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Elon Musk, the self-proclaimed free speech iconoclast, delivered some choice words to the advertisers exercising their own agency by leaving his platform, X (formerly Twitter), after he endorsed an antisemitic post.
"Go f*** yourself," he said, in an interview at the New York Times (NYT) DealBook conference earlier this week.
Musk's combative posture against fleeing advertisers highlights a warped vision of open expression. Sketched out in public remarks and revealed through X's actions, Musk is free to express himself and wield the powers of the platform to punish his perceived enemies and reward allies. But that freedom, apparently, doesn't extend to others, like companies choosing where to put their ad dollars.
Musk specifically called out Disney CEO Bob Iger, who spoke earlier during the conference and briefly explained why the company suspended advertising on X, saying that "we just felt that the association with that position and Elon Musk and X was not necessarily a positive one for us."
But instead of recognizing the speech of others he may not agree with, Musk lashed out, characterizing the advertising suspensions as attempted "blackmail" against him, which will lead to the eventual demise of X.
“What it’s going to do is it’s going to kill the company, and the whole world will know the advertisers killed the company,” Musk said.
But Disney and Iger have rights too and are free from any obligation to tithe Musk's temple to free speech. And thus, Musk has again done the impossible, this time managing to generate public sympathy for a billionaire executive. Shed a tear for Bob.
Musk further revealed his one-sided view of free speech when he doubled down on X's prior decision to throttle news outlets and competitors on X. The host of the conference, a columnist for the Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin, asked Musk to admit that he punished the news outlet. Musk didn't deny it.
"Any organization that refuses to buy a subscription is not going to be recommended," he said, referring to institutional subscriptions to X.
When asked what that dynamic says about free speech, Musk replied, "It says free speech is not exactly free — it costs a little bit."
In what now resembles a recurring gag, X CEO Linda Yaccarino went on the platform to smooth the rougher edges of Musk's inflammatory public comments.
"X is enabling an information independence that's uncomfortable for some people. We're a platform that allows people to make their own decisions," Yaccarino said, reposting the video of the interview where, in the first 20 seconds, Musk curses out an industry whose support is vital to her employer.
"Yesterday, from an X perspective, has to be considered an unmitigated disaster," Beacon CEO @jvanderson says on Elon Musk's remarks at NYT's DealBook Summit. "He basically told the people who pay the bills, we don't want you, we want you to go away." pic.twitter.com/QExp1ZyfCG
— Yahoo Finance (@YahooFinance) November 30, 2023
Lou Paskalis, the founder and chief executive of marketing consultancy AJL Advisory, said Musk's free speech crutch works as an accountability dodge.
“This was a way to assuage his ego, shifting blame, and saying I don’t need you," he said.
“I don’t think this was spontaneous. I think he went to the conference wanting to say something like this because he recognizes that the door to future advertising had already been closed, and closed by him.”
It's well within the power of advertisers to quit Musk for being a liability they can no longer accept. That's their prerogative. So is Musk's very vocal brand of self-sabotage.
Hamza Shaban is a reporter for Yahoo Finance covering markets and the economy. Follow Hamza on Twitter @hshaban.