Over the past year, as Tesla has struggled to ramp up production of the Model 3 sedan, the company has made it a priority to slam news outlets that report on its alleged labor violations and manufacturing woes. On Monday, the PR strategy became utterly unhinged. The implication has become clear to reporters everywhere, one that feeds off the hardcore fanbase’s suspicions: If you’re not a booster for Tesla, you’re part of some attempt to undermine it.
Tesla is known to vigorously defend its image by relying on an aggressive media strategy that involves issuing exceedingly long statements that, over the past year, have veered into Trumpian levels of bombast. It’s not something you see from more mainstream companies—openly battling with and belittling established, hard news outlets.
Take this example from an investigation last year by The Guardian. Here’s Tesla’s response, emphasis ours:
There is no company on Earth with a better track record than Tesla, as they would have to have fewer than zero cases where an independent judge or jury has found a genuine case of discrimination. This is physically impossible. We are disappointed that The Guardian, a corporation that ironically does have a track record of proven discrimination, is displaying a complete lack of journalistic integrity by misrepresenting this matter to generate clicks.
(Last week, The Guardian reported on Tesla’s effort to settle a discrimination case for roughly $1 million, which would’ve certainly helped uphold that track record of zero cases concluding with an official finding of discrimination.)
Clicks! Yes, it’s all for the clicks. That time-tested attack against any outlet that has the gall to... publish news on the internet, in hopes people will read it.
Yet this is a constant thing from Tesla. One common target of its PR team’s ire, the Wall Street Journal, exceeds “the boundaries of journalistic integrity,” Tesla said in response to a story last fall on how many parts of the Model 3 were being made by hand, something Jalopnik corroborated in an investigation of its own.
Tesla told us that despite a story by CNBC about batteries being made by hand, it’s on track to hit Model 3 production targets; that the story is “extremely misinformed and misleading.” (And then Tesla missed its production target.)
Recall also in 2016, when on the heels of the first fatal U.S. Autopilot crash in Florida, Musk fired back at reporters criticizing the system. “Because, and really you need to think carefully about this, because if, in writing some article that’s negative, you effectively dissuade people from using an autonomous vehicle, you’re killing people,” he said.
Yes, Elon, it’s the reporters who are killing people. Sure. We are all better off if we never question you, right?
Tesla—a company valued at $50 billion that proclaims it’s creating a world-changing car that’s unparalleled in the auto industry—feels it’s being unfairly maligned by journalists who’re tasked with covering a CEO who spends an inordinate amount of time on Twitter and virtually invites coverage in doing so, especially when he says he doesn’t have time to sit for interviews:
On Monday, the company’s bizarre fight with the media reached new heights. Reveal, the magazine by the Center For Investigative Reporting, published a story that cites more than three dozen sources and alleges the company purposely underreports injuries to bolster its safety record. Here’s what Tesla said, emphasis ours again:
We welcome constructive criticism, but those who care about journalistic integrity should strive for the truth above all. Unfortunately, the writers at Reveal paint a completely false picture of Tesla and what it is actually like to work here. In our view, what they portray as investigative journalism is in fact an ideologically motivated attack by an extremist organization working directly with union supporters to create a calculated disinformation campaign against Tesla.
Yes, a news outlet that’s revered for outstanding journalism and was just named a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting is an “extremist organization.”
Tesla, in its attempt to slight Reveal, seems to lack an understanding of how journalism works. Here’s what it said in its blog post: “Since last fall, employees have complained to us that they’ve felt harassed by these reporters after being tracked down on social media, getting unexpected phone calls without knowing how their cell numbers were obtained, and even being visited in Tesla’s parking lot and at their homes unannounced.”
It’s perhaps unfortunate that workers felt this way, but this is literally what reporting is.
In one breath, Tesla tries to portray itself as a defender of journalistic integrity, while at the same time parroting the same rhetoric Trump and his ilk have relied upon to attack traditional news organizations for the past two years. It’s bullshit, even putting aside the fact that the bizarre “extremist” charge was leveled simply for talking to union supporters.
Reveal isn’t the first outlet to report on labor allegations, and it isn’t like this story came out of the blue. (Here are previous stories from The Guardian and BuzzFeed, for instance.) The NLRB itself is pursuing a complaint against Tesla, after finding merit to some of the claims. There isn’t some coordinated media campaign to work with the media to unionize the floor at Fremont. These are legal claims being levied by workers, and reporters that cover the company are simply doing their job by publishing stories on them.
But in Tesla’s eyes, that’s apparently an improper track for journalists to take. The message is simple: If you dare to report anything that makes Tesla look bad, you’re either on the take by the union effort, looking to make money by shorting $TSLA somehow, or working against the electrification of cars on behalf of Big Oil, established car companies or some other nefarious force that stands in the way of Elon Musk’s definition of progress.
Portraying Reveal as having some sort of unseemly motive, with incredibly loaded rhetoric, is merely a way to avoid addressing criticism, and it’s a shameful characterization from a company that says it wants to completely change the way we live. (Indeed, Tesla had no additional comment, when asked on Monday if it had any evidence to support its insinuation that Reveal worked “directly” with union supporters to produce its piece.)
More and more, it comes across like that’s what Tesla actually wants—a distorted outlook on traditional news outlets that falls right in line with Trump’s official take on Fake News. And though Musk fronts like other automakers don’t receive the same sort of treatment, that’s demonstrably false.
Musk himself has personally taken to Twitter to chastise reporters who cover the company, even as it acknowledges failing to uphold production goals for its existential car, the Model 3 sedan. Last year, he shouted “shame” on a conference call that included journalists, after stories emerged of Tesla allegedly firing workers for supporting a unionization effort.
We said it a year and a half ago, when Musk went apeshit over reports on the fatal crash involving Tesla’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system: that if Tesla wants to become a multi-billion-dollar company, there’s a price that comes with that. It has to be able to withstand scrutiny from a press that has a responsibility to cover the good, and the bad, of the world.