New York Times

How Twitter Failed Elon Musk in His Fight with the New York Times

Until about 10 minutes ago, celebrities stung by media criticism had precious few remedies in the medicine cabinet. They could write infuriated letters to the editor. They could chew out their critics by voicemail. They could sue for libel, if their grievances fit its slender legal constraints. Or they could sit by the pool with a cocktail and fume.

Of course, celebrities have turned to Twitter as an unbelievably cost-effective social medium for extending, supporting, and, yes, defending their brands. Public figures love Twitter’s ability to let them shout back, in real-time, at their critics.

The mass media are learning that they’re not the only ones who can scream out the window when they’re mad as hell. But it might be a while before celebrities and their social strategists learn a tough lesson: When you rush to the window, you’d better have a good story to tell.

Last Friday, The New York Times published an account of an East Coast test-drive of the Tesla, Elon Musk’s gorgeous, disruptive luxury electric car. The Times story is harrowing. Reporter John M. Broder spent his trip frantically eyeing the odometer as he tried to reach a Connecticut recharge station, switching off his heat while he tootled up I-95 in glare-inducing super-slo-mo as advised by customer service. Still, Ground Control lost Major Tom. The Tesla died a few miles short of its station. Mission not accomplished.

When he heard about the trip, Musk apologized to Broder. But after he read the article, he took his case to Twitter. “NYTimes article about Tesla range in cold is fake,” Musk declared on Monday. “Vehicle logs tell true story that he didn’t actually charge to max & took a long detour.”

It’s only natural that Musk would feel personally and professionally stung. He must have felt the review could hurt or destroy his company. As Musk and the Times duked it out for several days, the carmaker rallied his fanboys and Reddit readers, who live to rage against the machine. When a disrupter fights “old” media, fans everywhere cheer.

But soon enough, he’d said too much. By the time Musk defended himself with the raw data, he was serving up some pretty weak tea. Broder shouldn’t have been running the heat at 74 degrees, Musk retorted. Broder should have set his cruise control to 54 m.p.h. Broder shouldn’t have driven an extra 0.6 miles around a parking lot. The enraged Musk didn’t seem to notice he’d painted himself into a corner—because once you’re splitting hairs like those, your problem is a lot bigger than a bad review.

In mid-November, when New York Times dining critic Pete Wells pulverized Guy Fieri’s new Times Square eatery, Fieri shot back that Wells was just trying to make a name for himself by going after big game. (I’ve worked with Wells, and he’s one of a handful of editors whose steady integrity and sharp insight still keep me honest whenever I write. Fieri’s explanation may not have been entirely accurate.) But crucially, Fieri pleaded not to Twitter—there, he was silent on the matter—but Good Morning America. The affair burned bright, but briefly, and Fieri’s restaurant seems to be doing just fine.

But fighting a critic’s opinions is one thing; fighting a critic’s facts is another. And Musk’s defense, cobbled from fragile technicalities—as much as it cheered his followers this week—is hardly a narrative that gets buyers into showrooms.

Musk is doing important, even urgent work. He’s trying to pave the way toward a more sustainable future. He’s challenging enormous industries with minuscule resources.

But this week, Musk let Twitter lure him into a fight he can’t win. For all the anti-Times cheerleading he drummed up, he had to know that he’d have to make a case, with only unimpressive—if not damning—data to make it. A little foresight might have shown him that a Twitter battle could force him to come clean about his product’s shortcomings.

Brands recognize Twitter as a powerful tool for getting the word out. But getting the last word isn’t the only way to steer a narrative. Sometimes, it’s better to think small.