On Wednesday, Elon Musk tweeted a proposal to hold journalists accountable for perceived inaccurate and unfair reporting. The Tesla and SpaceX founder claimed he will create a platform allowing the public to rate the credibility of journalists.
This isn't his first public jab at the media. Earlier this month, Musk vented frustration over the Washington Post's coverage of Tesla Autopilot accident, which he felt was overblown and sensationalized to drive clicks and sell papers.
It's super messed up that a Tesla crash resulting in a broken ankle is front page news and the ~40,000 people who died in US auto accidents alone in past year get almost no coverage https://t.co/6gD8MzD6VU-- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 14, 2018
Musk's solution, with the working name Pravda -- an apparent reference to a once-Soviet Russia newspaper, would essentially empower readers to determine the truthfulness of a given article, assigning a credibility score to journalists that changes over time.
Going to create a site where the public can rate the core truth of any article & track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor & publication. Thinking of calling it Pravda ...-- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 23, 2018
There's no denying Musk's brilliance as an engineer and innovator, but here's why his latest idea to disrupt an industry -- this time the news media -- is a terrible idea.
It gives credence to the post-fact, 'Fake News' narrative.
On the surface, Musk's idea seems harmless enough. He wants to democratize news media fact checking, creating a platform to encourage all readers to weigh in. But given the context of this proposal paired with a hostile environment -- in which the leader of the free world calls journalists "the enemy of the people" -- his words are careless at best and outright insidious at worst.
As one of the most influential businesspeople on the planet, he has an ethical responsibility to choose his words carefully. By spreading the 'Fake News' narrative, he's undermining a vital American institution, and in turn, furthering a dangerous post-fact environment where truth and reality are being sidelined by tribalism, dishonesty and prideful ignorance.
Credible news outlets, held to high journalistic ethics and principals, are not the problem. The problem is that today, when groups and individuals don't like the facts, they can turn to alternative news outlets that reinforce their own biases and beliefs. Musk's proposed platform would add a new dynamic to that dark trend, emboldening readers to determine what is true and not true with the click of a mouse.
Media watchdogs and fact checking sites already exist.
As an entrepreneur, Musk ought to know it's bad business to create a solution in search of a problem. There are already a wide-range of credible, non-partisan media watchdogs and fact checking sites, as PolitiFact was quick to remind him.
A site that rates "the core truth" and tracks "the credibility score over time" of comments by politicians and pundits? Hey @elonmusk, we sort of do that? Become a member at https://t.co/gKuJDY7bx6. Thanks for your interest! https://t.co/8hXaGeCZnh-- PolitiFact (@PolitiFact) May 23, 2018
These research-oriented sites and organizations have a distinct advantage over Musk's proposal to outsource fact checking to the public. They're actually trained and qualified to do it in an informed, unbiased manner.
The rating system would essentially be an online fan poll stacked up against a scientific study. In other words, from a practical standpoint, it would be worthless for any purpose other than a sad, misguided form of entertainment.
Intimidating the media is a bad look for an otherwise stellar brand.
Musk's Twitter rant brings him down to the level of other public figures who have resorted to angry (and often empty) threats and intimidation tactics over bad press.
Take Maryland politician Kirby Delauter. According to The Frederick News-Post, Delauter threaten the newspaper with a lawsuit, suggesting they were not authorized to print his name without permission. The paper's editorial board responded with a brutal, tongue-in-cheek response piece titled "Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter", giving the councilman a very public lesson in the First Amendment.
Mark Twain once said, "Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel." In this case, Musk's best move is to show composure and thick skin, accepting the reality that bad press is an inherent aspect of being a public figure.
By many standards, Musk is a media darling. But if he expects journalists to serve as his public relations mouthpiece, they will certainly and unflinchingly bring this space explorer back down to Earth.