“Problem is journos are under constant pressure to get max clicks & earn advertising dollars or get fired,” Musk tweeted. “Anytime anyone criticizes the media, the media shrieks ‘You’re just like Trump!'” he added, dismissing the reporters from Reveal who had published an expose of safety conditions at the Tesla plant as “some rich kids in Berkeley who took their political science prof too seriously.”
While stitching close the wounds that his blows had opened on its psyche, the press corps repelled Musk’s attack with blanket coverage in the New York Times, CNN, Time, the Washington Post, the BBC, Vanity Fair, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere that made him look like a peevish nut.
But the joke was on the press. In slagging journalism, Musk wasn’t speaking for himself exclusively. He was mouthing the sentiments of his Silicon Valley brethren, from millionaires to billionaires, who disdain the news media as full-of-itself, inaccurate, trivia-obsessed objects of pity. Places like Facebook and Google look down on the press as once-dominant institutions whose advertising mojo and cultural primacy they made off with a decade ago. Amazon has such contempt for the press that it rarely answers queries from reporters. Steve Jobs established an equally controlling protocol at Apple, where he tamed and spoon-fed the press the messages that would redound to his company’s benefit. Apple has whitelisted some friendly reporters, giving them scoops, and blacklisted others, who are given nothing. Tech entrepreneurs like Musk believe that they’re doing god’s work-and you’ve got to admit that building a car company and a rocket company from scratch is pretty godly-and they hate being second-guessed by their inferiors who might be only a couple of years out of journalism school and a couple jobs into their career.
Scorn for the press wasn’t invented in Silicon Valley. Reporters get Musk-quality guff from police department public information officers and from potentates working in other business sectors. But at least the cops and the businessmen still take calls from newsrooms. The tech crowd thinks that responding to the press-except at product-launch time, when a little publicity can help move units-is a waste of time. The press, in the Valley mindset, is a relic from the 20th century, a low-bandwidth, dying thing, like an AM radio that deserved to be ignored-and if not ignored, beaten like a mule for its stupidity. Inside their heads, the top techies, drunk on their billions, believe they belong to a glorious future of prosperity and choice and miracles and that paving over the past is the fastest way to get there.
Writing for the Guardian in 2016, the journalist Nellie Bowles caught Silicon Valley grinning when it learned that Facebook board member and billionaire investor Peter Thiel had financed the legal demolition of Gawker over the Hulk Hogan video. Gawker had the temerity to write about the private lives of tech bigshots, and the consensus in the Valley was that Gawker had gotten what it deserved. Bowles pointed to this telling tweet by venture capitalist legend Vinod Khosla, who spoke for many of his valley pals when he wrote, “I’m glad #theil has ability to respond and willing to stand up for it. press gets very uppity when challenged.” For Khosla, the enemy wasn’t just provocateurs like Nick Denton at Gawker but the mainstream press. In another tweet, Khosla derided the New York Times as “click bait journalism.”
Tech disparagement of the press isn’t uniform. Jeff Bezos, whose Amazon declines to speak to the press with robotic regularity, rescued the Washington Post with his billions and has returned it to somewhere near its former glory. The billionaire founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar, has bankrolled First Look Media, which publishes a scoopy and combative news site, The Intercept. But Bezos and Omidyar are outliers.
The Valley’s anti-press vision fails to acknowledge good reporting. The work of John Carreyrou, whose diligent and brave reporting in the Wall Street Journal broke the back of the blood-testing startup Theranos, cuts against the stereotype of journalists as meddlesome, know-nothing interlopers who prevent the Valley gods from delivering their boons to mankind. The press helped expose the fetid workplace culture of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Reporters deserve credit for belatedly holding Facebook to account. The Information has earned a reputation for accurate, substantial reporting on tech, so not all journalists need to cower before Musk’s fury.
But only a sliver of Musk’s complaint-his act of press criticism-concerns itself with accuracy. After all, he’s been the beneficiary of some of the most flattering profiles and news accounts going. He went interstellar on the asses of journalists this week not so much over the critical stories they’ve written but the fact that they have written at all. His main objection is all the scrutiny! The rich have rarely enjoyed being contradicted or second-guessed by the press. As the rich have become richer and richer-Musk has a net worth of almost $20 billion-their tolerance for criticism diminishes. Think of Musk’s outburst as the first fissure from a field of volcanoes that are overdue for an eruption.
Don’t miss Ben Smith’s column, which gives Musk a journalism lesson. As I finished this piece, Felix Salmon’s fine meditation on how Musk is beating the press arrived on my desktop. Send your meditations to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts pour Twitter lava into the fire-taming ocean that is my RSS feed.