Elon Musk Unmasked: Creating the Genius Myth (Part 2)
Elon Musk is man, but he’s also a character that he crafted and which the media blew up to unimaginable scale. Without the media, Musk would not be the man he is today because that myth — and the way it exaggerated some of his traits and virtually hid others — was essential to his success. This is episode 2 of Elon Musk Unmasked, a special four-part series from Tech Won’t Save Us.
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ELON MUSK: Some could interpret purchasing this car as behavior characteristic of an imperialistic brat.
In 1999, Elon Musk and his partner Justine were on a street in Silicon Valley waiting for the delivery of his million-dollar McLaren F1 supercar. But they weren’t alone. A camera crew from CNN was with them, aiming to show the riches being pulled in by the nouveau riche of the tech industry.
Musk had recently received his multi-million-dollar payout from the sale of Zip2, and was not only splurging on an ostentatious toy, but also starting to try to build his profile as more than just another kid who cashed in on the dot-com boom. The CNN cameras captured Musk’s awkward demeanor, ill-fitting suit, and thinning hairline — the latter of which he’s since filled in — but he was determined to become someone else.
When Salon profiled Musk that year, they spoke to Richard Sorkin, the man who took over as chief executive of Zip2 when Musk was made chief technology officer. He said the crux of their disagreement was over the company’s profile, and specifically whether its product should be targeted at businesses or consumers. Musk wanted to go for the public — not because there was a real business case to do that, but so they’d know the brand and the man behind it. The Salon reporter asked Sorkin if it was because Musk wanted to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. Sorkin said, “Yes. For Elon that’s what general visibility meant.”
Remember, Musk was reading books about business leaders and was actively looking to have the media pay attention to him. The Salon article gave some further insight into how he planned to do that: with splashy displays like the McLaren F1 purchase. The journalist explained,
The public relations machinery of the technology industry exists largely to maintain the fiction that the multimillionaires contemporary California produces in unseemly abundance are really just average, cubicle-dwelling Joes. … The problem with all that is, in fact, the showiness, the chutzpah, the streak of self-promotion and the urge to create a dramatic public persona are major elements of what makes up the Silicon Valley entrepreneur. … Musk’s ego has gotten him in trouble before, and it may get him in trouble again, yet it is also part and parcel of what it means to be a hotshot entrepreneur.
So, Musk knew that in order to get attention, he had to do things that would warrant it. His star wasn’t going to rise all on its own, especially with so many code monkeys launching their own startups to try to cash in on the boom.
Even in that moment, CNN caught Musk admitting that the money was already getting to him.
ELON MUSK: [weird laugh] My values may have changed, but I’m not consciously aware of my values having changed.
Justine, his partner and future wife he’d met at Queen’s University in Canada, put it much more directly as she watched her dear Elon obsessing over his overhyped and overpriced car.
JUSTINE WILSON: My fear is that we become spoiled brats. That we lose a sense of appreciation and perspective.
Money blinds people. It’s a thought to keep in mind as we keep tracing Elon’s evolution — and how he crafts his own narrative.
This is Elon Musk Unmasked, a special four-part series from Tech Won’t Save Us, assembled by me, Paris Marx. I’ve been hosting this show for three-and-a half years and writing about Musk for many more. I’ve even been called the left’s leading Muskologist, for all that’s worth.
In last week’s episode, we dug into the years in Elon Musk’s life before he became anyone of note in Silicon Valley. We traced his journey from South Africa through Canada to the Bay Area, and even went back to look at his family life and the influences that shaped him — from his insatiable appetite for science fiction to his upbringing in apartheid South Africa. We also saw how Musk has been changing his story over the years to suit his own purposes, and as he began to build his reputation in tech, he also sought to build a reputation for himself that would set him apart from other start-up founders and begin his transformation into a business celebrity.
In the second episode of the series, we’ll be digging into the creation of the narrative of Elon Musk’s genius to much greater effect. Elon Musk is a man, there’s no doubt about it, but he’s also a character that he began to create on his own and then informally partnered with the media to take to a level he likely could have never imagined in those early days. And once that narrative was set, his celebrity and the wealth that accompanied it ensured he would have a lot of power to shape circumstances to his ends — regardless of whether they truly benefited anyone else at the end of the day.
But building the character of Elon Musk took time and work — it didn’t all happen at once. And to do so, some aspects of his personality had to be exaggerated, others had to be wholly fabricated, and more still had to be ignored or explained away so they didn’t distract from the image of a paragon of progress that was being created. We’ll explore the layers of that project, and the challenges that arose for anyone who tried to inject a little reality into the equation.
This series was made possible by our supporters over on Patreon, and if you learn something from it, I’d ask you to consider joining them at patreon.com/techwontsaveus.
So, with that said, let’s continue unmasking Elon Musk.
[BUILDING HIS PROFILE]
Before we get into the role of the media, we need to talk about X.com.
With plenty of cash in his pocket after the Zip2 sale to Compaq, Elon Musk was still thinking about his internship at Scotiabank and his feeling that banks didn’t know what they were doing — even though his big idea to make the bank billions likely wouldn’t have worked out. Jimmy Soni, author of The Founders, writes that Musk would describe banks as a “bunch of mainframes, ancient mainframes, running ancient code, doing batch processing with poor security, and a series of heterogeneous databases — like this herky-jerky frickin’ monstrosity.” In short, he thought they were “lame” and instead planned to build his own “Amazon of financial services” called X.com.
Now, I apologize for subjecting you to this clip — if you think Musk lacks charisma today, you should see some of these videos from back in the day. But in 2003, this is how he described his decision to go into online banking.
ELON MUSK: So post-the sale, in fact immediately post-the sale, I didn’t really take any time off, I tried to think where were the opportunities in early ’99, where the opportunities remained in the internet and it seemed to me that there hadn’t been a lot of innovation in the financial services sector, and when you think about it money is low bandwidth, you don’t need some sort of big infrastructure improvement to do things with it. It’s really just an entry in the database. The paper form of money is really only a small percentage of all the money that’s out there, so it should lend itself to innovation on the internet.
These ramblings might sound ridiculous, but it’s important that we hear them. From these quotes, we can see how Musk often thinks through a very narrow technological lens: if an industry is using older computers, an older programming language, an older database structure then they must be able to be improved by a tech bro like himself riding in on the wave of the internet revolution. There’s a strong and unyielding belief in the power of new technology to wipe out what already exists — and young men like himself being responsible for facilitating it.
As an early X.com employee told Soni, “Elon’s business plan was basically ‘I’m an internet guy. I can do this. This will be the first Silicon Valley-funded bank, so therefore, it will be more successful than all the others’.” You can see how the hubris was already working its way into Musk’s psyche. When he spoke to Salon in 1999, they asked him what his talent was, and he replied not engineering or anything like that, but “I know how to build a killer Internet company with a solid foundation. I didn’t know anything about the media business when starting Zip2, but figured it out along the way. Actually, I’ve found that being an outsider helps you to think creatively about improving the way things are done.” The journalist quickly undercut that point, accurately observing, “Compaq’s decision to buy Zip2 in February 1999, in fact, might count as one of the more notable corporate rescue missions in Internet history.” Musk didn’t get rich because he built a great business, but because the whole sector was soaring and the board brought in competent leadership that could offload the company onto some old-guard electronics company.
This idea that it’s actually a virtue to be clueless about an industry you’re entering is echoed by many of the men who got rich off PayPal — a group often termed the “PayPal Mafia.” But that’s often not the case, as we’ll explore further in the next episode. Consider, for example, how Musk wanted X.com to bring all financial services under one roof, combining retail banking with investment banking. The problem was that in 1999 that was still illegal under the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which was passed during the Great Depression to place stricter regulations on the banking industry and avert a repeat of the 1929 stock market crash. At the time, Musk was determined to ignore the regulations. Soni quotes an associate who recounts him saying, “We shouldn’t be afraid to break a few eggs along the way.” Luckily for Musk, that wasn’t necessary. President Bill Clinton repealed key sections of the Act later that year, but it was not so lucky for people the world over. Deregulating the US banking industry, and specifically the repeal of those sections of Glass-Steagall, is cited as one of the key factors in encouraging the behavior that ultimately crashed the global economy in 2008. Oops!
Here’s how Musk described X.com, his big plan to transform the banking industry, in 2008:
ELON MUSK: So I tried to think of what could be, you know, what is something compelling that could be done and I thought well if we can combine all all types of financial services in one, so you have like the mortgages and like basically all your entire financial relationship seamlessly integrated together in one place online that would be cool, and then there was a little feature that just seems like an obvious feature which was ability to transfer money from one person to another by entering a unique identifier like a email address. That was like just sort of a little feature but then whenever we demonstrate the product, people wouldn’t get excited about the consolidated financial services but they would get excited about emailing money so we started focusing our energy on that and that really ended up being the big driver of growth.
In that clip, where Musk is looking back at something he’d done almost a decade earlier, he’s presenting the rosy version. The reality is that Musk was quite frustrated that users were more into internet payments than his financial superstore — and that would continue to cause problems at the company. Before the X.com website had even launched, Musk was already hyping the company up to the media — including with that Salon piece I’ve quoted. Soni explains that Musk “had a special knack for capturing the media’s attention. He discovered that his willingness to veer into exaggeration often did the trick.” That caused problems with some of the employees Musk brought on, even prompting an attempted coup and mass exodus just five months after the company was founded. Another big issue was how Musk treated workers. The core of the problem gets to something Musk told CNN in 2001.
ELON MUSK: I think almost by definition, having a traditional American way of life is antithetical to Silicon Valley, or at least the two cannot coincide. It’s not attracting those in search of easy money to the degree it was a year or so ago. You have to spend a tremendous amount of time at work, so there’s no such thing as the eight-hour day in Silicon Valley in any field.
But it wasn’t just working long hours. Walter Isaacson, author of the biography of Musk that came out in 2023, describes how one of his management tactics was “to set an insane deadline and drive colleagues to meet it.” At X.com, that meant planning for the company’s public launch on Thanksgiving weekend, then expecting employees to work around the clock and through the holiday to get it done. Soni writes the company had low pay and a “everyday workplace hostility” with “bitter fights [roiling] the organization, with behind-the-scenes politicking and backbiting to boot.” Musk had been a terrible boss and manager at Zip2, and that hadn’t changed.
Here’s the long and short of X.com: it was founded in March 1999. By December, Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital convinced Musk to step aside as CEO, and in March 2000 the company merged with Confinity, a similar start-up also funded by Sequoia that was started by Peter Thiel and Max Levchin. Its product was PayPal. A couple months later, Thiel and Musk’s frustrations with the CEO Moritz had brought in reached an inflection point, and he was forced out with Musk retaking the reins and Thiel becoming chairman. But things didn’t go great then either.
Eric Jackson, an early Confinity employee and the author of The PayPal Wars, wrote that even at that time, Musk didn’t tolerate dissent or questions about his decisions. Despite the company losing mountains of money to fraud, Musk paused the rollout of new features to rewrite the company’s code base and began to rebrand the PayPal product under the X umbrella, even though user surveys found a high degree of trust for PayPal while X was seen as seedy and making people think of a porn site. In September 2000, key employees approached the board while Musk was away on his honeymoon to demand he be removed. They agreed, even as Musk was flying back from Australia to try to save his job. Thiel was appointed to replace him. He stopped the code rewrite, wound down the failing financial superstore plan, and eventually renamed the entire company PayPal, getting rid of X.com — at least for a couple decades.
Musk disputed Jackson’s retelling of the events, calling him a “sycophantic jackass” in a long email sent to Valleywag in 2007. Ashlee Vance, the author of Musk’s 2015 biography, interviewed people who agreed with Musk’s take, but still said, “I think it would have killed the company if Musk had stayed on as CEO for six more months.” Vance, hardly a critical biographer by any means, observed that “it can also be argued that Musk had become a hyperbolic huckster, who overreacted and oversold his companies’ technology.”
PayPal was the second time Musk was deposed as CEO, despite seeming to think he was some sort of business genius. He didn’t have the technical skill that Levchin had, nor the business sense of Thiel. Not to praise Thiel, who is a repugnant fascist, but he also had a grand libertarian vision for Confinity, yet was able to drop it once he saw what an actual workable business model was. Not so much for Musk. Even after being kicked out, Musk requested to still do some public relations. Isaacson observes that he “had been bitten by the celebrity bug, and he wanted to be a public face of the company” — just like he did at Zip2. And he certainly didn’t want the real story of his ouster to be known at the time. In 2001, this is how he described it to CNN.
ELON MUSK: It got to the point where I didn’t want to be — I was neither well-suited to run a company of that size, nor was I particularly interested in running a 600-plus person company, so I decided to remain as a director of the company but look for something else to do.
He makes it sound like it was his choice to step away, when that wasn’t at all the case. In 2008, prompted by the interviewer with part of the real story, Musk gave a different version of events.
ELON MUSK: Anyway, but away for two weeks and there was just so much that there was just a lot of worry and that caused the management team to decide that I wasn’t the right guy to run the company and so the board was like, you know, geez what do we do? So basically I could have fought it really hard but instead I said, you know, rather than fight it at this critical time, best to sort of concede.
In neither of those stories does Musk admit that things weren’t going very well under his leadership, and a lot of people at the company — like the employee Vance spoke to — had some serious concerns that if he stayed in the position they wouldn’t get their payout because the whole thing would implode.
PayPal ultimately went public in early 2002, and was bought by eBay not long after for $1.5 billion in stock, making Musk between $160 and $180 million based on his share of the company. One again, he had been saved from his failings, and that furnished him with a war chest to set even grander ambitions as he started SpaceX, bought his way into Tesla, and continued building the myth of his genius.
ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: Elon, how’s it going? Those Merlin engines are fantastic. ELON MUSK: Thank you. Yeah, I’ve got an idea for an electric jet. DOWNEY JR.: You do? ELON MUSK: Yeah. DOWNEY JR.: Then we’ll make it work.
That’s a clip from the 2010 Marvel Studios film Iron Man 2. If you’re at all familiar with the mythology of Elon Musk, you’re likely aware of the story of how he supposedly inspired Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, or at least the early Iron Man movies, and how that led to a cameo in the second film. Vance, the biographer, describes how Downey visited SpaceX headquarters in 2007 for a tour and lunch with Musk, and some of what he observed there went into inspiring his portrayal of Tony Stark, though even Musk admitted it was hardly a complete copy.
ELON MUSK: I thought it was cool, but I think there’s also some important differences. I’ve got five kids; Iron Man is sort of a swinging bachelor. I spend my weekends going to Disneyland.
Downey made sure a Tesla was placed next to Tony Stark’s desk in the film, to symbolize his connection to Musk. In Downey’s mind, “Elon was someone Tony probably hung out with and partied with, or more likely they went on some weird jungle trek together to drink concoctions with the shamans.” But while Musk is often cited as the inspiration for Stark, he wasn’t the only one. Iron Man writer Mark Fergus told New York Magazine that Stark was a mix of Musk, Steve Jobs, and Donald Trump. He believed, “Trump was fun before he became president — he was actually kind of a goofy celebrity. Steve Jobs was always serious and angry; he never quite had that gift of the bullshit, the working the crowd that Musk has a real natural talent for. Musk took the brilliance of Jobs with the showmanship of Trump.” That comparison to Trump has a whole different resonance today, but that’s for later in the series.
In 2013, Musk even tweeted that he’d “figured out how to design rocket parts with just hand movements,” like in the Iron Man films, and would be showing it off soon. He knew how to get the media going and generate a wave of headlines about nothing. It was yet another of those big bullshit promises that didn’t go anywhere.
The story that Musk inspired Iron Man played an important role in further boosting his mythology. This wasn’t just a man or a tech founder, but someone akin to a superhero doing feats few people could even imagine, let alone pull off — or at least that was the idea. He existed on a different plane than mere mortals, and that was exactly how much of the media started to treat him. Annalee Newitz, the science journalist and science fiction author I spoke to in part 1 of this series, explained to me how Musk fit into an archetype we’ve come to expect of great businessmen.
ANNALEE NEWITZ: I think that Elon Musk fit really nicely into like a long tradition of the science hero, or the industrialist hero. Iron Man is a great example of the kind of figure again, that we can kind of use imaginatively to explain Elon Musk to ourselves. And I think, ultimately, the fact that he’s able to fit into that model is part of why we give him permission to be such an asshole. Because part of that myth — the Iron Man myth, the Ayn Randian hero myth — is that these are difficult geniuses, right? You know, these are people who treat everyone like shit, who abuse their workers, but it’s in the service of something greater because they are the only man — and it’s almost always a man. They are the only man who can truly lead us. And this is not true. And in fact, Elon Musk would be nothing without his teams of engineers. All of his projects, everything he does, are profoundly collective endeavors. He doesn’t even know it. He doesn’t understand that he’s part of this incredible set of connections, this community. He has this kind of exceptionalism for himself. And so, ultimately, I think we, the regular humans, are the ones who get hoodwinked the most by those myths. It allows us to stop trying to say depose someone like Musk, like, why don’t we try to push him out of his position when there’s obviously so many problems with him? And it’s because this myth tells us, you know, but great men, sometimes they are just terrible people, and that’s just part of the package.
This Great Man myth is something we see applied to Musk time and again. It’s reflected in his biographies, and a lot of the reporting that happens about him — at least up until recently. But I also wanted to understand why the media has covered him the way it does, so I reached out to some journalists who’ve been covering him and his businesses honestly for years to get their thoughts. For the rest of the episode, we’ll be working through the layers of that and some of the consequences of boosting him instead of looking seriously at what he was doing all these years.
When we think of how Elon Musk has been covered, our minds naturally go to tech outlets and mainstream media, but before we get to them there’s another layer that can’t be ignored because it’s been absolutely integral to the creation of the hype around Musk and his companies, and that has bled into the wider media as well as investment circles. I’m talking, of course, about the fan blog and social media communities that basically exist to praise virtually anything and everything he and his companies do. In part, that was because of the nature of how Silicon Valley companies were thought of and framed to the public, but it’s also because Musk tapped into direct engagement early, likely recognizing how important it could be in building his profile and the consumer allegiance with his brands.
When I spoke to Lora Kolodny, a climate and tech reporter at CNBC.com who’s been doing great coverage of Musk’s companies for years — work that’s often drawn the ire of some of his superfans — she explained the bigger picture of how this works and benefits Musk’s corporate empire.
LORA KOLODNY: The company, in their earlier financial filings […] they actually specify if shareholders want information about the company, they should check Tesla’s account on Twitter and the account of CEO Elon Musk on Twitter. It was very unusual at the time. Tesla effectively handed him the right to be the entire brand, right? He was given the right to basically make all these business proclamations from his individual account on Twitter. That was really new. And a lot of automakers have been incredibly jealous of Tesla’s figuring out how to do this shoestring budget, you know, influencer marketing, social media marketing, kind of this whole direct to consumer vibe they have. The fan club thing is something they’ve taken to the hilt. And it saved them a lot of money through the years. And it’s also helped them develop this rabid fan base, which is willing to put forward the company point of view, into the social media sphere, into the blogosphere, onto YouTube, etc. It’s really unique to Tesla, and that has an impact on the news ecosystem. You’ll notice things like these fan blogs even though they’re directly advocating a pro-Tesla, pro-EV industry point of view, they’re treated alongside other noteworthy trades or mainstream press in things like the Bloomberg Terminal or search results in the major search engines. And that’s, of course having an effect on public perception.
If you’re not aware, the Bloomberg Terminal is basically what people in finance and stock trading use to get market information about the companies they cover. Putting fan blogs in among media sources obviously poisons the well of knowledge people doing that work depend on, similar to how public perceptions are distorted by all that boosterish coverage. Today, Musk is known for his ire toward journalists and the mainstream media. He wasn’t always that hostile, but he did embrace so-called “new” media — blogs, Reddit pages, and social media, things like that — early because he could see it was a good way to get his exaggerated promises circulating and it gave him a direct line to his customers — and later fans — without the filter of traditional media.
Edward Niedermeyer is the co-host of the Autonocast and the author of Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors. He’s been following Tesla and Musk for years, and reported quite frequently on the company through the latter half of the 2010s. As a blogger himself for a time, he became quite familiar with the way the fan blog community embraced Tesla and the wider effects that had.
EDWARD NIEDERMEYER: There was a very, like distinct green car community, it wasn’t just electric, it was just these people are interested in the idea of green cars, and they tended to be little kind of affluent, liberal, you know, kind of people and it was sort of it was a very idealistic thing. And then Musk came in, and then all of a sudden, there was this transition where the vibe change completely. And all of a sudden, it was, we’re investing in this company. And all of a sudden, the values that we we’ve been espousing have been sort of subsumed into this thing. For these wealthy people, it was like, perfect, all you have to do is put money into this company, and be optimistic and positive about it. And like not only are you living up to your ideals, you’re making the world a better place, but like maybe you’ll get rich off it too — richer than you already are.
For me, this transformation in the supposed “green car” community was probably best illustrated by two documentaries: Who Killed the Electric Car? released in 2006, and its sequel Revenge of the Electric Car in 2011. The first is very much what Niedermeyer describes: an affluent group of people centered in Los Angeles, including Hollywood celebrities, fighting to keep their electric cars after California briefly forced automakers to start making them around the turn of the millennium. They were presented as the solution to the climate crisis and the means to end foreign wars to protect oil reserves, as the Iraq War was still on people’s minds. Once the sequel was released, the talk about reducing emissions was hard to find: instead, it was a car movie following the race between General Motors, Nissan, Tesla, and a guy doing electric conversions in his garage to see who would shape the future of the auto industry — with the filmmakers giving a particularly favorable spotlight to Musk and Tesla. It was yet another media artifact that helped to brighten his spotlight. The company became more than another automaker, but a way to tout your values without really having to change much about your lifestyle — and, as Niedermeyer said, you could make money as the stock began to soar. That also meant criticism was no longer welcome.
Niedermeyer described to me how, in the Tesla Motors Club forum there were customers openly sharing information and discussing issues they had with their vehicles, but over time investors moved in eventually convinced the other users to stop sharing those details publicly because it could hurt the company and help the short sellers — one of Musk’s many boogeymen over the years. Eventually, those forums and Reddit pages morphed into a series of fan blogs that were incredibly positive toward Musk and Tesla because that was ultimately how they made their money. This is how Niedermeyer explained it to me.
EDWARD NIEDERMEYER: So there’s these layers to this edifice that was built online right and it was sort of started by taking over the the green car community and then having the investor side of the Tesla community becoming the engine of this community. One of the the moderators of r/TeslaMotors was a guy called Frédéric Lambert. This was a guy by the way no previous experience writing, reporting anything about green car, clean energy, the auto industry, any of this. And there he was, all of a sudden he was a moderator at r/TeslaMotors and from there, he built and I have a lot of respect for what he built, but it was Electrek. He built it by by tapping into this really toxic culture. He didn’t create it, but he understood that the toxic parts are what really animates these kinds of cultures. And he played to that. At a certain point, they realized we’re getting played partly, I think they realized that they bootstrapped to the point where they could kind of broaden their audience beyond just this hardcore Tesla fan group, and they they started trying to do that by kind of being a little bit more like an actual media outlet like, like covering Tesla a little bit more rigorously. And what happened next was that was that, you know, that growth that they’d experienced had all come from Elon Musk retweeting their stories. So what happened was other outlets, particularly Cleantechnica was the one that really, really jumped on this. They realized, if we toe the Elon Musk line better, we’ll get those retweets. One click of that man’s finger could make your traffic month for a smaller blog. I don’t think there was like a conscious master plan for this. But basically, it became a situation where multiple outlets then were starting to compete for his retweet. And the way you got his retweet was by being more sycophantic and attacking enemies more aggressively, attacking critics more aggressively, and through just the power of people competing for his retweet, he built an entire online media ecosystem that has now reached these bizarre proportions. The reason I’m trying to explain all these different levels to this is that absurdity, that just straight up fake news, clickbait just like nothing about this is real, it’s not even really trying to be real, it’s just tapping into an aesthetic, that’s just another layer on this sort of stack, this online information control and manipulation stack that’s been built up over time.
Anyone who’s paid attention to Tesla will be familiar with Electrek, Cleantechnica, Teslarati, and other blogs like that. As Niedermeyer says, Electrek has moderated and widened its scope over the years, but that only left an opening for others to pile in and try to make some money by praising Musk and his companies. It’s also not hard to see how that ultimately influences other media when it’s easy to crank out boosterish stories that get widely shared, especially a lot of the distinctly tech media that grew out of gadget reviews and blogging and was ultimately chasing similar revenue sources from digital ads to clicks on affiliate marketing links. This is how Karl Bode, a freelance reporter who covers tech, explained the evolution of tech media when I interviewed him about it.
KARL BODE: So I think from like 2000 to 2010, there was just kind of an obsession with innovation. Everything was new, everything was fresh and shiny. Companies like Google actually did have a little bit more ethical principles. It was a lot of excitements, you know, and I think the tech press kind of got drunk on the narrative that they were building that this tech was gonna come in and easily solve really, really complicated, long standing problems with humanity, you know. And then you saw, like, from 2010 on that the scale of what they was were building wasn’t really sustainable or workable. They couldn’t do effective content moderation at scale. For all the money that’s poured into this stuff, a lot of the services weren’t very good, or they had weird restrictions. I think the collision with reality was very hard for the tech journalism industry to understand because that innovation sells ads and gets people to click. The idea that there’s this magical super genius Tony Stark-like engineer who is going to come down and fix all of the world’s problems cavalierly and recklessly, it just really ran face first into this kind of both sides reporting that general overall journalism falls into, and it really didn’t handle the transition well.
Overall, I think it’s fair to say that a lot of the media hasn’t covered Musk well. While the journalists I speak to in this series are a clear exception, a lot of the reporting on Musk has reflected the hyped up and positive tone that came out of blogging, moved into the tech press, and ultimately affected the way major publications covered him. But I think there are some other developments in the media industry over the past decade or so that only made that worse — and we should discuss them.
[BLEEDING INTO MEDIA]
In 2008, the global economy — or at least much of it — cratered, and in the aftermath people were wondering what the new economy was going to look like, where the new jobs were going to come from, and what industry was going to drive the next wave of growth. Silicon Valley stepped firmly into that void, with the support of the government and a pliant media to help it sell its vision to the public. Today, many are rightfully looking back at that period with the recognition that we made a mistake: by buying into those narratives, companies weren’t held to account and new technologies weren’t properly regulated to ensure they didn’t have significant negative externalities. We’re trying to grapple with content moderation, mass surveillance, oppressive labor technologies, and more. Many of those problems took root or got significantly worse during that period of hype — and Elon Musk was one of the major beneficiaries.
In the aftermath of an economic collapse, there isn’t much appetite to seriously ask whether a new growth sector is something that should really be welcomed. The incentive is to embrace an industry that’s growing, especially in a moment like that, then deal with the consequences later — if there are any. But on top of that, there are some other key reasons why much of the media let Silicon Valley off the hook. If you’re going to report on a specific beat like tech, there’s a good chance you have a pre-existing interest in it. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but there seemed to be a strong desire among many people writing about the tech industry to want to believe in the narratives and the future they were selling, so the companies didn’t get adequate skepticism or investigation. Lora Kolodny brought up a similar point in our conversation.
LORA KOLODNY: The fan blogs and the influencer content and all of that stuff. Those perspectives are valuable. It’s valuable to understand why people are passionate about this company or this company’s chief or whatever. Their voices are included. The problem comes in when you have a newsroom that may not have a specialist who’s really dealing with it, parsing it, understanding where’s the good information, the comprehensive information, and the partial information, and really taking pains to fact check the fan take — and the hater take for that matter — and come to a high resolution picture by deadline.
Kolodny makes an important distinction: bias and a desire to believe in the tech utopia or whatever you want to call it is one thing, but resources are quite another. As the media went into the 2010s, it was also facing revenue pressures. Traditional newspapers relied primarily on ad revenue, subscription revenue, and classifieds revenue to fun their operations. As people moved online, Craigslist and sites like it took the classifieds revenue, subscription revenue faced a challenge as people could get news for free online, and companies like Google and Facebook captured the bulk of the digital ad revenue as that industry moved online too. At the same time, there were increasing pressures for news media to be publishing new stories on a regular basis throughout the day. So, there were fewer resources for journalists to really take a deep dive into an investigative story or for new journalists to build out a deep understanding of a beat when taking it on. That meant that if a tech company made some ridiculous claim, many journalists covering them didn’t have the historical and industry knowledge to know if it had been tried in the past to temper some of the hype and false optimism people like Musk relied on to boost their companies.
But the other piece of this is access. For some media organizations and more senior reporters, they may have had the space to take on these companies if they wanted to, but few did. Because a critical story about the new iPhone or some issue at SpaceX, for example, could get one blacklisted from future Apple keynotes, Musk interview opportunities, and similar opportunities at other tech companies. In short, if you didn’t play ball, they wouldn’t have anything to do with you, because there were plenty of other journalists or outlets that would follow the rules. And sadly, too many people felt that access was important. These are the people and publications who would write the glowing profiles of Musk or joke around with him in interviews, while ignoring how terribly he treated his employees and what the women in his life said he put them through, just to name a couple examples. Here’s Karl Bode again, on what we’ve seen from these people over the past year or so as Musk’s flaws could no longer be ignored.
KARL BODE: A lot of the people that helped build the Elon Musk mythology over the past 15 years, you know, pivoted immediately on a dime to pretending they saw him for what he was the entire time. It was pretty obvious that a lot of the same people that built up his mythology now want you to forget that that ever happened. And I don’t enjoy it. You know, I don’t think it does the public a really useful service when you have journalism that’s so increasingly detached from reality. As Silicon Valley engineers kind of got shoved out and the money men came in and the VCs came in and the banks came in, and it was clear how much money was to be made, the gap between factual reality and the hype just got bigger and bigger and bigger.
There’s one other element that I think is important to consider, especially as we pivot back to Musk. After the recession, a lot of people were struggling. They were looking for someone to offer them a positive vision for the future, after decades of neoliberal policies and cuts to their capacities, governments largely were not providing that vision. They had given too much over to the private sector, and were refusing to take actions that would significantly improve the lot of their citizens so people stopped believing the government could even do those things at all. Musk’s narratives about saving the environment with Tesla, making the species multiplanetary, and the tech industry just making everything in life better tapped into that yearning for a better future. The government abdicated their responsibility, and were happy to have Musk pick up the torch. Edward Niedermeyer put it well when I spoke to him.
EDWARD NIEDERMEYER: There was like a cachet that came along with forwarding this narrative at the time, right? It presented you as someone who was smart, like being an Elon Musk fan, was sort of associated with being seeming smart. It positioned you as someone who was sort of in touch with the cutting edge of technology and what was going on in Silicon Valley. It presented you as someone who cared about the environment. In the online world that we live in now, having a narrative like that, having something that’s easy and resonant for a lot of people means a lot more; it has a lot more impact and power than facts or logic in like any form.
So, you can see how the media industry was set up to fall for a snake-oil salesman like Musk and to sell him to a public looking for hope. Over the years, he learned how other business leaders had built their profile, he learned to be a bit more charismatic, and he saw how exaggeration would get people excited — while very rarely being held to account for his lies. He sold magazines and got clicks, but he also made people believe better things were possible at a time when there was a lot of doom and gloom. He preyed on those worries, and used them to his advantage. And for people who really bought into his narrative and had the money to invest in his companies, there were big returns to be made along the way if the narrative stayed rosy.
LINETTE LOPEZ: A lot of people who were his fans thought that Elon was doing what he was doing for them. For us, for the planet. Isn’t that sweet? But when you look under the hood at how he behaves at Tesla, you realize that it’s self aggrandizement, period, plain and simple. Sam Altman put it pretty well. And not that I like to quote that guy. I’ve never met him. But he said that Elon only wants only wants the world saved if he can do the saving. Perfect.
That’s Linette Lopez, a senior correspondent at Insider. You briefly heard from her last week, but that’s a good encapsulation of Musk and it leads us well into the consequences of the boosterish coverage he’s received over the years. Because he was treated like he could do no wrong for so long, he — along with many other powerful men in tech — turned on the media when they started looking more critically at the tech sector in recent years. Lora Kolodny told me it made perfect sense: as they became more powerful, had a longer track record, and accumulated more wealth, it was natural for them to come in for more scrutiny. But some major revelations, particularly the Cambridge Analytica scandal that engulfed Facebook, also forced a broader shift in the coverage of Silicon Valley. As Musk has turned against reporters, his fans have become important tools to harass them if they do critical coverage. Lopez isn’t too bothered by this.
LINETTE LOPEZ: It’s a treat. It’s a real treat. I don’t get enough attention in my life. And it’s just nice that one of the richest men in the world has like a corner of an attic somewhere in his adult mind that is just dedicated to me. And I love that. He has a lot of fans. And they say like, stuff to me on Twitter. That’s fine. I don’t really go on Twitter anymore because I find it actually useless.
Admittedly I don’t think many journalists are too phased by the angry fans. But for some it can make the idea of reporting critically — or just honestly — on Musk and his companies a bit more daunting. For me, I’ve been writing about Musk for years, and ever since I have I’ve been doing so with a critical eye to him and his companies. I’m used to the obsessive fans — they don’t phase me. My bigger worry is the direction he’s pointing us as a society, and how uncritical coverage allows him to get away with using his power and platform to spread ideas that are ultimately harmful to humanity, even as he dresses them up as being essential for our future prosperity — or even survival. We need the media to be holding Musk to account.
KARL BODE: Inject the idea that this is not a trustworthy person earlier in your stories or at least make some vague nod to the context of all his false claims on self driving, on when we’re gonna get to Mars, when we’re gonna get a car, when the Cybertruck is gonna drop. This isn’t opinion that I’m spouting; It’s fact. The guy is full of shit on a very, very long list of subjects. And you have to make that clear to readers.
That’s Karl Bode again. Unless the media is honest about who Musk is, the myth he’s built around himself will not be undone. Consider the comparison to Iron Man: sure, Tony Stark is superhero, but he’s also an arms dealer. The source of his wealth is literally the cause of death and destruction the world over. He’s also someone who was able to build a myth and following to distract from his real impact, but at least that was a fictional world. Musk may have started by playing a character, but now he clearly believes himself to be the genius innovator he made the world believe he was. Yet he exists in the real world, not in a simulation, and because of the power he’s accrued, his actions have consequences — on the battlefield, on nature reserves, and on the wider public.
He’s using grand narratives to change the way we think about the future, and alter policy in the process. But do those future plans reflect the real impact of his companies? That’s what we’ll be exploring next week.
[ONE MORE THING]
One more thing before we close this episode: Remember that McClaren F1 Musk was showing off to CNN in 1999? The following year he was driving up Sand Hill Road with Peter Thiel when Thiel asked him what the car could do. “Watch this,” Musk said. He hit the gas, only to send the car into a spin and down an embankment where it was totaled. It wasn’t insured.
Elon Musk Unmasked is a special four-part series from Tech Won’t Save Us, hosted by me, Paris Marx. Tech Won’t Save Us is produced by Eric Wickham and our transcripts are from Brigitte Pawliw-Fry. This series was made possible through support from our listeners at patreon.com/techwontsaveus. Consider joining them to ensure we can keep providing a critical perspective on the tech industry that you’re unlikely to get anywhere else. You can also get access to our Discord server and some stickers. In the coming weeks, we’ll also be uploading the uncut interviews with some of the guests I spoke to for this series, exclusive for Patreon supporters. So make sure to go to patreon.com/techwontsaveus to support the show, and come back next week for episode 3 of Elon Musk Unmasked.