Elon Musk is having a bad week.
Early reviews of the delayed Model 3 Tesla have been far from glowing; the company is dealing with a big production backlog; he has been accused of threatening workers who want to unionize; there was yet another autopilot crash; and then of course there remains the question of whether his entire company can continue to stay afloat given its massive debt load and lack of revenue.
To which the only natural response, of course, is to… blame the media.
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"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," His Muskiness tweeted yesterday morning, drawing comparisons with another public figure that spends too much of his time on Twitter complaining about fake news.
Just like Trump, unfortunately, the combination of ego-gone-mad and a lack of self-control made matters worse. The tweets kept coming...
"Anytime anyone criticizes the media, the media shrieks 'You're just like Trump!' Why do you think he got elected in the first place? Because no ones believes you any more. You lost your credibility a long time ago."
And then came this...
"Problem is journos are under constant pressure to get max clicks & earn advertising dollars or get fired. Tricky situation, as Tesla doesn’t advertise, but fossil fuel companies & gas/diesel car companies are among world's biggest advertisers."
Which demonstrates such a devastating lack of understanding of how journalism and "the media" works that it actually serves more as a mirror into Musk's mind than useful commentary.
Somewhat inevitably, the further Musk slipped from reality's embrace, the more Twitter piled up on him. At which point most people would put down their phone and go for a walk, or go out to lunch with one of their friends, to calm down.
But when your work is your life, you own your own company, and you have become addicted to attention, those options are less apparent.
And so down the rabbit hole Musky goes...
"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..."
Amazingly, it turns out that this wasn't just a brain fart and Musk did in fact incorporate a Pravda Corp in California in October.
Of course this is Twitter so acting out online resulted in yet more attention – and more tweeting. "Even if some of the public doesn’t care about the credibility score, the journalists, editors & publications will. It is how they define themselves," he continued.
And then demonstrated the exact kind of biased approach to gathering information that he was complaining about with a transparently dreadful Twitter poll.
"Create a media credibility rating site (that also flags propaganda botnets)," was the title with the two options: Yes, this would be good, and; No, media are awesome.
At this point, the online crowds started gathering to watch the spectacle of a famous CEO having a Twitter meltdown. Which Musk mistook for some kind of battle that he could win by taunting and rallying people through his, er, phone.
"Come on media, you can do it! Get more people to vote for you. You are literally the media," came another tweet. And: "Amazingly, the 'media is awesome' vote is declining, despite hundreds of articles attacking this very poll."
With a spectacular lack of self-awareness, he also tweeted, mid-media-rant: "For some reason, this is the best I’ve felt in a while. Hope you’re feeling good too."
Oh, Elon, the crash is coming. We hope you have some real friends nearby when it comes.
The problem with individuals who owe most of their public profile to media coverage is that they get hooked on it and start seeing the world through its distorted lens. And then they start imagining that because "the media" is a singular term that it somehow holds and works together as a coherent whole.
There's no doubt it must be a jarring experience to read glowing, almost cultish stories about how amazing you are one day and then discover the next day that the same publication is airing your dirty laundry in public.
Earlier this month, another Musk tweet revealed his warped idea of how his assumed frenemy thinks: "It's super messed up that a Tesla crash resulting in a broken ankle is front page news and the ~40,000 people who died in US auto accidents alone in past year get almost no coverage."
But it isn’t messed up at all – it's journalism.
We actually have some degree of sympathy for Musk. It must be very difficult being a public figure – especially when you crave attention – and combined with the very real real-world pressures on him right now given the series of Tesla slip-ups, it must be a confusing and frustrating mental place to be.
And, so, to help His Royal Muskiness when he comes down and gets over his Twitter hangover, here is a quick guide to how "the media" actually works in the hope it may help avoid such embarrassing spectacles in future.
- Journalism is about what is happening now. As in today. If something happened literally yesterday, a news editor will question whether it is worth a story. This creates a distorted sense of what is real – but only if you define your reality based on what you read in the media. Most people have lots else going on in their lives. You should too.
- Journalists have no insight into the sales side of the business. They are paid to write stories. Occasionally smaller, struggling or unethical publications will try to make reporters conform to the commercial side of their work – and it has literally never worked out. In short, ads don't mean squat to reporters.
- How do we put this… journalists don't care much about the people and companies they write about. It's a job, not a relationship. That's not to say you don't form professional connections but if it's a choice between a news story and someone's feelings, the story wins. The problem comes when people – like you Elon – allow media coverage to dictate their self worth. It's you that then takes it personally. The reporter is just doing what they get paid to do.
- The media is not a coherent whole. It often ends up covering the same story because that's the big thing today. But every article is written by a different person and passes through a different editor. Some reporters love covering the glitz, some love the human side of journalism; others thrive on digging out information and keeping the powers-that-be in check. And some alternate between these.
- The problem with being a public figure is that it will bring all types of journalists into your orbit. So if you are a public figure, don't make the mistake of imagining that all reporters are the same; you'll only end up confused and annoyed.
- Twitter is like journalism catnip. It is a direct line to an individual who is normally too busy or suspicious or protected to grant interviews and it is in the public sphere so it is easily grabbable, quotable and writable. Very, very few journalists ever get the opportunity – or the time – to work on potential Pulitzer winning material. The reality is you have to do a story today. And another tomorrow. And another the day after. Don't mistake attention for interest.
- In short, life can be hard. And if you’re in the public eye, it can be harder because your problems and mistakes are magnified. The solution if you want to avoid having a public meltdown is two-fold: one, stop caring so much about your public persona, it's a distorted view anyway and it will still be there tomorrow or next week; and two, learn when to put your head down and shut the fuck up.
All the best, Elon. ®