Once upon a time Elon Musk was our era’s real-life Tony Stark, a billionaire Iron Man streaking across the sky with technology to save the planet and take us to Mars.
Reusable rockets, electric cars, solar power, he did them all, taking time out to advise Robert Downey Jr on how to play the Marvel superhero on a trajectory seemingly forever up, up, up.
Now Musk, 46, is literally and figuratively in a long, dark hole.
He is tunneling beneath Los Angeles to create a prototype underground transit network which, he says, can save the city from traffic congestion.
A noble goal. But a recently released video of the tunnel plus a map of potential lines coincided with a dark turn in Musk’s fortunes and reputation, creating the impression of a man in a labyrinth of his own making.
His car company Tesla is hemorrhaging money and credibility. Unhappy shareholders want to dump three directors, including Musk’s brother Kimbal, from the board. Lawsuits tangle his clean energy company SolarCity.
The entrepreneur has responded to negative headlines by lashing out at the news media and individual journalists.
“Holier-than-thou hypocrisy of big media companies who lay claim to the truth but publish only enough to sugarcoat the lie, is why the public no longer respects them,” he tweeted last week, ire stoked by a damning report about Tesla factory safety.
Musk followed up by calling journalists sanctimonious twisters of facts beholden to advertisers – and proposed a remedy.
“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.”
For some of his online supporters – he has 21.9 million Twitter followers – this was a call to arms. They piled on journalists with abuse and threats.
For Musk skeptics it was further evidence of his burrowing into ethical murk. Instead of Iron Man here was Gollum, erratic and vengeful, scrabbling with trolls.
“Going after the free press because they’ve been critical of your company is not how a CEO, visionary or even an adult reacts to criticism and it has real-world consequences,” Roberto Baldwin wrote in the technology blog network Engadget.
Other outlets have weighed in, excoriating Musk as a thin-skinned bully who wouldn’t recognise journalistic independence if it rode a blazing meteorite over California. “The Donald Trump of Silicon Valley,” declared the New York Times.
The bold champion of clean energy and space travel now locked in battle with the same media which once feted him as a visionary. How did it come to this?
One possible answer: Tesla has skidded into trouble and Musk is blaming the messenger in apparent hope of soothing skittish investors and potential investors.
A year ago Wall Street was toasting the company. Its market value surpassed that of Ford and General Motors thanks to sales of the battery-powered Model S sedan, a pioneering autopilot system and the promise that a $35,000 economy version of the Model 3 would soon roll off assembly lines, turning Tesla into a mass market auto-maker.
Breaking into a market of gasoline-focused giants to make stylish, emissions-free cars adored by customers was a remarkable feat. Few others had dared, let alone succeeded. Musk’s public presentations inspired an evangelical vibe among cheering audiences.
Then came setbacks. Tesla recalled 126,000 Model S cars to fix bolts. Crashes raised troubling questions about autopilot systems. “Production hell” – Musk’s words – plagued the Model 3. The long-promised economy version has yet to emerge, undermining Tesla’s claim to be a mass market player.
The company reported record losses and burnt through $750m in cash in the last quarter. Its stock, credit rating and valuation plunged amid speculation about bankruptcy. Tesla will likely need a big cash infusion to survive.
“More bad press for Elon: the car Elon Musk launched into orbit has fallen back down to Earth and crushed Malala Yousafzai,” blared a headline this week. This time it really was fake news – a satirical article from ClickHole, a spinoff from the Onion.
“Hell of a week,” he tweeted. The Pakistani human rights advocate ran with the joke and tweeted that she was keeping the car. “Finders keepers,” he responded.
It was a fleeting, lighthearted interlude in his toxic response to genuine bad news, a mix of scorn and conspiracy theory aimed at delegitimising reports of Tesla woes.
“Anytime anyone criticizes the media, the media shrieks ‘You’re just like Trump!’” he tweeted. “Why do you think he got elected in the first place? Because no one believes you any more. You lost your credibility a long time ago.
“Problem is journos are under constant pressure to get max clicks & earn advertising dollars or get fired. Tricky situation, as Tesla doesn’t advertise, but fossil fuel companies & gas/diesel car companies are among world’s biggest advertisers.”
His followers have followed up with invective against individual reporters, especially female ones, a misogynistic streak detailed in a Daily Beast article. “It is as though they’ve invested their own identity as males into Elon and his work,” said Shannon Stirone, a science writer.
When not gaslighting online, Musk’s fans can unwind by using handheld flamethrowers: his tunnel company, Boring, sold 20,000 at $500 each. A good investment for the impending zombie apocalypse, said Musk.
Amid the tide of criticism it is easy to overlook Musk’s achievements, and some nuance.
The South Africa-born boy who designed and sold a video game, Blastar, by the age of 12, is self-made. He studied economics and physics and minted a fortune at PayPal before upending space exploration with audacious innovation.
He sets impossible targets, for example in fuel efficiency, said one SpaceX engineer, on condition of anonymity. “We tell him it can’t be done, then spend months working around the clock and deliver maybe half the target, which is amazing, but we’re almost apologetic.”
SpaceX set a new milestone in February by launching the Falcon Heavy, the first time a private company has sent such a powerful rocket into space, paving the way for even bigger rockets to potentially carry humans to Mars. “It’d be pretty cool to die on Mars, just not on impact,” Musk once joked to the Guardian. (His representatives declined an interview request for this article.)
Unlike most CEOs, Musk engages with customers and journalists, albeit mostly via Twitter.
He has told his more trollish supporters to cool it. “At risk of stating the extremely obvious, I am against threats of violence & abusive epithets in any forum. Please do not use them in my name or at all.”
The media sometimes misses or chooses to miss his humour. Naming his putative journalism credibility rating site Pravda may not be hilarious but is hardly an attempt to recreate the Soviet propaganda mouthpiece. And yes, many journos are under pressure to get max clicks and earn advertising dollars.
The reason Iron Man fell to Earth, however, is that reality overtook the hype. He dazzled investors with an image of mass produced Teslas which so far remains a mirage. Maybe Musk can yet make it real – the jury is out.
Blasting the media is a tantrum or smokescreen, perhaps both. Either way it is straight from the Trump playbook, though in this case the media are not lying, hypocritical liberal ideologues but lying, hypocritical shills for Tesla’s fossil fuel rivals.
That narrative may play out underground too if the media keep reporting skepticism about Musk’s vision of a Los Angeles labyrinth, with some calling it a plutocrat’s fantasy, others a boondoggle.
A recent public presentation hosted by Musk was tightly controlled – no TV cameras, entry by reservation, pre-approved questions – and packed with a cheering crowd. The last question: “Will you organize a big party before the tunnel launch?”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010