Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Beneath the Data and Rhetoric, An Appeal for Credibility

Like many in the automotive world, I was enthralled by the war of words between Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk and the New York Times over the paper’s unflattering review of the Tesla's electric Model S Sedan. 

What started off as a routine automotive review has twisted into a crisis of integrity, with journalists, Tesla owners and a trigger-happy public all too eager to fan the flames.

Twitter theatrics notwithstanding, credibility is the reason why this story stayed in the news cycle for as long as it has. On the one hand there is Elon Musk, the charismatic, outspoken, enterprising CEO hailed as a modern day equivalent of Tony Stark. On the other is the New York Times, an institution held in such high esteem that it’s been described as “necessary proof of the world’s existence”.  

Credibility is also what’s at stake. Mr Musk made a fortune from selling Paypal. But much of that fortune went into starting and, as was seen in “Revenge of the Electric Car”, sustaining Tesla Motors. Musk has put his money where his mouth is. But as Tesla's Chairman and CEO, he is also biased towards protecting his investment.

Then there’s the New York Times, a trusted, 161 year old news organization that wields tremendous influence in setting the editorial agenda and well regarded as the definitive paper of record.

The Tesla story encapsulates the essence of what is known as the “New York Times Effect”, whereby stories that were covered by the Times would be imitated or aggregated by other newspapers on the following day. The immediacy of the Internet age has sped up the process considerably, but this basic principle of trickle down influence remains the same.

But the Times isn’t infallible. It’s an organization run by people, and people make mistakes. High profile blunders like Judith Miller and Jayson Blair have seriously jeopardized the newspaper’s reputation in the past, and believability towards news organizations has been consistently declining.
In a generation empowered by the anonymous and instantaneous nature of social media, credibility that took over a century to nurture can be called into question in an instant.

Shortly after Mr. Broder’s review was published, many automotive websites and eventually mainstream news sites like NPR and Forbes picked up on the story, culminating in Elon Musk himself appearing on CNBC that same day to answer to the original Times report.

Mr Broder also broke his silence and issued a lengthy clarification to some of the more contentious points of his review.

Many news outlets and Tesla owners seized on the opportunity and sought to debunk Mr. Broder’s claims by retracing the route that he took on his test drive.  Aside from a few charging hiccups along the journey, all of the cars arrived at their destination without the dramas that Mr Broder experienced during his test. 

The Times’s public editor Margaret Sullivan issued a summary judgment on Mr Broder’s review in the hopes of pacifying the frenzy, demonstrating that when it comes to accountability, the Times isn’t above examining one of its own. 

Ms. Sullivan determined there were few “unassailable” conclusions from the story that will continue to be examined and subjected to a multitude of interpretations, and judging by the ongoing stream of news coverage and Internet commentary, the discourse shows no signs of abating.

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