A vapor trail of broken Musk promises and failed predictions, all of which became news stories, have been documented by the elonmusk.today website. Musk vowed to build an “everything” Twitter app, but hasn’t. A full-time litigation shop? No sign of it yet. To convert atmospheric CO2 into rocket fuel? A no-show. The list continues: To create a super-fast Starlink service. Produce ventilators. Build a flying car. Distill a Tesla liquor (“Teslaquila”). Start a candy company. Sorry, not yet. When not making news by making promises, Musk enters our news diet by insulting people. He’s knocked a U.S. senator with a vulgar tweet, called a Thai cave rescuer a “pedo guy,” ridiculed Bill Gates’ beer belly and mocked a disabled Twitter employee. When predictions and insults fail to win him publicity, Musk has gained public attention by sharing conspiracy theories, signaling his support of the presidential candidacy of Ye, better known as Kanye West (and then withdrawing it), endorsing hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment and by making a poop emoji the auto-response to questions the press sends to Twitter.
This unbroken stream of Musk blarney and BS should be enough to deter the press from automatically reporting the tycoon’s publicity hounding. But as with Donald Trump, the press seems unable to resist splashing coverage on Musk’s unnewsworthy high jinks, even though the stories have now become as common as dog-bites-man. Reporters on the Musk beat have a point when they say you never know which one of Musk’s outrageous stabs at grabbing attention will actually blossom into genuine news. For instance, when he first said he was going to buy Twitter, who among us could look at his track record and think he would actually complete the deal? Few of the acorns Musk tosses out there end up sprouting into a tree, but enough of them do that maybe his every burp does justify coverage.
But that can’t be the main reason the press covers every Muskism that comes over the transom. This column suggested late last year that journalists wean themselves from the Musk habit. But instead of giving the once-over twice to his antics, the press corps has further devoted itself to his promotion. He offers reporters table scraps. They turn it into a banquet. He picks a petty fight. They report it as if it were a global war. He’s got the media machine’s number, and keeps pressing it.
Here’s how it works: Too many editors are eager to assign an easy-to-assemble story from the components of a Musk prediction, threat or stunt. And readers seem to love the copy. It’s Musk-press synergy all the way down. Musk didn’t invent the mock news event, he’s only perfected it. Con men, pranksters and publicity agents have been jamming the press for more than a century with bogus stories like him. In recent decades, hoaxers have persuaded the press to chase the story that Paul McCartney was dead. Another time, a man made worldwide news by claiming to have cured his arthritis by injecting cockroach hormones. Not that long ago, Volkswagen pranked the press with a press release to publicize its electric car by saying it was changing its name to Voltswagen. And in 2009, a Colorado family claimed a helium balloon wafted their son into the heavens.
Some of these pranks can be dismissed as good-natured fun. But most of them stand as critiques of the press, showing how credulous and easily manipulated journalists can be. When Musk engages in his kind of publicity hounding, he consciously exploits the media’s frailty and appetite for copy. His promises, his kayfabe Twitter spats, his controversy-mongering offer the press a preassembled cast of characters, an element of conflict and questions to answer. A grateful press appreciates how the wow factor of a Musk publicity stunt makes the routine coverage of quarterly reports, city council meetings and weather seem mundane. If Musk isn’t on the press corps payroll, he should be.
What’s in it for Musk? He has long disdained advertising, believing that the unearned media of a stunt (or the quality of a great product) is advertising enough. According to Ashley Vance’s book, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, Musk ordered his Tesla staff to produce at least one barnburner of a public relations announcement a week to stimulate interest in the company’s cars. But in a 2021 court appearance, Musk made transparent how he keeps playing the press. “If we are entertaining, then people will write stories about us, and then we don’t have to spend money on advertising that would increase the price of our products,” he said.
Naming one of his children X Æ A-12, as he did in 2020, or pushing a Tesla roadster into space or challenging Vladimir Putin to “single combat” or issuing a Ukraine peace plan or selling 20,000 flamethrowers are prime examples of how Musk garners notice for his brands and his products. These advertisements for himself, to pinch a phrase from Norman Mailer, create a buzz about him and his ventures, and project the image of an omnipresent, charismatic guy who makes hot copy. When the press briefly turned against him in 2018 for some of his business miscues, Musk went all meta on reporters by announcing a press-watch site called Pravduh.com. Like so many Musk projects, it arrived stillborn and was soon forgotten, but not before he got a burst of publicity out of it. Which was the point, anyway.
Since acquiring Twitter, Musk has made media stunt-work one of his prime occupations — announcing plans, ending them, releasing Twitter files to Matt Taibbi and other journalists, and even tweeting from the toilet. He’ll do anything to keep it and himself in the news, and every day the news media rewards his showboating with an avalanche of running coverage and commentary. But you’ve got to wonder. Is Elon Musk the problem here? Or is it the press, which understands how it’s being manipulated by Musk but just can’t quit him?
Every journalist on the Musk beat should read Edward Niedermeyer’s Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motor. Send your favorite empty Musk stunt to [email protected]. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter feed is all about regenerative braking. My Mastodon and Post accounts wish Musk would buy them. My Substack Notes is less than inspired. My RSS feed says Venus, not Mars, should be our destination.