Tesla takes on the New York Times, and what a sexy story—longstanding Grey Lady reporter takes down everyone’s favorite plucky electric car startup, high-profile CEO of said startup personally fires back, so does the reporter, and everyone is loving this. But few reports on the account highlight a key fact: the reporter, John Broder, has evidenced a bias against cleantech and electric cars long before he got behind the wheel of the Model S.
Elon Musk, the Tesla CEO, has just released what he says will be its final word in the dispute, which began when Broder wrote an account of the Tesla Model S repeatedly losing battery power ahead of schedule and ending up on the shoulder of an East Coast highway. Tesla’s data logs show that Broder’s story doesn’t match the stats—they reveal that he never once fully charged the car, drove faster than he claimed he did, and even once drove around a parking lot apparently trying to prematurely drain the battery. Musk also points out that there are dozens of charging stations Broder could have reached, and released the graphic claiming to prove as much. Broder’s sticking to his story.
Musk certainly isn't blameless here. His aggressive tactics are likely exacerbating the situation, meanwhile, complaints in his account that the reporter didn’t write more about the Supercharger like he told him to are bizarre and unfounded. But most folks who follow cleantech already know a thing or two about Musk’s headstrong, electric personality. So it might help to know a thing or two about Broder, too.
I’ve been covering cleantech and the environment for years now, and whenever I see a story bylined by Broder, the Times’ energy and environment reporter, I can pretty accurately guess how he’s going to frame it. Clean energy projects are government-funded “orphans” and are often failing. Electric cars are “dismal.” The BP oil spill really wasn’t that bad. And so on. A distinct ideology pervades his work: he’s a conservative skeptic on energy issues, and he’s not buying this cleantech stuff. It's a common view for Very Serious People in the media world and on the Hill: they're not blatantly oppositional, but quietly and persistently derisive of clean energy and electric cars and all those other hippie toys. As such, Broder seems to routinely focus on the industry’s failures over its successes.
For instance, Broder published an additional blog post the same day his Tesla takedown ran, in which he describes his encounter with an employee of a utility company he met during the drive who also thought electric cars where no good, mostly, it seems, because it fit his electric cars-suck narrative. No other asides were made.
The most relevant precedent here is the one that Musk cites in his rebuttal. Last March, Broder wrote a scathing opinion piece, “Electric Cars, Unplugged,” inveighing against electric cars in general, and it rather perfectly encapsulates his attitude: “the state of the electric car is dismal, the victim of hyped expectations, technological flops, high costs and a hostile political climate.”
Here are a few more choice quotes from that opinion piece:
-“Is this the beginning of the end of the latest experiment in the electric car, whose checkered history goes back to the dawn of the automobile age?”
-“Can the electric car survive only with heavy government subsidies and big consumer rebates? Are the Teslas and Fiskers and ActiveEs and Volts and Leafs destined to be the playthings of only rich technophiles with a couple of spare gas-powered cars at home?”
He leaves the question unanswered, but the answer to the hypothetical seems pretty clear. And he cites a bunch of conservatives who hate the Chevy Volt, but no one that favored it (he neglects, of course, to mention that it won numerous car of the year awards):
-“Glenn Beck called the Volt “crappy.” Rush Limbaugh accused General Motors of “trying to kill its customers” by selling an unsafe car.”
Broder concludes the piece with a quote from an EV activist that seems designed to marginalize pro-electric car folks and give the impression they blame their "failure" on Big Oil. But you get the point. Broder thinks electric cars aren't ready for the prime time, and are maybe even a bit of a joke. And he publicly wrote as much in one of the most widely-read opinion sections in the nation. So there’s little doubt in my mind that Broder got into the driver’s seat of that Tesla Model S hoping to prove himself right. I’m not going to wade into the he-said-she-said of what may or may not actually have happened here—and many have pointed out that the logs only undermine small parts of Broder's story, and only marginally so—but it seems unlikely that Broder would ever have given Tesla an unbiased test drive.
It’d be a bit like Michael Pollan reviewing a Big Mac or Ross Douthat reviewing a Planned Parenthood clinic. The Paper of Record should at least do better than to have an outspoken critic of electric cars review one, and raise no eyebrows when the result is the most brutal takedown imaginable. It’s just a little too pat, no?