Final Inspection

In Tesla Vs. NYT, Data Won

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In a world where all facts now are fungible, data still carries weight. So kudos to data, may it lead to better cars and better journalism for all.

Tesla went to battle with The New York Times last month over a negative review that ended with its pricey Model S dead on the side of the road. But in the first time in recent memory, it appears an auto maker actually may have won a victory over a major media outlet over the veracity of a story.

I’ve been observing auto maker/media conflicts for more than 30 years, and the manufacturer usually comes out on the short end of these fights, looking petty, unable to accept criticism or just contentious. 

The pivotal factor in this most recent public relations victory for Tesla seems to be CEO Elon Musk’s use of social media to mobilize electric-vehicle fans and Tesla owners to blunt the initial negative impact of the story online by saying the Times report was a fake, and then releasing a data dump supporting his claims.

According to Musk, on-board data recordings show NYT reporter John Broder took a lengthy detour, cranked up the cabin temperature and drove faster than the speed limit in an effort to make the electric vehicle run out of juice prematurely.

Criticizing a journalist for slightly exceeding the speed limit and setting the heat to 74° F (23° C) during one of the coldest days of the year is a reach, but other details, such as data showing Broder never was limping along at 45 mph (72 km/h) like he said he was, is damaging.  

The detailed data on every aspect of the EV’s operation while in Broder’s hands is what gave Tesla the advantage in a major online debate over the future of EVs. Broder did not do much homework before his trip, nor did he take precise notes. That further weakened his cause. 

In a general sense, Musk’s stance is a surprise because auto makers rarely complain publicly if a reviewer trashes one of their products, fearing a rebuttal will backfire.

Auto makers do not want to appear thin-skinned, look like they are attacking their own customers or give the impression they are more concerned about profits than safety. When things get rough, they usually keep silent and wait for their day in court, or quietly pay off plaintiffs just to keep the company name out of the headlines.  

Only when a news organization is caught red-handed in a major fabrication do auto makers publicly go to war.

In 1993 General Motors filed a defamation lawsuit against NBC after it caught producers of the Dateline NBC news program faking a test that was supposed to demonstrate how easily GM pickups could explode in low-speed crashes.

During a press conference, GM executives showed how NBC producers placed a loose-fitting gas cap on the tank of a GM pickup and then ignited five powerful model rocket motors placed strategically around the tank to guarantee flames during a crash test. A video clip of the flaming pickup was aired relentlessly in show promotions.

There was righteous indignation on all fronts. Dateline NBC anchors were forced to make a humiliating on-air apology. Lots of people were fired and NBC’s reputation was tarnished for years.

I was at that GM press conference. It made me ill to see my profession hijacked by highly paid hucksters masquerading as journalists.

But that was the last time an auto maker really nailed a major network or newspaper for journalistic malpractice, even though there’s been plenty of bad behavior since then.

The final word from NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan on the Tesla review is that there were “problems with precision and judgment, but not integrity.”

That’s about as good a response for a damaging review as any auto maker could hope for. Since then, several news organizations and a bevy of Tesla owners have completed the same drive successfully, suggesting Broder’s experience was the exception, not the rule.

Ultimately the big winner in this debate is data. In a world where all facts now are fungible, data still carries weight. So kudos to data, may it lead to better cars and better journalism for all.

dwinter@wardsauto.com

 

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WardsAuto editors share insights and observations on the global auto industry.

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David E. Zoia

As Editorial Director, I oversee much of what goes into WardsAuto.com, enjoying a ringside seat that lets me observe up close just about every facet of the industry worldwide. I have covered the...

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James Amend is an associate editor at WardsAuto.com, covering day-to-day business and product news at General Motors. He also leads coverage of regulatory and environmental issues, as well as the...
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