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Tesla, the New York Times and the levelling of the media playing field

Mathew Ingram

If you’ve been following the back-and-forth recently between pioneering electric-car maker Tesla Motors and the New York Times — which published what the company thought was an unfair review of its vehicle — you know that it has become a war of words in which both sides are claiming the moral high ground and using every tool at their disposal to win support for their position. What’s interesting about this incident from a media perspective is that the two sides are far more evenly matched than they would have been at almost any other time in history.

As my GigaOM colleague Katie Fehrenbacher has pointed out in her overview of the story, what started out as a simple review of the Tesla S — and a demonstration of Tesla’s new “supercharger” stations on the Eastern seaboard — turned into a massive PR battle between the company’s CEO Elon Musk and the newspaper and its reviewer, John Broder. Musk alleged that Broder wasn’t totally truthful in his review, and the NYT responded both with a defensive piece from Broder and an investigation by Margaret Sullivan, its public editor.

Tesla is also a media company now

Electric cars like the Tesla S may be fairly new, but companies getting upset about the way they are portrayed in the media probably dates back to when the news first arrived on clay tablets. What’s different now is something Dan Frommer put his finger on in a post, and something we’ve pointed out a number of times before — in a very real sense, Tesla Motors is a media company with all (or at least most) of the same tools of influence at its disposal as the New York Times. Says Frommer:

“Even a few years ago, something like this probably would have required finding a rival newspaper — the Wall Street Journal, perhaps — to collaborate on a takedown. Or maybe an expensive full-page ad campaign in the top five papers, which would have looked defensive and seemed less convincing. But now that every smart company has a regularly updated blog… brands can speak for themselves very powerfully.”

Blogging pioneer Dave Winer likes to call this phenomenon “the sources going direct,” and what he means is that people and entities that used to be seen primarily as sources of information for the news media to make use of — whether a company or a politician, a celebrity or an entity like WikiLeaks — have the ability to reach out to potential supporters and detractors directly, without having to go through traditional intermediaries like newspapers or journalists, or even marketing firms and public-relations advisors.

In a very real sense, everyone is a media entity of some kind now. That doesn’t mean someone with a few hundred followers on Twitter is the equivalent of the New York Times, but it does mean that a large corporation like Tesla Motors is on a much more level playing field with the newspaper than it would ever have been before. In the past, if Tesla didn’t like a review, it could a) call and complain, b) put out a press release and try to get a competitor interested in a story c) launch an expensive lawsuit (which Musk has also done in the past).

What happens when the sources go direct?

Does this levelling of the playing field make things better or worse? That depends on your perspective. If you’re the New York Times, it is definitely worse, since everything you write is now subject to criticism — criticism that in some cases may get more attention than the original piece (which is one of the reasons Margaret Sullivan’s job as public editor exists). If you’re Tesla Motors or any other commercial entity, however, it’s an unprecedented opportunity to shift the balance of power.

Corporate PRs everywhere are reading @elonmusk 's NYT take down and thinking 'hmm'

emily bell (@emilybell) February 14, 2013

And what about society, or journalism in general — is it better off when this happens? There are two ways of looking at that question too: if you want to make it easier to figure out who is right and who is wrong, the current state of affairs isn’t going to help. The only thing that becomes obvious from the back-and-forth between Tesla and the New York Times is that it’s very difficult, and perhaps even impossible, to tell who is right on specific points. Some political topics are also arguably getting harder to understand rather than easier.

If you operate on the principle that having more information and points of view is usually better, however, then it is almost certainly a good thing to have every actor and politician and CEO become a media entity — even if that makes the media business itself a lot more complicated.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock / saiko3p and Flickr user Yan-Arief Purwanto

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