By Todd Lassa
Memorial Day weekend, Los Angeles Times reporter Russ Mitchell opened up on Twitter about covering Tesla and its larger-than-life CEO, Elon Musk, who, not entirely coincidentally, is embroiled in controversy over his pending $44-billion takeover of Twitter.
“It took several months to realize it, but Tesla’s media approach was to find reporters who would in effect serve as public relations contractors, and then suck up to them with access to Musk and other access,” Mitchell writes in tweet two of 23 he posted on the topic. “Tesla PR,” item 3/23 says, “would drop ‘exclusive’ stories on compliant reporters’ laps that could be reported as news.”
It is smug for an auto journalist to say “I told you so,” and point out that generally writers for buff books were always more dubious about Tesla, especially as the company’s market cap surged toward $1 trillion, even when the bulk of its profits came from California Zero Emissions tax credits paid by the “dinosaur”-fed industry.
Mitchell was an auto reporter for the paper, covering, “the future of mobility and the strengthening relationship between Silicon Valley and the auto industry.” he had been a tech reporter for the Times until January 2016, when he left for a “brief stint” at Kaiser Health News’ California Healthline.
Shortly after his return, Mitchell covered the fallout from a May 2016 decapitation of a Tesla driver whose car Autopiloted itself under a semi-trailer in Florida. One result of this incident was that Tesla “broke up” with Mobileye, an Israeli sensor and software company whose products Tesla was using, in September 2016. Telsa blamed the split on what it said was Mobileye’s plans to compete with Tesla.
When Mitchell reported both sides of the story, with a Mobileye source telling him it was because of Tesla’s “lax” safety culture, a Tesla spokesperson told him the PR department “felt betrayed,” according to tweet 16/23. From that moment on, Mitchell says, “I was set aside as a potential propagandist. …”
In other words, he did Tesla PR’s bidding for just a quarter-year.
Mainstream automotive reporters were sufficiently impressed by the battery cell technology powering the Lotus-bodied 2005-09 Roadster, and when the Model S made its debut in June 2012, virtually universally we found the performance, range and promise of a carbon-emissions free automotive future impressive. (I was one of the Motor Trend editors to unanimously vote it 2013 Car of the Year.)
But the Wall Street investment community and Silicon Valley hubris – it was still a time when big tech could do no wrong– certainly did not sit well with those of us waiting for broken-down, past-its-20th-century-glory Detroit to collapse in the face of automotive startups like Tesla.
Still, we gave credit when and where Tesla was at the top of its game while, at the same time, trying to hold Musk accountable for his antics, including his promotion of “full self-driving” cars and SUVs which always seemed to be “coming soon” but never really arriving.
Musk has blamed his customers, on more than one occasion, of being clueless about what Autopilot “full self-driving” is, even as he claims the latest software update makes his vehicles “full self-driving.”
They are not. They are Level 2 at best.
But any criticism of Tesla’s models, major or minor, will almost certainly be met with vitriolic, even trolling counter-criticism from Musk’s acolytes. Everything Musk does must be perfect. Much of the objective reviewing of Tesla’s products come from independent EV auto websites, though there are plenty of Tesla-specific fanboy sites.
It may have taken Mitchell just three months to figure out that Tesla PR had appropriated him, but the company’s communication system apparently remains, and that’s not good for Tesla’s customers, Tesla’s competitors, nor highway safety.
Todd Lassa is a long-time automotive journalist and editor of thehustings.news