Elon Musk Says His Only Regret In NYT Controversy Was Not Rebutting The Rebuttal

During this afternoon’s keynote interview at South by Southwest Interactive, Tesla CEO and founder Elon Musk briefly addressed his recent back-and-forth with The New York Times about a negative article by writer John Broder, which Musk said was “false.” Asked if he would do anything differently, Musk said there was just one thing — he would have posted “the rebuttal to the rebuttal.”

Broder’s article recounted a test drive of Tesla’s Model S in which the battery was depleted in the final part of the drive, meaning that it had to get towed. Musk in turn wrote a long post in which he accused Broder of improperly charging the vehicle, taking a long detour, and otherwise setting up the test drive to fail.

When Musk mentioned the “rebuttal,” he was referring specifically to a piece by The Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan, which she said that Broder undertook the drive in “good faith,” but that he didn’t always use good judgment:

In particular, decisions he made at a crucial juncture – when he recharged the Model S in Norwich, Conn., a stop forced by the unexpected loss of charge overnight – were certainly instrumental in this saga’s high-drama ending.

In addition, Mr. Broder left himself open to valid criticism by taking what seem to be casual and imprecise notes along the journey, unaware that his every move was being monitored. A little red notebook in the front seat is no match for digitally recorded driving logs, which Mr. Musk has used, in the most damaging (and sometimes quite misleading) ways possible, as he defended his vehicle’s reputation.

Musk said that he only saw it as a “low-grade ethics violation,” rather than Jayson Blair-level fabrication. (He did level the Blair charge against my old editor Owen Thomas a few years ago.) Nonetheless, he argued, “It was not in good faith. That’s an important point. And I probably shuld have posted that rebuttal to make it clear. That’s what I regret.”

Other than that, Musk said he’s still comfortable with his initial blog post: “I don’t think the language was inaccurate.”

On-stage interviewer Chris Anderson said that Musk has boasted about his ability to take negative criticism. So what happened here? Musk argued that the criticism wasn’t he problem, but rather the alleged inaccuracy. After all, there have been “hundreds” of critical reviews of Tesla, and he’s only spoken out about a “handful” of them.”

“I don’t have a problem with critical reviews,” he said. “I have a problem with false reviews.”

During the talk, Musk also offered updates on his commercial space company StartX, which we covered in a separate post.