Elon Musk, Ryan Mac and Bad Faith Journalism
BuzzFeed News set a low editorial standard by releasing Elon Musk’s emails.
Disclosure: I don’t own Tesla stock but I do own a “Boring Company” hat. I like puns and it works well in combination with a company t-shirt that says “Never Boring” on it.
BuzzFeed used gotcha tactics to portray Elon Musk as a jerk and justify the release of emails that were marked “off the record”. Ryan Mac, a senior tech reporter at BuzzFeed News, threw Elon under the bus for an article that has little to do with technology and everything to do with appealing to the lurid curiosity of readers.
“Off the record”, Elon wrote, “I sent you an off the record email, which very clearly and unambiguously said ‘off the record’. If you want to publish off the record comments and destroy your journalistic credibility, that’s up to you.”
Reading, you wouldn’t know the story goes back several years with dozens of provocations.
There is a hierarchy of editorial standards with Reuters on top and National Inquirer on the bottom. I would never use the label ‘fake news’ to describe the News team at BuzzFeed. Jane Lytvenyenko and Craig Ferguson do great work debunking ‘fake news’ in both playful and serious ways. (Note: In this article I make a distinction between the “News” team and regular BuzzFeed. Regular BuzzFeed gives the brand its pejorative).
The News section has made impressive steps towards legitimacy. In 2013 and again in 2016 they hired Pulitzer Prize winners to lead investigative units. In that time they developed a Standards and Ethics Guide and earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination of their own.
I have communicated with Ryan in the past and was surprised he claimed “common journalistic practice”. When contacted again over DM he said he “acted ethically”. I have spent a great deal of time reading and writing about journalism ethics and his actions appear to be neither common or ethical.
My response to his viral tweet did not sit well with the twitter-sphere.
Both Ryan and Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, were polite enough to answer a few of my questions and agreed to let me share our DMs.
After Ryan released his full correspondence with Musk, things still didn’t add up. I posed the hypothetical question “If Elon asked to be off the record would you have said no?” It went ignored. I think his answer would be no.
Over the past 6 years, Ryan has tweeted about Elon roughly 300 times. Most were benign criticisms, some contained questions but some were absolutely bizarre. A pattern of unrequited fascination.
Debate Me, Bro.
Elon is not in the practice of responding to BuzzFeed News and has never tweeted a BuzzFeed story. When BuzzFeed News writes a story, he almost never gives a response.
- “Neither Unsworth nor a representative for Tesla immediately responded to requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.” Elon Musk Didn’t Help Save The Thai Boys. Now He’s Attacking Someone Who Did. — Remy Smidt, July 16, 2018.
- “Tesla had not responded to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment at the time of publication.” Elon Musk Is Stuck In A Copyright Row Over A Farting Unicorn And He’s Pissed Off About It — Patrick Smith, June 28, 2018.
- “A Tesla spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.” Fatal Tesla Crash Report Shows Autopilot Was Engaged And Car Sped Into Barrier At 70 MPH — Ryan Mac, June 7, 2018.
- “Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether or not its factory will resume 12-hour shifts.” As Tesla Celebrates The Model 3, Employees Demand Answers On Pay — Caroline O’Donovan, July 29, 2017.
- “Tesla did not immediately return a request for comment.” If Trump Quits Paris Climate Deal, Elon Musk Says He’ll Leave The President’s Advisory Councils — Priya Anand, May 31, 2017
- “Tesla did not immediately respond to request for comment on this story” Tesla Employee Who Wants A Union Says He’s “Disappointed In” Musk — Caroline O’Donovan, February 10, 2017.
- “Tesla has not yet responded to a request for comment.” Elon Musk And Uber CEO Travis Kalanick To Advise Trump, Apple CEO To Meet Privately — Hamza Shabam, December 14, 2016.
- “Tesla didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Musk’s decision.” It Sure Looks Like Elon Musk Just Deleted Tesla And SpaceX’s Facebook Pages — Caroline O’Donovan, March 23, 2018.
We All Live in Yellow Journalism
It’s not exactly a hot-take to be calling BuzzFeed clickbait. But let me clear up a few headlines…
Vern Unsworth, the man Elon called a ‘pedo’ on Twitter is not a “cave diver”.
When Vern told CNN that Elon could put his submarine “where it hurts”, BuzzFeed News was one of many who misreported Vern’s role as a ‘cave diver’. He is not a ‘cave diver’ but a cave explorer who does not specialize in cave diving. He may dive, he may have dived in or near a cave a few times, but Vern was not a member of the British Cave Rescue Council and was not an official spokesperson for the rescue team.
CNN issued a correction to their story saying it “incorrectly identified Unsworth as a diver”. Around July 17th, Elon ‘liked’ the bookends of a Twitter conversation that mentioned the CNN correction. Oddly, the correction was later removed but when reached for comment, CNN Money writer reinstated the correction saying it was ‘inadvertently’ removed.
BuzzFeed News has yet to issue any corrections. Errors remain in the articles and the headlines: A Diver Who Rescued Boys From The Flooded Thai Cave Said Elon Musk’s Submarine Plan Was “Just A PR Stunt” and Elon Musk Didn’t Help Save The Thai Boys. Now He’s Attacking Someone Who Did.
This is not to say Vern wasn’t important. Vern knew the cave and asked the Thai government to enlist the help of members of the British Cave Rescue Council.
Ryan reached out to Elon for comment and published later that morning.
Ryan followed up the publication with a tweet requesting comment.
Elon responded via email: “Have you done any research at all? For example, you incorrectly state that he is a diver, which shows that you know essentially nothing and have not even bothered to research basic facts.”
Ryan updated the story to include Elon’s response and then celebrated it on Twitter. “Thanks [@]elonmusk for the comment!”
Ryan emailed Elon again “Actually, he prefers to be called a spelunker” (NOTE: A spelunker explores caves but is not a cave diver) and continued his linguistic back-flip with “we have confirmed he actually does do cave diving” (NOTE: not a cave diving expert).
Ryan’s sneaky language inspired me to revisit all his previous reporting on Musk. In addition to uncharitable spins, I found instances of pseudo-citations — the act of hyperlinking words to support your point but the linked websites don’t reflect the point being made. Click here for a Google Doc with comments.
“You Fucking Asshole” — Elon Musk to Ryan Mac
Ryan has made fun of Elon’s body, joked about his penis, asked him to tweet about sex parties, suggested he is evil, and called him the troll of the year. Romantic partners are not even off bounds: Ryan has chastised Grimes for defending Elon (several times) and even compared her to a dog. Still, with hubris you can only find on Twitter, he asked Grimes for an interview (twice). The most distasteful Twitter etiquette was when he mocked Grime’s mother in a retweet (Grime’s mother later deleted it) and despite a SpaceX employee questioning his ethics, Ryan continued.
Ethical? Common journalistic practice? Elon, please get me off this planet.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
DANIEL VOSHART works in full-time as a VR Specialist and writes in his spare time.