Elon Musk was pissed off. The capo di tutti capi of this era’s visionary disrupters recently tossed his super high-end gauntlet down at the feet of the media. Musk was tweeting uncharitable remarks about journalists, his ire provoked by a series of articles critiquing his new Tesla 3 model car, alleged safety issues at his California plant, and the concerning state of Tesla’s finances. His Twitter blasts culminated in a retweet to an article about media bias published by a website called The KnifeMedia.Com. When the Twitterati pointed out to Musk that Knife Media is a front for NXIVM, a sex-trafficking cult currently under investigation by the FBI, Musk was unfazed; the shady provenance of the article was beside the point.
Elon Musk is almost universally recognized as an extraordinary being in the vein of Benjamin Franklin and Nicola Tesla, after whom he named his swift, gorgeous line of electric cars. He is not merely a genius, he is a celebrity genius in a time when celebrity confers the highest power and prestige. He was one of the co-founders of the online pay system we now know as PayPal. He founded SpaceX, a private company launching spacecraft to low earth orbit, but whose ultimate goal is to launch human beings on a journey beyond the confines of our home planet. He has invented a type of solar panel that is as beautiful as it is functional. In other words, ordinary people, which is to say virtually all of the rest of us, won’t ever achieve one one thousandth of what this 46 year old has already managed to do.
Several well-known journalists and commentators took to Twitter and wrote articles defending the press against Musk’s critique of their trade and his suggestion that journalists were in thrall to corporate interests. At the same time, a significant number of people pointed out that his criticism had merit. The media does indeed chase stories that will garner views and clicks— witness the extraordinary amount of attention that Donald Trump harvested during his presidential campaign, just to mention one earth-shattering example. There are countless more. Indeed, in 2018 any child knows that the juicy image with its panting caption down at the bottom of virtually every website is designed to draw viewers in and blast them with advertising. Aside from those who work for click-bait sites, most journalists don’t actively or consciously seek out stories that will please or mollify their corporate overlords, but their editors are answerable to their publishers, and publishers do not operate in a fiduciary or ethical vacuum.
The mainstream media, as it has come to be known in recent years, is viewed with profound suspicion and its approval numbers are abysmal. While baroque styling of the term is no longer necessary, variations like “lamestream” or “blamestream”, popularized by provocateurs and interested third parties such as Rush Limbaugh and former governor of Alaska, Tea Party leader and faded reality star “Mama Bear” Sarah Palin, spun the already-pejorative “mainstream media” into steel wool, scrubbing away at informational and ideological consensus, carving it up into a bloodied, angered journalistic landscape.
The biters at the heels of consensus found rich morsels to chew on and spit back out at their own, growing audience. Fissures in the body politic have festered since the beginning. Inequality, racism, envy, snobbery and the urban/rural divide—the brain drain from small towns to big cities that Charles Murray worries about in Coming Apart and that has been accelerated by deindustrialization and the rise of technology—have collided with the human propensity for discussion, gossip, innuendo and interpretation on the Internet. The culture wars, mis en scène decades ago and performing their vaudeville in the ever-more polarized media behemoths but especially in social media, have provided rich material for clicks, views, votes, and dollars. The magical thinking driven by religious fundamentalism and New Age spirituality plays its part too, draining the bank accounts of gullible wishful thinkers looking for instant health fixes and political solutions to metaphysical or supernatural questions.
In the United States, consumers of television news choose from CNN, ABC, NBC, MSNBC, or FOX NEWS. The latter two organizations have staked their claim on opposing ideological grounds, leaving CNN to provide “balance” via endless appeals to panels of talking heads, each one pressing the case for their version of the truth. Viewers looking for clarity are left frustrated and irritated by the verbal combat of pundits accusing each other of prevarication. Yet all these organizations boast a number of genuinely qualified, thoughtful reporters. They continue to cover foreign affairs, sending journalists into the maw of conflicts from Syria to Iraq, North Korea and beyond. Newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe employ some of the most talented journalists and columnists in the world. Bloomberg News, Canada’s CBC and Globe & Mail, the UK’s Financial Times, El País, Le Monde and countless other reputable newspapers and television stations all operate inside the mainstream media tent.
Yet consumers now have access to thousands of sources of news and opinion, much of it spoon-fed to them by friends on their social media feeds. The gargantuan number of words and images shoveled onto the information superhighway gets triaged, chopped up and presented by intermediaries eager to share their take on the news of the day. That news, the information that consumers are invited to hear about and weigh in on, represents only a fraction of the billions of events taking place on earth at any given time—which is probably just as well. But the news and opinion baubles we hand around to each other for inspection and critique are merely suggestive of reality, standing in for the great moveable feast of life and death on our planet rather than actually revealing the totality of facts and data representing our world.
No wonder the mainstream media rears up to defend itself when someone like Elon Musk attacks its credibility. Musk has millions of followers, he’s proposing solutions to some of society’s most vexing problems, he’s dashing and brilliant and inventive beyond belief. He’s the Iron Man to journalism’s comparatively dorky professionals, a celebrity demi-god whose pronouncements carry far more weight than the voices of the reporters gamely pointing out his Achilles heel. He’s also a self-promoter and a crafter of image in an era when PR and propaganda have seeped into our minute by minute reality, blasting us with demands for fealty and attention and tribal salutes everywhere we go, which is to say on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram et al.
We live in the era of citizen journalists deploying smart phones and dashcams, blogs, tweets and Facebook confessions in the great global competition for attention. Egged on by populist leaders and informational bomb-throwers like Breitbart News, millions of news consumers no longer trust the mainstream providers, preferring what they are being taught to view as the more authentic purveyors of what’s really going on. Alex Jones’s aptly-named InfoWars, a conspiracy-mongering website that traffics in fake news and nutritional supplements for the coming apocalypse, gets millions of views every month. YouTube hosts countless young or young-ish people editorializing about the state of the world, narrating and explaining cherry-picked snippets of video borrowed from other sources or provided by participants in various events eager to spread the word about the issue du jour.
The so-called mainstream media is bleeding viewers and readers. Newspapers by the thousands have folded all around the world, while ever-fewer consumers bother with cable television. The smorgasbord of news, opinion, rumour and conspiracy is too tempting, too rich with newly unearthed delicacies, too dazzling and important and immediate to pass up. Nor should it be. Dissident journalists and bloggers provide important counter-narratives to state-run propaganda from authoritarian regimes like Cuba and Russia. (In recent days, a dissident Russian journalist who publishes most of his reportage on his personal Facebook page named Arkady Babchenko faked his own death in Ukraine, allegedly to ensnare his actual would-be assassin. In this case he not only foiled his attackers but illustrated the lengths to which the powers that be in his part of the world will go to silence journalists). Not everything that appears on Facebook or Twitter is fake news—indeed social media has been a boon to dissidents all over the Middle East, including Syria, where citizen reporters on the ground have been smuggling video footage and other evidence out of the country and into the hands of Western reporters stationed in Lebanon and Turkey.
Alas, the table also groans with less savory items. Social media is a marvelously useful tool for dictatorial regimes that put out false information, collect information on dissident groups and shape narratives that suit their ends. InfoWars pushes professionally-produced lies about the state of politics and society designed to freak out its viewers enough to purchase overpriced “survivalist” goods, a multi-billion dollar industry. Rumours fly across Twitter, producing weekly, if not daily, digital storms that consume energy and obscure reality. The storms usually pass quickly but they leave debris in their wake: ruined reputations, humiliation, resentment and retrenchment.
Amid the wreckage and despite, or perhaps because of the public’s waning trust in the legacy media, long-form journalism and debate are making a comeback. This is perhaps the most surprising twist in the information saga. Eighty years ago the Canadian journalist Matthew Halton was regularly producing, at considerable risk to his own safety, several-thousand word dispatches for the Toronto Starabout Nazi Germany in the lead-up to WWII. In 2018, despite the naysayers, the public is still interested in being informed—perhaps more than ever. We are listening to three-hour podcasts, flocking to sometimes-grainy YouTube videos featuring members of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web and searching for profound insights and calm analysis on websites like this one. After years of hand-wringing about media saturation, the dumbing down of the electorate, short attention spans and conspiracy mongering, it turns out that data-driven journalism, civil debate and calls for moderation are finding an eager audience. Legacy media may be on life support, but sober reportage still has legs. Who would have thought.
Elon Musk has a point about the sniping and compromising that certain media outlets engage in. And he is certainly welcome to exercise his right to free speech. Long may he rage, as long as he continues to dream up ways to mitigate climate change and colonize Mars. That is his job. The work of the public is to resist the temptation to follow charismatic Pied Pipers down the winding paths of their ambitions—to celebrate genius, but understand that declaring a winner in the information wars is a self-defeating, zero-sum activity. Healthy competition and a measure of peer review are in everyone’s best interest, wherever we get our information.