NY Times Public Editor on Tesla Model S Controversy: Some Poor Driving Decisions, But Story Written in Good Faith

Tesla Model S
Tesla Model S

New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, who is charged by the paper with independently investigating matters of its own journalistic integrity, has rendered her verdict in the matter of the now infamous Tesla test drive by the paper's environmental reporter, John Broder.

That account of an ill-fated cold-weather road trip in the company's Model S electric sedan featured a photo of the vehicle being hauled on the back of a flatbed truck after Broder ran into several charging problems, resulting in a rather unpleasant experience. The article then became the subject of an intense back and forth between Broder and Tesla CEO and Chairman Elon Musk, who accused him of having rigged the drive in order to justify the story he wanted ...

 

 

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Here is the crux of what the Times' public editor determined, published today:

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.

I could recite chapter and verse of the test drive, the decisions made along the way, the cabin temperature of the car, the cruise control setting and so on. I don’t think that’s useful here.

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. Full article

If you're wondering whether the controversy is now over, well ... it just might be. Tweeted today ...

To recount the spat, after the Times published Broder's story, Musk took umbrage both in an interview on CNBC and in a blog post in which he accused Broder of "constructing a no-win scenario for any vehicle, electric or gasoline." Broder, Musk said, "simply did not accurately capture what happened and worked very hard to force our car to stop running." Musk claimed Tesla's logs of Broder's trip contradicted the reporter's account of the steps he took to keep the car running, and that he acted "expressly against the advice of Tesla personnel and in obvious violation of common sense" on the last part of the trip.

Musk also claimed that Broder was predisposed to write negatively about the vehicle, as he had displayed in his previous writing an "outright disdain for electric cars."

"When the facts didn’t suit his opinion," Musk wrote, "he simply changed the facts."

In a response, Broder defended himself by saying, as he did in the original article, that he spoke numerous times during the trip to Tesla personnel in trying to solve the charging problems. He also rebutted or at least addressed point by point Musk's accusation that the car's logs contradicted Broder's account.

The Atlantic Wire also took Musk to task in a post analyzing his critique of the reporting. The title: Elon Musk's Data Doesn't Back Up His Claims of New York Times Fakery. The conclusion:"Broder may not have used Musk's car the way Musk would like, but Musk is, for now, overhyping his case for a breach of journalism ethics."

And Mashable's Chris Taylor put up a post on Friday called "Why This Can't End Well For Tesla." Taylor's take:

If the Model S only works if you drive below the speed limit between charging stations, if you have to charge it all the way every time, if you need to follow the advice of Tesla PR reps to the letter at every juncture — whether or not the writer did — then it is a car that is asking for a perfect human to operate it.

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Tesla shares finished off more than 3 percent today.

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