When Elon Musk tweeted Tuesday that media reports on his company’s labor practices were driven by oil industry advertising dollars, his critics and defenders of American journalism rushed to compare him to Donald Trump.
That's deeply unfair — to Trump. The president is a longtime media industry insider whose attacks on the press have been so corrosive because he knows his targets so intimately, and chooses his distortions with gleeful expertise.
Musk may be trying to ape Trump’s tactics, but his absurd charge — ask Exxon or Ford if they'd swap their press for Tesla’s — reveals something different: how little the tech barons shaping the new ways we live and consume information understand about journalism. His solution, too — the sort of crowdsourcing that was hot 15 years ago — is plainly naive. His plan is the rough equivalent of my suggesting to him that they try buying Russian missiles for SpaceX. Kind of a neat idea — anyone who follows the industry knows he already tried it. Also cringeworthy was Musk’s claim that he could have easily exposed Theranos.
There has been a recent push for what's called "media literacy," much of it focused on schools. But what about Musk? Or Mark Zuckerberg, who recently met with a group of editors, and similarly seemed to not know a lot about how our business works. Zuckerberg is nothing like Musk, and expressed his views earnestly, with none of the macho bluster. He saw the problem pretty clearly: how to ensure “a set of common facts and common understanding on top of which we can have rational discourse and make decisions,” he said during the meeting.
But his solution, like Musk’s, is essentially to crowdsource truth, and to dismiss the notion that there’s anything particularly worthwhile about the simple, imperfect profession of reporting.
Instead, Facebook is "trying to have our community tell us what is quality, and then feeding that back into" another crowdsourced measure of what is "broadly trustworthy."
In response, the New York Times’ Joe Kahn tried to explain the reality of the news business, which is both simpler to express and harder to code:
“The institutional values of most really good media companies should transcend any individual opinion,” he said. Zuckerberg’s idea of making professional reporting subservient to opinion is “part and parcel of the polarization of society.”
Forget that Musk and Zuckerberg are geniuses who run big companies. Let's just say they're reasonably educated Americans. Musk has two bachelor's degrees. Zuckerberg went to a good high school in the New York suburbs and spent some time at Harvard. So their ignorance maybe points to a bigger problem. As a smart editor pointed out to me recently, journalists should be alarmed that educated, literate Americans don’t understand how our jobs work, even if they don’t run tech companies.
There's blame to go around. People like me tend to blame legacy institutions for their theatrical opacity; traditionalists blame new institutions like mine for our part in a confusing array of new forms and models. Fair enough. A long and often (though certainly not always) deceptive conservative assault on the very idea of a neutral media, led by Fox News, also took its toll.
The good news is that journalism is not hard to understand. You don't need a college degree to practice it, much less to figure it out. None of what we do is anywhere near as hard to explain as the behavior of lithium ions or facial recognition software. Reporters call people, write down what they say, and do their best to check it out with observable facts and public documents. They're human beings subject to all the seven deadly sins — I’d list sloth and pride as journalists’ weaknesses — but there really isn't much more than meets the eye in this business. I've always been puzzled by elaborate conspiracy theories that alleged that a piece of published journalism was somehow deeply different than it seemed. (See: Bensmithing.) The work is what it is. This is a painfully simple practice.
The common errors aren’t that hard to understand either. Reporters are focused on the new thing, which sometimes creates wild hype around an exciting idea — something that has helped Musk’s company become more valuable than Ford despite never making an annual profit and accounting for just 0.2% of the US auto market. That hype also comes with a built-in backlash, and when Musk compares the media attention to one Tesla crash with the inattention to the vast carnage in conventional cars, he’s got a point. He just doesn't know what the point is.
The business of news is a bit more complicated but, again, we aren't trading credit default swaps. And if you want to get traffic on the cheap, you don’t have to have reporters like our Caroline O’Donovan and Reveal’s Will Evans spending careful days and weeks reporting on a company’s labor practices — the coverage that turned Musk into a discount Donald Trump. There are more efficient — and entirely honorable — ways to get traffic, many of which don’t involve doing journalism at all. For instance, the creation of delightful, relatable lists. Trust me on this, I work for BuzzFeed. There is certainly a huge audience for hard-hitting journalism, but nobody would tell you it's the most cost-effective way to generate traffic.
(Conveniently, Bloomberg has a piece about BuzzFeed’s business today, so I won't drone on here.)
There are many proposed solutions to the news literacy problem out there. NewsGuard offers seals of approval. The News Literacy Project designs curricula. I will talk at any length about transparency, and about treating your audience with trust and respect. If you’ve got a few dollars to spare, you can do what Jeff Bezos did: He bought a great news organization and by all accounts learned enough about the business fast to make a real impact. It's not as complicated as Alexa!
But I also like Nate Silver’s more modest suggestion. Silver wrote that Musk’s idea was the “spectacularly bad take you write when you have no fucking idea what you're talking about but want to sound like you do” and suggested that he “go spend time in an actual newsroom or get to know some journalists.”
If any of those tech barons take him up on it, they'll find that journalism isn't as complicated as AI or batteries. This is a straightforward trade, driven more by culture and values than by market tactics. I suspect they'd get bored fast. And I doubt they'd stop battling potentially damaging stories or reporters they think are idiots. Their bad faith bluster might, in Musk’s case, get more convincing.
But they might actually learn something too.