_Letson) May 21, 2018
Elon Musk did not like this (or the media's coverage of a recent crash of a Tesla on auto-pilot) one bit and he spent yesterday on a bit of a Twitter tear, which included calling Reveal "just some rich kids in Berkeley who took their political science prof too seriously." And then there was this:
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. Thinking of calling it Pravda …
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 23, 2018
"Pravda" sounds one of those yogurt brands that make you poop, but, as an actual journalist quickly revealed, he's not kidding: Last year, a Musk operative named Jared Burchill incorporated a company called Pravda in the state of Delaware. (Incidentally, Pravda is also the name a Russian paper that once served as the official newspaper of the Communist Party in the USSR.)
However you feel about the state of the media, Musk is delusional if he thinks enlisting the general public to decide what is accurate and what is not is going to solve any problems. Yes, there are some major issues with the Fourth Estate as we know it: For one, there's far less original reporting and far more aggregation than is good for the republic. Plus, giant corporations who care far more about the bottom line than they do the truth are scooping up small media orgs left and right. But still, journalists and editors have skills that the public doesn't, which is exactly with they are paid (barely) to report. If media is incompetent (and clearly large swaths of it are), how are people with even less training and knowledge going to be any better? Media literacy is so poor in this country that Macedonian teenagers were able to convince people that the Pope actually endorsed Donald Trump. Fox News is the most watched cable news network in the U.S. The InfoWars website receives more visits each month than the Economist. Are these audiences really who we want deciding what's accurate and what's not?
Elon Musk has some damnable ideas (colonizing Mars is at the top of this particular heap) but this one may be the worst. The way to solve problems with the media is to support it: to subscribe to magazines and newspapers so they can hire journalists and fact checkers and editors and people who do the job right. It's to vote for political candidates who aren't in favor of deregulating the industry and letting corporate giants take over local news. It's to donate to public radio and TV and non-profits like the Center for Invesigative Reporting and Reveal. The way not to fix the media? Turn it into fucking Yelp.