The New York Times had their public editor (think ombudsman) publish a response to the whole “Dead Tesla’ fiasco (summary by our own Dan Wallach here), and it is far from kind to reporter John Broder.
While Public Editor Margaret Sullivan defends Broder against Tesla founder Elon Musk’s claims that he “faked” his test drive, she does just about everything else possible to impugn his journalistic cred. Witness Sullivan’s epic qualification when sticking up for her writer
My own findings are not dissimilar to the reader I quote above, although I do not believe Mr. Broder hoped the drive would end badly. I am convinced that he took on the test drive in good faith, and told the story as he experienced it.
Did he use good judgment along the way? Not especially. In particular, decisions he made at a crucial juncture – when he recharged the Model S in Norwich, Conn., a stop forced by the unexpected loss of charge overnight – were certainly instrumental in this saga’s high-drama ending.
Sullivan claims she consulted with
“…Mr. Broder, Mr. Musk, two key Tesla employees, other Times journalists, the tow-truck driver and his dispatcher, and a Tesla owner in California, among others…I’ve also had a number of talks with my brother, a physician, car aficionado and Tesla fan, who has helped me balance what might have been a tendency to unconsciously side with a seasoned and respected journalist – my own “confirmation bias.”
Perhaps Ms. Sullivan’s brother could have been replaced by someone with an engineering or automotive background rather than a Tesla fan and car nut, who surely comes with his own set of biases and, in the case of the average car aficionado, opinions that are largely formed based on hearsay and a quick scan of a buff book while waiting in the CVS checkout line.
Also missing is one crucial element that most of you are aware of, but Sullivan seems ignorant of; the element of pressure from an OEM when testing a car or anything related to the car on a manufacturer-arranged drive. Tesla has operated some of the most tightly controlled testing protocols we’ve seen in some time (TTAC has yet to drive the car outside of a brief preview). If anything, invoking the Holy Cause of journalistic integrity would call for Sullivan and the NYT to push back against any interference or petulant PR campaign from Tesla and Elon Musk. In the wake of Jayson Blair and Judith Miller, the Grey Lady is doubtlessly sensitive to claims of journalistic incompetence – or worse. But if Sullivan had consulted someone besides a few Tesla employees and her brother, this crucial element may have been brought to the surface, and a different tone may have been adopted.