Steve Jobs could get away with treating the media like poop. Elon Musk is no Steve Jobs

·3 min read
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If brevity is the soul of wit, what could be wittier than a poop emoji? That thought may or may not have factored into Elon Musk’s decision to have Twitter deploy the pictogram in response to all messages sent to the company’s media relations email address. I would ask, but I don’t want to get pooped at.

At least the address is giving some response now. When Musk took over Twitter, he disbanded its press department, having done the same thing at Tesla a few years ago. Since then, journalists have been partially hamstrung when writing stories about Twitter—our training and our readers demand that we reflect the various opposing sides of any story, but one side is determined not to play along.

For someone with a fanatical following, the strategy is not without its benefits. Any imbalance of perspective in stories about Musk and Twitter can undermine those articles in the eyes of the faithful, giving them more reason to defend the object of their affection. As Steve Jobs’ Apple regularly demonstrated, ignoring the media can also reinforce the idea that a CEO or company is in a league of its own. Twitter’s CEO takes that a step further by owning the only platform on which a journalist can engage with him—in public, of course, which is no good for anyone working on a scoop.

Problem is, ignoring the media does not make negative coverage go away. Twitter doesn’t do itself any favors when it refuses to comment on—to take an example from the weekend—a report about how its paid verification scheme helped Russian propagandists spread disinformation about the Ohio train derailment. Meanwhile, Tesla’s reliance on its CEO as a sole spokesperson is less than helpful when the big story for its investors is Musk’s preoccupation with his new plaything, Twitter.

Jobs could treat the media like dirt because, for all his faults, he was a great communicator who maintained enough mystique to draw the masses into his reality distortion field. Everyone wanted to know what he and Apple were going to do next, so journalists had to just suck it up for fear of losing access.

Musk, by contrast, is constantly telling everyone what he’s going to do, often before failing to follow through. Meanwhile, the image he projects has morphed from “visionary inspiration for Tony Stark” to “cartoon billionaire with a vicious streak and chronic lack of focus”—the inflection point came around five years ago, when he baselessly accused a British cave diver of being a pedophile, before incorrectly tweeting that he had “funding secured” to take Tesla private.

Judging by his shock when he was roundly booed by the crowd at a Dave Chappelle show a few months ago, Musk has—or had—quite a different idea about how people outside his fanbase perceive him these days. And a damning new Washington Post report, about how Musk’s impetuous management has undermined Tesla’s “full self-driving” program, suggests many of his employees share that perception.

Someone in Musk’s position should be hiring rather than firing professional communicators—and the companies he runs are too important to dodge accountability. People will continue to have legitimate questions about what Twitter and Tesla are up to, and it’s the media’s job to get answers. Funny as the poop emoji may seem when lobbed at reporters, the target is ultimately the public.

David Meyer

Data Sheet’s daily news section was written and curated by Andrea Guzman.

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