3 Important Takeaways from the NYT/Tesla Battle

What could make venerated publication and hallowed critical voice the New York Times backpedal ungraciously and admit some shaky practices by their own staff writer? The electric car.

Over the past week, the dust-up between electric car company Tesla and the Times regarding a scathing review that accused the car company of poor planning — both in the car and on the road — has resulted in a pile of open letters and pushback on all sides. Tesla founder and tech influencer Elon Musk took to Twitter to accuse the Times of lying and intentionally setting up the car to fail, while reporter John Broder shot back with his own responses to all of Musk’s critiques on the publication’s Wheels Blog. After days of similar comments from all sides, Public Editor Margaret Sullivan finally published her reporting post-mortem yesterday afternoon. In the lengthy piece, Sullivan admits that while Broder exhibited “good faith” in his desire to review Tesla’s much-hyped Model S, his judgement during the trip was not sound.

It’s a tangled interaction, but one that merits a deep examination into the new world journalists live in — one where companies can respond to damning critiques with their own dissection and gain a lot of exposure doing so. There are plenty of things to learn from this situation as a reporter, editor and critic, but here are just a few quick takeaways that will help you be better in the field. 

1. Ensure Your Notes Match Your Data

One of the most salient points in Sullivan’s take on the subject is the fact that Broder’s own records of the events, a rough scrawl of notes that he used to document his journey to each of the Tesla’s charging stations, did not hold up well against Musk’s stringent digital recording of the driving and charging logs of the car. Broder did not know that the car was equipped with active recording software, and Sullivan argues that this is the point where his defense breaks down.

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.

While we live in a highly sophisticated and digitally savvy world, but there’s no excuse for forgetting one of the foundations of journalism: excellent notes. By not maintaining a more stringent note-taking technique, either through audio recordings or the old fashioned pen and paper, Broder is the one to blame for not arming himself well for defense against Musk and Tesla.

2. There’s More Scrutiny Than Ever

By that same token, Musk’s decision to plant a recording device within the car to monitor its behavior brings out another very important point: by consenting to review a product, journalists are opening themselves up to a higher level of scrutiny than ever. Companies are more cautious and nit-picky than ever before, and they also have the power to accuse a critic of negligence if there’s mishandling of a product.

Musk’s biggest charges against Broder ultimately boiled down to a simple point: Broder must have set the review up to fail intentionally by not following the car’s best practices and instructions well. Musk backs up the accusation of negligence with two important pieces from the story: Broder failed to keep the car’s charge by plugging it in overnight, and he took a detour through Manhattan instead of directly heading to the next charging station.

While these points may seem a bit forced to some, there’s no denying that the company has grounds to accuse Broder of user error — the ultimate killer of a good review. Defend yourself from this mistake by reading the manual or instructions to any product thoroughly, and exercise the previous point by taking notes about your use cases and perceived errors.