Tesla vs. New York Times: Epilogue
The saga so far...In case you missed it, there was a huge controversy last week surrounding a review of the Tesla Model S electric car and Tesla's East Coast Supercharger network published in the New York Times. The journalist, John Broder, penned a rather negative piece that ended with the dreaded tow truck scene. It didn't take long for Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk to respond on Twitter, calling the review a "fake" and saying that he had the car's logs to prove it. Broder then wrote a follow up to defend himself, Musk released the logs along with graphs and maps, Broder counter-attacked... Meanwhile, almost every media outlet chimed in and took sides, CNN published its experience on the same drive ("it wasn't that hard"), etc.
Where we are nowThe latest round started when the New York Times' public editor, Margaret Sullivan, published a piece on the controversy. What she says has further divided people, in that it seems to be a Rorschach test, with people seeing what they want to see in it. Those who took the NYT's side only remember Ms. Sullivan saying:
"I do not believe Mr. Broder hoped the drive would end badly. I am convinced that he took on the test drive in good faith, and told the story as he experienced it. [...] In the matter of the Tesla Model S and its now infamous test drive, there is still plenty to argue about and few conclusions that are unassailable."
Fans of Tesla will highlight this part with their (virtual) yellow marker:
"Did [Broder] use good judgment along the way? Not especially. In particular, decisions he made at a crucial juncture – when he recharged the Model S in Norwich, Conn., a stop forced by the unexpected loss of charge overnight – were certainly instrumental in this saga’s high-drama ending.
In addition, Mr. Broder left himself open to valid criticism by taking what seem to be casual and imprecise notes along the journey, unaware that his every move was being monitored. A little red notebook in the front seat is no match for digitally recorded driving logs".
Elon Musk certainly falls in the second camp. He published another blog post that more or less declares victory, even if the NYT's statement was a lot more ambiguous:
Yesterday, The New York Times reversed its opinion on the review of our Model S and no longer believes that it was an accurate account of what happened. After investigating the facts surrounding the test drive, the Public Editor agreed that John Broder had “problems with precision and judgment," “took casual and imprecise notes” and made “few conclusions that are unassailable.”
We would like to thank Margaret Sullivan and The New York Times for looking into this matter and thoughtfully considering the public evidence, as well as additional evidence provided on background. A debt of appreciation is also owed to other media outlets, such as CNN, CNBC, and Consumer Reports, who repeated The New York Times test drive at normal highway speeds and comfortable cabin temperatures without ever running out of range. (source)
Regardless or whether I think Elon Musk is right or not on the facts of the actual test-drive, I think he went a bit too far here. He makes it sound as if the NYT was completely retracting the story and about to fire Broder, while their position seems a lot more nuanced and "between two chairs" than that.
I know that Musk and Tesla has probably been a bit traumatized by their Top Gear experience with the Roadster, but they should be careful about not going too far. They've built a fantastic company against all odds, right in the middle of the worst global financial crisis in decades. They've shipped products that they customers love, and they're scaling up with the goal of making EVs that are affordable to the masses, while also building the infrastructure that will make plug-ins viable. That's more than enough to earn people's respect.
Musk was right to question the test-drive and to show the logs, but maybe he was a bit too aggressive and pushed some of his conclusions a bit too far. That doesn't absolve Broder; anyone with a bit of common sense would simply have left the car plugged in a bit longer, or overnight, and would have made it without problem. Is this the end of Tesla vs. New York Times? It appears so.
© Michael Graham Richard