A fascinating conflict is brewing between Elon Musk the founder of Tesla Motors and John Broder, a reporter for the NY Times who reviewed the Tesla Model S.
Margaret Sullivan, the NY Times public editor has a good summary of the dispute, so far.
Some obvious observations.
1. The whole thing is good for Tesla. I hadn’t seen the original review, but after seeing Musk’s initial review-of-the-review, I became interested. Someday I might buy a Tesla as a result of the increased interest. It’ll take a number of events like this to get me to buy, but a car is a big purchase, so it seems it should take a lot of work to close the deal.
2. Before this, the most memorable thing I had heard about the Tesla was from Evan Williams who said it was the iPhone of cars. That made sense to me, and Williams saying it made a difference. I believe he understands what makes an iPhone nice. And cars are not designed like iPhones, but it might be nice if they were. 🙂
3. Had it been any publication other than the Times, they wouldn’t have had Margaret Sullivan to rep the news side of it. This is possibly a big deal. I have been impressed with Ms Sullvivan’s work so far, after being very irritated by her predecessors. They didn’t seem to rep the public. Mostly they explained why the Times insiders were right all along and the public was wrong.
4. Even though I’m a fan, I think public editors should be from the public, not journalism. And a publication of the stature of the Times should have many of them. The rule is they could put something on the Times website, adjacent to the articles they’re commenting on, and they could say whatever they need to say to create balance. They wouldn’t have indefinite terms, and it would be possible to fire them, but only if they breached ethical standards themselves.
- Some stories need lots of public editors, and maybe the public editors should be given anonymity. An example is the run-up to the war in Iraq when all the publications carried the same wrong story. Another, more recent example is the telling of the life story of Aaron Swartz. I knew Aaron, and I read many of the stories, shaking my head at the awful reporting. You can forgive Aaron’s friends for distorting the truth, perhaps — they were grieving. But what were the reporters’ excuses? If they were emotionally tied to the story they should have been excused. The purpose of a news publication is to tell the truth, especially if it’s unpopular. The Times has a public editor because it wasn’t living up to this ideal, and they knew it, and presumably wanted to do something to fix it. But it’s too big a job for just one person.
5. All pubs should have someone like Ms Sullivan. Over the years, I’ve had a number of disputes that cut to the integrity of reporters at major publications, like the one Mr Musk has with the Times. None of them have had public editors, and none of them ever resolved the issue one way or the other. One even threatened to sue me for libel if I didn’t stop saying they were doing something wrong (a British publication). Imagine if a software company threatened every user who reported a bug. I told them to go ahead. At least it would have raised the issue in a way they would have had to respond to.
6. Just like all software has bugs, all publications have breaches of integrity. The question isn’t whether or not you have them, you do. The question is what you do when someone raises an issue.
7. I’ve long felt that each blogger who values his or her reputiation should have a panel of “rabbis” who will respond to public integrity challenges. If my rabbis say I have to address a certain issue, then I will. If they say it’s not an issue, I can go about my business without responding. This would do a lot to increase confidence, and also protect us from troll-like accusations. I think it’s possible the same system could work for publications too. Sort of a shared public editor function, for organizations that don’t have the resources to hire one of their own.
8. It’s possible that Musk is a troll. It’s also possible that Broder made it up. I don’t expect Sullivan to say either of these things unless it’s so obvious as to be indisputable. And it won’t be. She will tell us what both sides say and will look at the data herself. She’ll look at what others say, and will suggest that while Musk has a fine product he has probably engaged in a little self-promotion here. And that the Times can and should have some new policy for testing cars. We will get a decent list of sources to examine ourselves, and we will, as always, make up our own minds.