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 …

 

https://twitter.com/elonmusk/statuses/301049593385340928

 

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 …

https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/303585941304537090

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.

Tesla shares finished off more than 3 percent today.

  • ajw

    Broder’s ‘charging problem’ is comparable to pulling up to a filling station, partially filling the tank, and then complaining that the car has range problems.

  • TeslaOwnerCA

    At a minimum, Broder is guilty of shabby journalism. More likely, he was predisposed to file a negative review of the Tesla Model S based on his previous writings. Not surprising that the New York Times editor would cover for the paper. How about an independent audit of the test drive results? I bet Tesla would agree to a professional, independent audit. I would also bet that the New York Times would not agree ao an audit.

  • R Coleman

    Sad that so biased a review got through the NY Times in the first place. Happy that they have stopped defending it.

    Creating any new company is hard. Creating a new american car company must be next to impossible. I hope that the company will continue to be successful.

  • http://twitter.com/CapitalistOppre Thomas Fisher

    Why do you write there were “charging problems”? Broder did not write that there were charging problems, and the only charging problems that Tesla alleged had to do with Broder making a conscious decision to not fully charge the vehicle on three separate occasions.

    Broder has admitted he didn’t fully charge the vehicle and knew he was not fully charging it when he did it. He had “reasons” for not doing so, and its clear that Margarete Sullivan is referring to those “reasons” when she says he exercised poor judgement.

    Not said, is that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to write an article about the car running low on energy when you haven’t fully charged it in the first place. There are valid cold weather issues for the Model S that you can write about, including a somewhat reduced range.

    But every leg of the actual trip that Broder attempted could easily have been made by just fully charging the car, despite the cold. Tesla included a huge battery specifically so it could still easily make a long trip even in cold weather like Broder experienced. The problem came from Broder not taking advantage of that large battery, by doing just partial charges.

  • Juan Valverde

    The moral of the story is that Tesla is a smart car built by smart people for smart people. It is not a mass-produced good for the masses. Not at this stage anyway. Excuse my elitism.

Author

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

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