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The persistence of bad reporting and the reluctance of people to criticize it

Mark Palko pointed to a bit of puff-piece journalism on the tech entrepreneur Elon Musk that was so extreme that it read as a possible parody, and I wrote, “it could just be as simple as that [author Neil] Strauss decided that a pure puff piece would give him access to write a future Musk bio.”

I then continued:

Here’s another angle on the whole Musk hype thing. Consider all the journalists and commentators out there who are not in the pay of Musk and do not harbor ambitions to write a book about the guy. Why don’t they go mock Neil Strauss for this article?

One reason, perhaps, is a mixture of vague hope of Musk dollars, mixed with vague fear of Musk dollars. Even if you’re not directly planning to get any Musk funding, and even if you’re not directly afraid that Musk would personally retaliate against you if you criticize him, still, it might seem “better safe than sorry” to just not bother to publicize any negative views you might have, regarding the Musk phenomenon. Not that Musk would pull a Peter Thiel and try to put you out of business—but what’s the point of tempting fate?

In addition to all that, you might feel that Musk is on the side of good. If you’re politically conservative, Musk represents all the good things of self-made businessmen; if you’re politically liberal, Musk represents a socially-conscious, zero-emissions future; or you just might think Musk is cool. So, sure, there’s some hype, you might think, but why go after Musk, who is such a force for good?

Is it good for Musk to have all this barely-contested hype? It’s hard to say. It’s got to be a loss to be able to dodge serious criticism—after all, the laws of physics will not be as gentle as the NY and LA press. On the other hand, it could be that all the hype could allow Musk to say afloat financially long enough for him to achieve whatever goals he has that are technically possible.

My point here is to go one step “meta” on the discussion, and ask, not just why is this journalist shilling for Musk, but also why are all the other journalists, bloggers, etc., not blowing this particular gaff?

A similar question could be asked about pro-Soviet hype in the 1960s, for example this notorious graph from Paul Samuelson’s famous textbook. We can ask not just, How did Samuelson get it so wrong?, but also, why did other members of the economics profession not criticize Samuelson more for this mistake? In this case, I doubt it was fear of the Russians, but it might well have been a mixture of (a) not wanting to slam Samuelson, who was, it seems, nearly universally beloved by his colleagues, (b) not wanting to reduce the credibility of economics more generally by pointing out an embarrassing flaw in the most famous textbook in the field, (c) not wanting to draw attention to leftist sympathies in academia, and (d) not wanting to draw attention to the economic failings of socialism. Items (c) and (d) are hardly secrets; still, maybe people felt no need to gratuitously remind people.


  1. John Hall says:

    Consider the recent book about Elizabeth Holmes (not that Musk is as bad as Holmes, but there are lessons learned). For honestly reporting on Theranos, John Carreyrou was attacked pretty hard. Came out well in the end, but not everyone wants to deal with that.

  2. yyw says:

    Incompetence? Judging by the quality of reporting even in NYT and the Post, many journalists seem to lack critical thinking and advanced reasoning skills. Herd mentality probably plays a part too.

    • There is no guarantee that subject-matter expertise yields critical thinking. Pedagogy is implicated. The quality of intellectual engagement from the earliest years is highly variable in public school systems. I just think a relaxed type of engagement and curiosity can yield very good critical thinking skills. In various suburban communities, I have witnessed parental ‘helicoptering’ which may yield some improvements for some time. But I’ve observed some of these helicoptered children disappoint their parents. The emphasis on grades, IQ, and tests is hyped. I have found that some children not doing so well in school are anxious and compared with siblings and other children. It is a bad habit. I suppose the competition is presumed to be fierce.

      I like Richard Posner’s use of the term ‘eclectic curiosity. It forms tacit learning, often a serendipitous and solitary enterprise. Develops independent and reflective judgment possibly. I don’t think the everyday school experience is conducive to it. There may be exceptions.

  3. steven t johnson says:

    It was very interesting that you committed to the proposition that GNP is a reliable model of economic success! For my part, I tend to think of economic success as being the best fulfillment of the needs of the population. But perhaps this is too controversial.

    For what it’s worth my take on the main topic is: The inferiors do not presume to criticize their betters. In the particular case of Elon Musk, the nimbus of wealth marks him as sacred. Money is numinous. Stars get the same treatment, also being possessed of, by and for the numinous. (numinous, see Rudolf Otto The Idea of the Holy, if you wish.)

    In addition to the personal servility of the journalist, there is the question of what news is for: It is to sell advertising. All people who participate in it wish to reach the public, making it all public relations. Perhaps it is easiest to see how it works out in movie reviewing. The reviewer is there to publicize movies, therefore the studios participate in the reviewing system, trying to game it. The reviewer wants to seem objective, therefore some things will get panned. And the reviewer also wants to seem percipient, spotting the new hits. Both desires lead to groupthink. (Film criticism presumably is done, but it appears to largely be an amateur thing, with the erratic results to be expected from part-timers.)

    • Phil says:

      steven, I think you mean ‘It was very interesting that Samuelson commited to the proposition that GNP is a reliable model of economic success’. That graph was Samuelson’s, not Andrew’s.

      • steven t johnson says:

        Andrew Gelman’s objection that people just accepted that Samuelson grossly overestimated Soviet economic performance. If the objection was that Soviet economic performance was no more accurately measured by GNP than US performance, then, why would it matter if two meaningless curves crossed?

        I haven’t followed this blog long, so perhaps there are more reservations. But in popular media certain economic indicators, like GNP, are simply assumed to mean everything they claim, and even more, they are sufficient.

        • Wonks Anonymous says:

          It’s actually somewhat beside the point the extent to which GNP had anything to do with the fulfillment of the population. The relevant thing is that Samuelson kept making the same prediction after his earlier one had been falsified without giving any thought to why it happened. If Samuelson was predicting that the Soviets would just be producing vast quantities of wheat, his objective numerical prediction can be off regardless of whether that wheat reaches the people or it’s taste or nutritional content.

  4. David says:

    “Is it good for Musk to have all this barely-contested hype?”

    I haven’t looked to see if there’s much criticism of this particular piece in Rolling Stone, but my Twitter feed, which comprises many journalists, is consistently loaded with highly critical comments about Musk himself, his PR, and news reports about him. My experience on how Musk is treated, which, granted, is its own bubble, is nearly the opposite of your take. Further, there are innumerable articles, not just social media comments, that take Musk to task for what the writers perceive to be grandstanding, PR stunts masquerading as philanthropy, Tesla’s financial and logistical troubles, etc. I’m not taking a position one way or another on Musk in this comment, but I’m not sure your generalization is accurate.

    • Uncertain Archaeologist says:

      Andrew’s blog delay has created an interesting effect here: my impression is that generally, coverage of Musk has become decidedly more critical in the past several months. Some of that is likely self-inflicted on Musk’s part, but it does feel as though it is now easier to critique Musk–or question his motivations–than it was in December 2017 or even March 2018.

  5. Thanatos Savehn says:

    The Founders interest in freedom of the press had mostly to do with ensuring the rights of the pamphleteers to own their own presses, print what they wanted to print and distribute it as widely as they could. They knew it was the pamphleteers who started and contributed to many of the most important debates of that era. The commercial media which served mainly as toll takers on the paper information highway were a secondary concern. Perhaps present day bloggers are the intellectual descendants of those pamphleteers and serve a similar societal purpose. If so, it’s hardly a surprise that the commercial media, now stripped of its monopoly on public information (market price for a bushel of barley, the content of the mayor’s speech, the sack race winner at the county fair, etc.), are reduced to selling whatever narrative its subscribers are willing to buy.

    • yyw says:

      It’s also not surprising that some media people have started to advocate for regulation (gatekeeping) of information in the public sphere.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Interesting perspective.

    • Anonymous says:


      Just to save time, I’ll put the Oliver Wendel Holmes quote here – “.. I must not say _necessary_ about the universe, that we don’t know whether anything is necessary or not. I believe that we can _bet_ on the behavior of the universe in its contact with us. So I describe myself as a _bet_tabilitarin.” [Italics in the original] page 77 The American Pragmatists C Misak.

      So much more of a all clocks are clouds person than a all clouds are clocks person – definitely having a grasp of uncertainties?

  6. The pro-Soviet hype in the 60s wasn’t universal in the economics profession, nor did it last very long. I was in the last cohort of PhDs specializing in planned economies (completed in 1990), and by the 80s the standard view of the the Soviet economy was of growth stagnation starting in the 70s. Worth noting also that Samuelson’s graph was in an introductory general economics textbook and isn’t indicative of the serious contemporaneous analysis of the Soviet economy one way or the other. I don’t recall encountering it until sometime in the current millennium, and I was supposed to be a specialist. Possibly a case of a great mind approaching a problem without having done much background work, and getting it … wrong. But Samuelson was a close friend and colleague of Abram Bergson, a great scholar and pioneer in the study of the Soviet economy, so … it’s a curious episode. Hmmm…

  7. Martha (Smith) says:

    I’m pretty sure Samuelson’s textbook was the text when I took Econ 101, I think in 1965. I don’t recall the “notorious graph” explicitly, but I do remember thinking that in general the course and textbook seemed pretty shallow (but that may have been because I was a senior math major and it was a freshman course).

  8. Terry says:

    My point here is to go one step “meta” on the discussion, and ask, not just why is this journalist shilling for Musk, but also why are all the other journalists, bloggers, etc., not blowing this particular gaff?

    Another explanation is that journalists don’t like to criticize other journalists because they don’t want to be criticized themselves. Sometimes this is called “professional courtesy”, other times it is called “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”, or “judge not lest ye be judged”. It is a widespread phenomenon not limited to journalism.

  9. Guive says:

    This is all interesting, but it seems like there are plenty of negative articles about Musk (and similar people). Why aren’t the authors of those articles worried about rocking the boat?

    • Mark Palko says:

      The timeline is essential. Only a handful of journalists (like Michael Hiltzik) engaged in any critical reporting before 2017. That year cracks started to show in the facade putting RS slightly behind the curve. Recently, a wave of bad Tesla news (crashes, poor quality ratings, missed deadlines, worker safety issues, etc.) have led to a truly ugly break-up between Musk and the press corps.

  10. Guive,

    I think it’s called ‘cowardice’.

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