There was questionable ethical conduct galore in the recently-stilled ethics wreck sparked by a New York Times review of the new Tesla electric car, the Model S. Times reporter John Broder test drove the car from Washington, D.C., to Boston, using the charging stations Tesla has opened along the way. Broder’s Tesla ran out of juice, and the article concluded with a sad photo of the highly-anticipated Model S on a tow truck. In short, it was not a positive review.
In response to the review, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk called it a “fake” on Twitter, then wrote a rebuttal using the data logs of the vehicle Broder tested. Broder wrote a rebuttal to the rebuttal, and eventually the Times “public editor” (others would call her its ombudsman), Margaret Sullivan, was drawn into the battle, performing an investigation and concluding that…
“…I am convinced that [Broder] took on the test drive in good faith, and told the story as he experienced it. Did he 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, which Mr. Musk has used, in the most damaging (and sometimes quite misleading) ways possible, as he defended his vehicle’s reputation…People will go on contesting these points – and insisting that they know what they prove — and that’s understandable. 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.”
Perhaps realizing that his vigorous defense of his car had triggered the Streisand Effect, Musk took to Twitter again, this time saying that the ombudsmadam’s article was “thoughtful” and that his faith in the Times was hereby restored. This put a nicely disingenuous spin on the whole episode.
Here is the final ethics tally:
John Broder: Broder’s job was to test drive the Tesla in cold weather and see if the charging stations kept it running. He did this, as Sullivan obliquely admits, without reading the vehicle’s manual or following the recommendations about how to maximize performance. Calling this blatant failure of competence and diligence “not particularly” good judgment ranks as a ridiculous understatement. It’s not “not particularly” good judgment if a film reviewer skips the first 20 minutes of the film, leaves before it ends, and writes a dismissive review, it is sabotage. It’s not “not particularly” good judgment if a food critic slathers salt and pepper on his meal and then complains about its seasoning, it’s dishonest. Broder did not, as Sullivan alluded to but avoided explicitly stating herself, use The ‘Max Range” setting, which would have given his car 20-30 miles more range, the “Range Mode” setting, which would have conserved power during the trip, or leave his Model S the vehicle plugged in when not in use, the method advised by the user’s manual to preserve the battery. Not only didn’t he do these things, he didn’t specifically tell readers that he wasn’t doing these things; he just let them think that the car, rather than the reviewer, was the lemon. It was incompetent reporting, negligent reviewing, and a dishonest and unfair representation.
Elon Musk: He cannot be faulted for defending his company’s vehicle, especially against a hack job like Broder’s that could have, and apparently has, negatively affected sales. I fault him for…
- Accusing Broder of faking his review, which would mean that he set out to make the car fail. I think Broder’s conduct amounted to virtual sabotage, but no one can or should say that it was intentional. There are few fields where Hanlon’s Razor is more applicable than 21st Century American journalism.
- Falsely crediting Sullivan with a “thoughtful” article when in fact she performed an unethical whitewash.
Tesla: Few knew that Tesla was monitoring the driving choices of its customers. As one critic put it,
“…my biggest takeaway was”the frickin’ car company knows when I’m running the heater?” That’s a bigger story than the bad review and Tesla is now stuck with it. They can protest all that they want that they’ll never actually use that data or even look at it. Then they can sit in detention with Facebook and Google.”
Apparently Tesla customers are asked to consent to such monitoring, but before this incident, it’s doubtful that they knew what they were agreeing to. Tesla didn’t tell Broder that they were spying on his trip, however. That was deceptive and wrong.
Margaret Sullivan: Sullivan as she has through most of her tenure as public editor, devoted her energies to covering for her newspaper. Broder’s conduct was unprofessional and sloppy, with the result that Times readers were misled, and a company’s product was disparaged. She had an obligation to say so, not to defend him, and her mealy-mouthed last paragraph about there being “still plenty to argue about and few conclusions that are unassailable” smacks of the results of legal department memo suggesting the Broder’s negligence could open the way for a law suit, if she definitively flagged it.
Over the weekend, the Washington Post’s ombudsman, Patrick B. Pexton, a.k.a “the Worst Ombudsman ever”, wrote a column bemoaning the fact that newspapers like the Post seemed likely to eliminate positions like his because of shrinking circulation and budgets. “Can I say for certain that an ombudsman makes The Post more credible? No, I can’t point to any good study saying that,” he wrote. “But people’s trust in the media is declining. Eliminating the ombudsman seems a shortsighted move.”
Not if the people they would hire can’t do a better job than Margaret Sullivan and Pexton, it’s not. A real, objective, critical and independent ombudsman would be a real asset to any news media source, but tepid, fearful, biased house defenders like them are a waste of money.