Time to Close Down the Elon Musk Circus

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décembre 21, 2022

In addition to being the world’s second richest person, Elon Musk is now the greatest press manipulator since Donald Trump inhabited the White House. Daily, often hourly, frequently minute-by-minute, Musk intercepts the news cycle and rides it like a clown on a barrel to the astonishment of all. Should he fall, he always gets back on and rides some more as the press corps records and transmits his every gyration.

Musk’s barrel-riding talents have been on conspicuous view since he bid for Twitter earlier this year, and especially so since he bought it last month. But he’s always been a champ at calling attention to himself, concocting promises and predictions about making his Tesla cars capable of self-driving, about an imminent manned landing on Mars by his SpaceX company, about the humanoid robots he’s allegedly building, and many other similarly unfulfilled pledges.

Given Musk’s track record, reporters should put little stock in what he says. Instead, the press continues to chart and publish nearly every bold utterance he makes and every tweet he types into his account. This tendency, already severe, has exploded into full flower over the past month, ever since Musk rolled his barrel into Twitter headquarters in San Francisco and established residence there to remake the service. Why does the press keep falling for this circus act? And how can journalists correct their ways?

Musk’s current domination of the news began at the end of October when he tweeted and then deleted a link to an article alleging a baseless conspiracy about the assault on Paul Pelosi. The sky lit up like the Fourth of July with press accounts about the tweet and its removal. In November, he tweeted that Apple was threatening “to withhold Twitter from its App Store, but won’t tell us why.” Then, two days later, the Musk barrel reversed direction with a tweet explaining that “the misunderstanding” with Apple had been “resolved” in talks with Apple chief Tim Cook.

Evidently sensing a void in the news on Dec. 11, Musk tweeted, “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci,” to loud and near worldwide condemnation in the press. But all this was a prelude to Musk’s orgiastic mid-December tweetfest, in which he falsely connected a South Pasadena altercation involving his young son X Æ A-XII with the activities of a Twitter account, ElonJet, that tracks his personal jet’s trips in real-time. Like a vengeful god, Musk banned the ElonJet account and the Twitter accounts of several journalists, including those that had never posted flight information, and vowed similar treatment for any account that provided real-time travel info.

Musk’s fury seemed unquenchable. But, as it does, the barrel turned again, and the next day he posted a Twitter poll asking if he should restore the accounts that had “doxxed” his plane’s location! The poll said yes, so the accounts were restored. Similarly, he banned the posting of competing social media handles and links on Twitter on Dec. 18 only to lift the new restrictions on Dec. 19. Then came, among other tweets, one surveying users about whether he should step down as Twitter CEO. Days later, he wrote that he would resign “as soon as I find someone foolish enough to take the job!” It’s anybody’s guess if he’ll follow through.

Reviewing Musk’s recent adventures in news management from a remove, his method perplexes. His left hand takes away. Then his right hand gives back. And then he does it again and again, generally restoring the status quo. So why does he bother? Because like Trump before him, Musk delights at seeing his name in print and TV anchors speaking it. All publicity is good as far as he’s concerned, and no amount of it is enough, hence his unending recidivism.

It may look like this column is trying to blame Musk for having commandeered the press. But he is no more to blame than a press flack who deluges journalists with PR pitches over the phone, through the U.S. Postal Service, via email, or by text.

Having been played to Musk’s advantage so many times, you would think reporters and editors would drop a few ice cubes in the “hot” news about Musk that he gins up every 15 minutes and serve it, if they must, at room temperature, in short articles buried in the deep pages of print and online. But no, journalists continue to gulp down Musk bait like undiscerning bottom-feeding river carp. At least when they covered Trump’s every burp and fart at great length on Page One, reporters had an excuse: He held the semi-omnipotent powers of the presidency. With a word, he could turn industries upside down, ban certain Muslim visitors to the United States, and divert military money to his precious wall. What does Musk have to compare to that? Just $163 billion in a world teeming with billionaires and a social media site that doesn’t even rank in the top 10 of global users.

Four years ago in this space, I proposed that the press tame their obsession with every Trump utterance by running a daily column on the inside pages headlined “Shit Trump Said” to record his various PR blitzes succinctly and report them out in length only if he actually does something, rather than just talk about it. Since Trump left the White House, the establishment press has largely demoted his Truth Social postings and rally provocations to a status even lower than “Shit Trump Said” because he currently has almost no power to turn his words into action.

Confining Musk’s incitements to a similar “Shit Musk Said” (maybe adjoining the comics) would accomplish several ends. First, it would put him on notice that reporters will no longer bestow automatic, wall-to-wall coverage on him, and they’ll no longer cover him just because he damns and harasses the press. It would deny the barrel-roller the audience he craves. It would deter him from saying something one day and reversing it the next just to win coverage. And it would free reporters from the short choke chain they have allowed Musk to put on them, freeing them to do more meaningful work.

Among the press corps’ greatest duties is to tell audiences things they don’t know. At this point, without spending another column-inch on him, we can all agree that Musk is a rich publicity hound who goads reporters almost daily with his flimflam stunts, promises and predictions. His antics deserve some coverage, but maybe for the interim, it should be with a massive soundproof blanket to muffle his daily, inconsequential braying.

******

Roll your barrel over to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com with an email. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter feed is expendable. My  Mastodon and Post accounts seek your attention. My RSS feed doesn’t care that it’s obsolete.

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