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Tesla, the New York Times and the levelling of the media playing field

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If you’ve been following the back-and-forth recently between pioneering electric-car maker Tesla Motors and the New York Times — which published what the company thought was an unfair review of its vehicle — you know that it has become a war of words in which both sides are claiming the moral high ground and using every tool at their disposal to win support for their position. What’s interesting about this incident from a media perspective is that the two sides are far more evenly matched than they would have been at almost any other time in history.

As my GigaOM colleague Katie Fehrenbacher has pointed out in her overview of the story, what started out as a simple review of the Tesla S — and a demonstration of Tesla’s new “supercharger” stations on the Eastern seaboard — turned into a massive PR battle between the company’s CEO Elon Musk and the newspaper and its reviewer, John Broder. Musk alleged that Broder wasn’t totally truthful in his review, and the NYT responded both with a defensive piece from Broder and an investigation by Margaret Sullivan, its public editor.

Tesla is also a media company now

Electric cars like the Tesla S may be fairly new, but companies getting upset about the way they are portrayed in the media probably dates back to when the news first arrived on clay tablets. What’s different now is something Dan Frommer put his finger on in a post, and something we’ve pointed out a number of times before — in a very real sense, Tesla Motors is a media company with all (or at least most) of the same tools of influence at its disposal as the New York Times. Says Frommer:

“Even a few years ago, something like this probably would have required finding a rival newspaper — the Wall Street Journal, perhaps — to collaborate on a takedown. Or maybe an expensive full-page ad campaign in the top five papers, which would have looked defensive and seemed less convincing. But now that every smart company has a regularly updated blog… brands can speak for themselves very powerfully.”

ReporterBlogging pioneer Dave Winer likes to call this phenomenon “the sources going direct,” and what he means is that people and entities that used to be seen primarily as sources of information for the news media to make use of — whether a company or a politician, a celebrity or an entity like WikiLeaks — have the ability to reach out to potential supporters and detractors directly, without having to go through traditional intermediaries like newspapers or journalists, or even marketing firms and public-relations advisors.

In a very real sense, everyone is a media entity of some kind now. That doesn’t mean someone with a few hundred followers on Twitter is the equivalent of the New York Times, but it does mean that a large corporation like Tesla Motors is on a much more level playing field with the newspaper than it would ever have been before. In the past, if Tesla didn’t like a review, it could a) call and complain, b) put out a press release and try to get a competitor interested in a story c) launch an expensive lawsuit (which Musk has also done in the past).

What happens when the sources go direct?

Does this levelling of the playing field make things better or worse? That depends on your perspective. If you’re the New York Times, it is definitely worse, since everything you write is now subject to criticism — criticism that in some cases may get more attention than the original piece (which is one of the reasons Margaret Sullivan’s job as public editor exists). If you’re Tesla Motors or any other commercial entity, however, it’s an unprecedented opportunity to shift the balance of power.


And what about society, or journalism in general — is it better off when this happens? There are two ways of looking at that question too: if you want to make it easier to figure out who is right and who is wrong, the current state of affairs isn’t going to help. The only thing that becomes obvious from the back-and-forth between Tesla and the New York Times is that it’s very difficult, and perhaps even impossible, to tell who is right on specific points. Some political topics are also arguably getting harder to understand rather than easier.

If you operate on the principle that having more information and points of view is usually better, however, then it is almost certainly a good thing to have every actor and politician and CEO become a media entity — even if that makes the media business itself a lot more complicated.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock / saiko3p and Flickr user Yan-Arief Purwanto

22 Responses to “Tesla, the New York Times and the levelling of the media playing field”

  1. William Loeffler

    While companies such as Tesla now have an outlet to rebut the NYtimes story, it wouldn’t have gained the attention it did if the company hadn’t presented concise and specific facts related to their electric car. If the argument is simply a grievance without substance, then an online audience isnt’ likely to be swayed.

  2. One of the things being overlooked is that part of why Tesla did so well is that Musk can WRITE… While newspapers as such are going into decline, jobs for writers / non newspaper journalists will be picked up elsewhere. You’d be mad as a large company / organization not to have your own staff journalists…

  3. Lloyd Trufelman

    Perhaps too much is being made of the amazing “new” PR capabilities of social media. In the end, it’s just another media/distribution platform. Yes, a very efficient one tactically, but not that differently strategically from such older PR messaging technologies, as fax broadcasting, or even telegrams, which in their respective heydays, allowed PR people to get their message out to the media and individual influencers relatively quickly and directly…

  4. This NYTimes article should never have been published. Did they forget to have someone fact check the story first? Tesla has data to back their car, whereas NYTimes relies on memories and notes? Furthermore, both Consumer Report and CNN are able to complete the same trip, so if Broder is right then CR and CNN are wrong?

  5. Erwin Smole

    Reporter are opinion maker and they should be aware of this role. I don’t want to check all possible twitter accounts etc if I read an article. An article in NYT is one of the parameters of influencing buyers decision. Thanks to Tesla that they have the power that news get aware when they are publishing data. What about all the other articles which had not the chance and community like Tesla? Unbelievable that NYT is reacting in a proper way …

  6. The story took a jump today when Tesla S owners replicated the drive up the East Coast to gather even more data on the car’s ability to perform the trip. We wrote it up here:

    As you point out, this isn’t a story about electric cars or supercharger networks…this is a story about the balancing of the power between the media and those who have the details. In this case, Tesla claimed to have the log data and now the customers will have other sets of data that can be compared to the single set gathered during the reviewer’s drive.

    This is a test of who has better information and the New York Times is at a distinct disadvantage. Expect to see this more going forward.

  7. Edwin Ritter

    Reblogged this on Ritter's Ruminations & Ramblings and commented:
    As Tesla and the NYT go toe to toe, they are using media tools to make their case. This could be a precedent for firms to directly engage a media company in a war of words. I am interested to see how this will play out. Who will the next to ‘battle’ a review it disagrees with?

  8. Matt Eagar

    I wouldn’t go as far as @realjjj to say that there are no qualified tech reporters in the mainstream press, but there is an issue here. Actually, there are two issues: 1) journalists don’t have a lot of time to spend with each product they review (because there are so many products out there), and 2) “tech” is an overly broad term that applies to many extremely differentiated industries, thereby making it nigh impossible for one or two reporters on the tech beat to have a prayer of being well-informed on a given topic.

    The thing is, though, if you are a product company sometimes you really need these journalists to be experts and to spend the time, or you don’t have much of a chance. Unfortunately, this means it often comes down to connections – who has the best PR people, or perhaps an influential investor team that has brought good stories to top journalists before. That grates on our American sense of meritocracy, but it’s life. Tesla starts out a few yards ahead because they don’t suffer from this anonymity.

    Let’s say you finally get some consideration. When a journalist gets your product wrong, it’s natural to feel frustrated and even angry, so I am not surprised at Mr Musk’s responses. On the other hand, if you are making a consumer product, then a journalist’s confusion over or misuse of your product should also be telling you something: not all is wonderful with what you have created. That may be a hard pill to swallow, but it’s a valuable data point that is worthy of deeper consideration.

    That’s where I think Mr Musk has it wrong. His frustration shouldn’t be aimed at the Times, but rather at the flaws in his product. Maybe they are marketing it wrong. Maybe they did a poor job of educating the consumer (journalist). Maybe the product itself doesn’t provide an adequate solution. But if an objective journalist has trouble with your product, then chances are a large chunk of the public is going to experience the same difficulty, and that is going to hurt the company long term much more than a bad review or two.

  9. Tesla-Space X-and Elon Musk to save mankind!! Fun and fast paced new science fiction novel
    A must read–God Shuffled His Feet—A Novel by Mark Ellenbogen
    Available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Goodreads.
    Exciting fun novel with a humorous apocalyptic twist. Elon Musk-Tesla and Space X help save mankind from total destruction! Meet astronomers Ravi Najir and Sam Klein, two PHD doctoral students from Humboldt, California, about to have their world turned upside down—-literally. The duo wins a $250,000 grant and a coveted year long viewing slot using the Hubble Space Telescope to observe the heavens. Little do they know that what they are about discover, will rock the Earth, their lives, and the heavens all at once!
    High in the far reaches of space, up where the Crab Nebula is supposed to be, a new solar system has formed and Klein and Najir are about to discover it. Within minutes of accessing their chosen Hubble coordinates, two new celestial bodies are discovered where none existed before!!
    Dubbing their discovery the Master Kush Formation; the two unlikely heroes are quickly rocketed to fame and glory over night. A new sun and a fully habitable blue-green planet have taken the place of the Crab Nebula. God plans to wipe the Earth clean and start over!!!
    The clock is ticking and time is running out. Only a few will make it. The boys enlist the help of Elon Musk, Tesla and Space X to manage the technology and transport the saved. Do you have what it takes? Open up God Shuffled His Feet for the ride of your life!! Peppered with interesting trivia, thoughtful humor and some suspenseful science fiction God Shuffled His Feet will entertain while provoking some thought in the process.

  10. Juha Saarinen

    Not sources, the subjects of stories. That’s been happening for ages, and is usually intermediated by PR.

    Musk isn’t a source, and he most certainly has a conflict of interest here. This is direct marketing using the Internet really, and not new as such. Nothing has shifted apart from the money that was spent on indirect advertising now going on this form of very effective direct marketing communications and which has the side effect of killing off media.

    The curious thing for me is how people take the data and unthinkingly assumes it truthfully represents one particular version of the story – Musk’s one. That speaks volumes as to how effective his communications strategy is.

  11. The real problem is that the mainstream press doesn’t have a single qualified tech reporter.
    You got proper reviews,with real testing and numbers and a defined methodology , then you got pseudo reviews on tech blogs where a product is somewhat tested and then you got the mainstream press with some journalist that has no clue what he is doing using a product for a while and writing w/e utterly irrelevant review he can come up with.
    The quality of tech coverage on NYT or Reuters (and everybody else) is incredibly poor, they report on subjects they are not even a little bit familiar with.
    If NYT covered politics as badly as tech they wouldn’t sell a single paper, unless they change their name to The Onion.
    Tesla having a voice is good and maybe one of these days a similar incident will force NYT to hire qualified journalists and editors.
    The consumer can easily figure out who is right, they read a proper review from a reliable source..

    PS; i do use and appreciate NYT and Reuters otherwise ,they can do good work, just not when it comes to tech.

  12. Before commenting everyone should watch who killed the electric car. When you do you will realize there is more to the story then what appears at the surface.When you see how hard it is to bring a good electric car to market and somthing like this is said its all in .Way to go tesla behind you 100% and my next car will come from your factory!!!!!!

    • Pluto crat03

      Puleez, that movie was a hack job. One of the most transparent propaganda pieces in decades.

      That said , seems the NYT has stretched the truth in their story. I bet the never thought that Tesla would have a record of how the reporter treated their car! How many product reviews or political stories have been skewed by biased reporting?

    • Efficiency killed the electric car. What they fail to emphasize in that doc. and in much of the electric car debate is that most electricity comes from fossil fuels. Converting fossil fuels to electricity then carry it to a recharging station, then storing it in a battery, then converting it to mechanical power is not efficient.

      • Wrong the first electric car was invented in 1928 by Tesla and in was never plugged in it pulled the power out of the air check and see who owns the patents then wonder why we are not talking about that ! We currently have batteries that will do 200 miles per charge who bought the patents that’s right big oil its fact not fiction!They call it protecting their investments. I call it a crime.

  13. Maybe everyTwitter account is not like the NY TImes but one single Author, @Paulo Coelho, matches the Times Twitter account, @NYTimes, in numbers and growth; each has 7+ million followers which grow by a few thousand each day. Seems @NYTimes works a great deal harder and spends much more to maintain it’s numbers than the diminuitive free-spirited author of the ALCHEMIST etc. from Brazil. True, the Times have changed.

  14. This is the same NYT that covered up the Soviets’ Holodomor Famine in the Ukraine, of Walter Duranty and Jayson Blair infamy. Good for Tesla for standing up to this rag of the dinosaur legacy, establishment media. Before the internet, this would have signed Tesla’s death warrant. No wonder the Times supports licensing requirements for journalists.

  15. Generally I think it’s a good thing that everyone could have their voices. People will listen to both sides of the story and make their own judgement. And usually the more you discuss and dig something, the closer it will be for the public to reach the truth.
    I was reading most of the comments on this NYT vs Tesla drama from different websites. Some provide photos, some provide perspectives, I can compare all these and figure out the big picture much easier than with only NYT’s article and Tesla’s blog. I felt empowered. That. Is the most important implication to me from this. The public is empowered eventually.
    Just my 2 cents.