A fascinating argument erupted this week between a New York Times journalist and crony capitalist entrepreneur Elon Musk, with a gorgeous automobile and an ugly charge of fabricated journalism occupying center stage.
The automobile is the Tesla S, a Jaguar-esque sports sedan powered by a muscular lithium ion battery pack with a claimed range in excess of 200 miles and the performance to be expected of a high-tech vehicle with more than 400 horsepower. Electric vehicle advocates see the Tesla S as a four-wheel demonstration that battery powered cars can be just as attractive and practical as the gas and diesel fueled Fords and Chevies that have dominated American roads for a century.
The ugly charge came about after Tesla approached the Times John Broder about driving a Tesla S from Washington, D.C. to Boston to illustrate the car's long-distance range. Two special charging stations had been established by Tesla along the way, part of an intended nationwide network of 90 the California firm promises to build.
But things didn't go as Tesla hoped or, no doubt, Broder expected after picking up his red S, which he described in the following scene-setting terms:
"The car is a technological wonder, with luminous paint on aluminum bodywork, a spacious and ultrahip cabin, a 17-inch touch screen to control functions from suspension height to the Google-driven navigation system. Feeding the 416 horsepower motor of the top-of-the-line Model S Performance edition is a half-ton lithium-ion battery pack slung beneath the cockpit; that combination is capable of flinging this $101,000 luxury car through the quarter mile as quickly as vaunted sport sedans like the Cadillac CTS-V.
"The Model S has won multiple car-of-the-year awards and is, many reviews would have you believe, the coolest car on the planet. What fun, no? Well, no."
Broder then told an epic tale of a journey into automotive journalism Hell, featuring a costly vehicle that required multiple recharging stops, being driven long distances at speed just barely able to stay up with traffic, without use of the heater, and, most egregiously, an apparent software failure that locked the parking brake and required a nightmarish towing experience.
Not surprisingly, the Timesman was somewhat less than enthusiastic about the Tesla S at the end of his review. Even so, he gave a senior Tesla official the last word:
"Tesla's chief technology officer, J B Straubel, acknowledged that the two East Coast charging stations were at the mileage limit of the Model S's real-world range. Making matters worse, cold weather inflicts about a 10 percent range penalty, he said, and running the heater draws yet more energy. He added that some range-related software problems still needed to be sorted out.
"'It's disappointing to me when things don't work smoothly,' Mr. Straubel said in a post-mortem of my test drive. 'It takes more planning than a typical gasoline car, no way around it. Hopefully you'll give us a little slack in that we put in the East Coast stations just a month ago. It's a good lesson.'"
To no one's surprise, Musk wasn't about to take Broder's review lying down. A few days after the Times review appeared, Musk posted a searing response on the Tesla blog that opened with this observation:
"To date, hundreds of journalists have test driven the Model S in every scenario you can imagine. The car has been driven through Death Valley (the hottest place on Earth) in the middle of summer and on a track of pure ice in a Minnesota winter. It has traveled over 600 miles in a day from the snowcapped peaks of Tahoe to Los Angeles, which made the very first use of the Supercharger network, and moreover by no lesser person than another reporter from The New York Times. Yet, somehow John Broder 'discovered' a problem and was unavoidably left stranded on the road. Or was he?"
There followed damning commentary accompanied by multiple charts depicting data allegedly collected by the test car's black box that Musk claimed demonstrated Broder's review was full of serious misrepresentations. The post also suggested that Broder's previous reporting demonstrated a fundamental bias against EVs.
In effect, Musk accused Broder of intentionally writing falsehoods, which, other than plagiarism, is the most serious charge that can be laid at the feet of a professional journalist.
Broder's response was remarkably restrained, but made clear that, while he was perhaps guilty of some instances of less-than crystal-clear writing, he stood by his review. His editors have also stood by his account of the experience with the car.
Today along comes The Atlantic Wire's Rebecca Greenfield with a detailed analysis of Musk's charges and charts. Here's her conclusion:
"Not all of Musk's data is entirely convincing and the parts that are don't point to a malicious plot. In the end, it looks like Broder made some compromises to get from the Newark charging station to the Milford one, in both speed and temperature. Broder may not have used Musk's car the way Musk would like, but Musk is, for now, overhyping his case for a breach of journalism ethics."
I've never met Broder, nor have I ever driven a Tesla S (though I covered the auto industry earlier in my reporting career and wrote hundreds of new car and truck reviews over the years). But I found Broder's response to Musk more than adequate to refute his attacks and I assume the Times editors are standing by their man because he documented his experience to their satisfaction. That counts a lot to this ink-stained wretch.
As for Musk, he is clearly an entreprenuer of immense talent - besides Tesla, he also founded Space X and PayPal - and he enjoys a significant following of admiring tech-savvy folks and mainstream media acolytes who instantly jump to his defense whenever he is criticized, fairly or otherwise.
Somehow, I doubt that will be the end of this particular battle, so stay tuned.
Mark Tapscott is executive editor of The Washington Examiner.