There is possibly no one who plays to the press's problems covering technology the way Musk does. He seems almost genetically engineered to take advantage of journalists' weak grasp of science and engineering, their appetite for hype, their craving for great-man narratives. Further complicating the issue is the way Musk alternates from laughably obvious bullshit to genuinely interesting accomplishments.
There are a few sharp observers who get Musk. The very smart Michael Hiltzik is a prime example.
Tesla brought down by 'hubris'? Who could have expected that?
Musk deserves admiration for his dedication to the cause of clean transportation and the battle against climate change, or at least to shifting emissions from auto tailpipes to electrical generation, which is increasingly fueled by renewable sources. His corporate mission was on display last week, when he unveiled Tesla's Model 3 sedan, which will be mass-marketed at a projected starting price of $35,000, to great acclaim. But declaring one's commitment to the climate and driving the auto press around in prototype cars is relatively easy (especially if you don't let anyone look under the hood) compared to mass-manufacturing actual vehicles.
There's no reason to gloss over some cold, hard facts. Monday's disclosure underscores several disquieting aspects of Tesla's business performance and Musk's management. One is Musk's tendency to overpromise results and make up the difference with hype when he comes up short. Another is the magnitude of the challenges facing the company as it attempts to ramp up manufacturing to meet demand for the Model 3 sedan, expected to hit the streets as early as year-end 2017. (We delved last week into the likelihood of that happening.)
Tesla's ability to cloud investors' judgments resembles that of some other subjects of intense media attention. In the business world, there's Apple, but in the broader context, the publicity bonanza Tesla reaped last week by unveiling a prototype automobile that won't actually be available for sale for at least another 18 months was almost Trump-esque. Musk even alluded to the phenomenon during the earnings call.
"Tesla does not advertise," he said. "We don't pay for any endorsements. We do not discount our cars for anyone, including me." Nor did he seem to think that any conventional advertising would ever be necessary: "I think I could see us doing advertising where that advertising was interesting, entertaining, and people don't regret seeing it, which unfortunately is not the case for most advertising."
Why pay for advertising when it comes for free? News organizations devoted reams of newsprint and untold pixels to covering the Model 3 introduction — The Times ran no fewer than eight articles from a few days before to a few days following the April 1 event, and most drew heavy readership.