There's a difference between media bias and the unfortunate norms of the modern media.
The news media has a problem with Tesla. Well, that's not accurate — the news media has a problem, and Tesla is just the latest company or country or individual or movement to get wrapped up in it. The problem is The Beast of the 24-hour news cycle and its need for nonstop feeding.
The Beast demands the latest news as quickly as possible. The Beast scoffs at verifying reported facts and waiting for complete information before publishing or broadcasting. The Beast thrives on sensational headlines and unresolved questions of the perils of the unknown. The Beast is driven by fear and uncertainty. The Beast is a creature of our own creation; living in a symbiotic relationship with our attention span.
The rise of the 24-hour news cycle has ensnared Tesla in a nasty cycle, and Tesla hasn't always handled it well.
I do not a write to bemoan the decline of traditional journalism — plenty of people smarter and more eloquent than I have waxed poetic on that subject. But that decline has ensnared Tesla in a nasty cycle, and Tesla hasn't always handled it well. Tesla has the good fortune of being a hot company — they create products that are desirable and forward thinking and worthy of the attention they receive. There's no denying that if Tesla can execute on their plans with the Model 3 and subsequent vehicles that they could revolutionize more than just the automotive industry.
Tesla also has the misfortune of being a hot company with desirable and forward-thinking products. Every time there's an accident with a claim of Autopilot involvement the media will pounce. This isn't due to some inherent media-wide bias against Tesla — these reporters and bloggers and news anchors are just feeding the beast. They hate going to print or air without complete facts. They hate the sensationalist headlines. They hate what's become of the news industry just as much as you do.
But The Beast must be fed.
The news industry has a problem in that they're looking for the next juicy story, not the next good one. Getting the story right is increasingly secondary to getting it first and in the most alarmist fashion possible.
Apple has found itself in a similar situation for the past several years. They make desirable and forward-thinking products, and everybody knows the Apple name and Apple products. Apple generally does fantastically well — their products are solid, they try to be good corporate citizens, they make enormous sums of money quarter after quarter, and they are able to adeptly manage the media when they're making news on their own terms. When Tesla announces a new feature like Autopilot, the media's praise is effusive but shallow. It takes time for the deep analysis and consideration of the consequences (good and bad) — by the time those pieces are ready the media has already moved on to the outrage of the day.
Apple was buffeted with days of negative press over tempests in teapots like "Antennagate" and "Bendgate," with precious little attention paid to actual stories like Apple's tax avoidance mechanisms and the exploitation of foreign workers on the lower (and higher) rungs of Apple's expansive contractor supply chain.
Tesla has real issues — like if they'll be able to deliver the $35,000 Model 3 sedan on time and on budget, or if the multi-billion SolarCity acquisition actually makes sense, but these aren't sexy stories (or stories that can be made sexy). They don't feed The Beast.
It takes mayhem and uncertainty and fear of the unknown to feed The Beast. And that's what has made every accident where Autopilot is implicated by the driver a huge story — Autopilot is new and awesome and scary and that make it an easy target. Selling news on the fear of change is almost as inevitable as change itself.
It takes mayhem and uncertainty and fear of the unknown to feed the beast. Selling news on the fear of change is almost as inevitable as change itself.
We've seen his happen time and again with Tesla. Each accident where the driver made a mistake and tries blaming Autopilot kicks up a dust storm. A subcontractor of a subcontractor of a contractor's hiring and payment policies name check Tesla in guilt by association. Every time a high-level employee at a competing automaker mentions Tesla that's the quote that makes the headline — even if it wasn't the point or meat of the interview. Any instance where the NHTSA even looks at a complaint of a potential flaw with a Tesla vehicle — something that happens all the time with every single automaker — the proclamations of doom flow so rapidly it's impossible to keep up. Hell, any time somebody does something stupid and they happen to do it in a Tesla it makes everything from the morning radio show to the broadcast TV evening news.
To be clear, Tesla and Apple are in very different positions. Apple is a very large, very established company in a very secure position with enormous profits, a huge customer base, and the kind of restraint and secrecy that makes the CIA jealous. Tesla is an upstart company that makes only a handful of products around one single core technology, and has consistently lost money hand over fist quarter after quarter. But both have managed to achieve the perception of success better than most companies ever will, and that makes them attractive targets for the media.
The latest example stems from Tesla's disclosures about the death of a driver in a car operating with Autopilot enabled. The accident occurred in early May, weeks before Tesla raised $1.7 billion from a stock sale to help finance the Model 3 ramp up. But the public disclosure of the fatal wreck didn't occur until weeks after the stock sale, promptly spinning the gears of the 24-hour news cycle into action.
Tesla was accused of withholding vital information from shareholders, but in doing so Fortune fed The Beast by rushing to get a story out over the July 4 holiday without getting formal comment from Tesla on when they knew what they knew. Which then prompted a blog post from Tesla in response, attempting to lay out their side of the events and the timeline of the accident and Tesla's own investigation. Fortune does have a point in that as a publicly traded company Tesla does have a duty to provide materially relevant information in a timely manner to their stockholders. But like many companies they pushed ahead with existing plans for the offering and their own internal investigation before announcing anything without being able to offer a conclusive statement on the issue. Considering the fact that Tesla's stock only saw a few hours' worth of dip after the Fortune article broke, investors overall seemed to think it wasn't material.
There are some that are biased against Tesla — and others in Tesla's favor. The bigger problem is a lack of technical understanding.
That the stock offering and accident occurred in such proximity to each other is a coincidence at best — and knee-jerk charges of nefarious action on the part of Tesla are almost more worrisome than the accident itself. Conducting a complete investigation and having all of the facts before announcing bad news is standard practice for any corporation — when insurance company Anthem realized that their servers had been breached, it took them a month to first seal the breach and conduct an investigation of how bad it was before announcing it to the public — and that affected 84 million people.
Of course, there are individuals in the media that are biased against Tesla and aren't able to constrain their disdain to the editorial section. On the flip side, there are others that are biased in favor of Tesla and allow their positive feelings to color their reporting and gloss over the problems that Tesla faces. The larger problem on an individual-by-individual basis is a lack of technical understanding.
But at the end of the day, The Beast must be fed. Incomplete stories are pushed with updates to come after they've already been read, blog posts are published with notes that they're waiting for comment from the company they're implicating, and news reports are broadcast because there are deadlines to be met and air time to fill. And for that Tesla, with all its clout and excitement and technological mystique, makes an easy target.