Tesla Motors vs The New York Times

Tesla and the New York Times

Tesla and The New York Times

When something comes from a trusted news source, it carries a certain cachet; there’s an expectation of truth, integrity, and objectivity. The only time objectivity gets a pass is when something is entitled “opinion” or “editorial”, but reviews are always expected to be reasonably objective. So when The New York Times published John Broder’s scathing review of the Tesla Motors Model S electric car, it was natural for their readers to assume that the review was accurate based on the experience of the reporter who wrote it.

But as it turns out, John Broder may have exaggerated his experience in order to push an anti-electric car bias; Tesla says they have the logs to prove it, and they are refuting Broder’s article. If it’s true that Broder has a known anti-electric vehicle bias and his review was allowed to run, what does that say about The New York Times and their journalistic integrity?

Tesla and the New York Times

Tesla and the New York Times

Tesla Motors and The New York Times: Background

For those who may have missed it, this story has been a back and forth between Tesla and Broder since his review of the Tesla S hit The New York Times on February 8th. John Broder told of driving the Model S through the mid-Atlantic region and sweating bullets about the range between charges. He talked about driving slowly, turning off the heat, and barely making it to charging stations. At one point he flat-out said the car ran out of charge and had to be towed. Tesla Motor’s CEO Elon Musk responded by saying the reporter lied and he had logs of the drive to prove it; they’ve been released and appear to corroborate Musk’s allegations.

You can read the original New York Times review here.

According to Tesla Motors and their rebuttal of The New York Times’ review, the car was never fully depleted. In addition, they say that Broder drove past charging stations while he said the charge was low. Worst of all, Tesla says that their logs prove that Broder’s car was driven well above the stated speeds in the review, the car was never charged to full capacity, and the reporter apparently tried to drive the battery to zero by doing circles in a parking lot.

You can read Tesla’s rebuttal here.

Tesla and the New York Times

Tesla and The New York Times

Some of the log information from the Tesla Motors vs The New York Times situation is certainly subjective. Speed and temperature averages may not reflect highs and lows perfectly. But it’s hard to explain away driving a half mile in circles in a parking lot, unless the reviewer was REALLY lost looking for that charging station. And even if the reviewer was dead-set on getting to the faster “supercharger” station, instead of stopping to wait for hours at a regular charging station, there was no mention in the review of another charging option being available. At first glance, the logs reflect what Tesla alleged: The New York Times’ writer stretched and mangled the truth to make his review more interesting instead of making it accurate and fair.

Or did he? John Broder fired back that Tesla was wrong. According to Broder, Tesla told him the car was fully charged, Tesla didn’t tell him there was a closer charging station than the one he was heading to when the car died, and Tesla gave him conflicting battery preservation instructions. Also, he wasn’t just tooling around in that parking lot trying to run down the charge; he was apparently unable to locate the charging station in that poorly lit lot.

You can read John Broder’s rebuttal here.

It’s not that I don’t believe Broder; I don’t know him. But I have a hard time completely believing his version, because he even says in his rebuttal that one point he made in his original article should have been more precise.

It’s entirely possible that Tesla reps did make contradictory instructions, and Broder clearly had some issues with the car. But I have a hard time believing that while looking for the Supercharger at a rest stop, and doing circles in a panic, he didn’t think to ask for help. He was able to call Tesla over every other little thing, but he was driving a car he thought was going to die and didn’t think to call to say “Hey, do you know on which side of the rest stop the Supercharger is located?” It just struck me as another way to ramp up the drama and tension in the review.

I don’t doubt that range is a concern with an electric car, but The Verge also reviewed the car (and wrote about their range anxiety) with far less drama, hand wringing, and all around “doooooooom”.

This review on the Tesla Motors Tesla S isn’t the first time The New York Times has shown questionable integrity in their reporting. I have been suspicious of The New York Times since mid-2012, when they ran an article viciously slamming Lolo Jones for being an image-conscious athlete. It didn’t help when they ran an article later in 2012 that presented a deeply sympathetic view of a runner named Christian Hesch who was caught blood-doping. As it turned out, The New York Times had several basic facts about his story wrong, stemming from the fact that most of the facts in the story were provided by Hesch and never fact-checked or corroborated.

What struck me after these incidents that if The New York Times was this messy, biased, and inaccurate with information that I knew was wrong, how could I trust them as a primary source on anything they printed?

After reading the review of the Model S, comparing it to Tesla Motors’s response, and reading Broder’s defense, I’m still not sure.

Categories: Rants and Raves

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4 replies

  1. The conventional wisdom was always ‘follow the money’, so when it came to journalists vs. companies I could always see through the corporate BS because the journalists were trustworthy.

    But especially since the recession, but even earlier in many real ways, ‘the news’ was forced to be a profit center and therefore entertainment ranked as high as journalistic integrity. Most people I know who deal with games, music and so on know one thing: reviews are for sale, especially as the people putting out the product are also funding most of the major sites through advertising buys.

    And somewhere between quick-hit news bytes on web sites and the 24 hour news cycle, journalists need to do more than ever to stand out. Some sites seem addicted to naval-gazing melodrama, others to sensationalism. The New York Times has had numerous incidents over the past couple of years where their integrity came into question … and this particular author seems to have a long-standing dislike for electric cars.

    As you note, the truth likely lies somewhere in between – I have no doubt that there were some issues with the car, but there are some glaring inconsistencies and a number of things that flag my BS meter. And as I say – follow the money. Tesla has an obvious stake. But the NYT and this author have a financial stake – they KNEW that a sensational ‘drive to death’ article would stand out in a sea of good reviews. It is an old tactic that sadly works.

    I have no idea who is lying, but I think it is a sad commentary on the NYT and Broder that if I had to pick the story that seemed more credible … it would be Tesla.

    • I for one would certainly not trust the puffery of the car manufacturer seeking to sell its cars. The newspaper has its faults but the self-created data of the merchant who is selling on the basis of that data is certainly not reliable. Moreover electric cars not only are in their infancy but at this point are quite unreliable in that the charging stations are too few and far between.

  2. My biggest issue with Broder’s review, and one that I find nobody else seems to be noticing, is the issue of the side trip into NYC. Broder defends the trip in Manhattan and then up the West Side Highway as “only” two miles longer than the trip up the NJTP and the George Washington Bridge, but *anybody* who considers that a minor detour is either self-delusional or deliberately distorting reality. Even in a gasoline powered automobile, that detour would consume far more energy than the normal trip with two more miles, and for somebody who was paranoid about reaching the Milford charging station when he was an hour from NYC, this was a terrible decision, or an intentionally deliberate attempt to make the idea of using that automobile for a long trip look bad. Also, I cannot believe that setting the cabin temperature to 65 degrees caused Mr. Broder’s feet to go numb from cold. What a tool.

    That said, I think that Elon Musk overreacted.

    • That’s a huge point, and I can’t believe I missed it. I drive a Prius, and I know from personal experience that no amount of “regenerative braking” will offset the toll that stop and go traffic in Manhattan can take on my mileage. I have had times where it has taken me 30 minutes to go a 1/2 mile into Manhattan, and the West Side Highway can be a nightmare if you catch it at the wrong time.

      If Broder really did write that review solely to slam electric cars, I don’t think Musk overreacted. I may dislike the sloppy coverage of the NYT, but it’s still “The Times”, and it still has a great deal of influence. Sitting back and letting Broder’s review stand is fine if Broder was honest, but if he did exaggerate his experience, Tesla should defend themselves. Though as the dust has settled, I think Tesla would have been better off just publishing the log data and not spending three days throwing a tantrum first.