The New York Times Did Not Reverse Its Opinion On John Broder’s Tesla Model S Report

One week ago this publication, as did others, reported that The New York Times had backed down from vouching for the accuracy of its reporter John Broder’s unsuccessful East Coast trip in a Tesla Model S.

The interpretation of The Times having “reversed” its position was proliferated by a blog post bylined by Tesla CEO Elon Musk essentially stating as much – and its interpretation was incorrect, said The Times’ Eileen Murphy, VP corporate communications, yesterday.

Broder’s Feb. 8 story that started the Tesla/Times row was portrayed as a test of two Supercharger fast charging stations in a drive from Washington to Connecticut. It made headlines after he told a harrowing tale of emergency energy saving procedures required, freezing as he drove in the cold trying to preserve power, and ultimately running out of power just the same. It featured a photo of the $101,000 electric car being towed.

Of this story, Musk tweeted not long after that it was “a fake” and has since provided data log evidence intended to prove his case, but his presentation has not induced The Times to retract its backing of its reporter, said Murphy.

A statement from one voice at The Times is what triggered Musk’s exuberant blog post along the way of a drama that is still unfolding. After speaking with Musk and others, in a blog post The Times calls the “Public Editor’s Journal,” Margaret Sullivan, the public editor, wrote of misgivings she had for Broder’s report.

In response, on Feb. 19, Musk’s blog post (linked above) to his thousands of fans began as follows:

Yesterday, The New York Times reversed its opinion on the review of our Model S and no longer believes that it was an accurate account of what happened. After investigating the facts surrounding the test drive, the Public Editor agreed that John Broder had “problems with precision and judgment,” “took casual and imprecise notes” and made “few conclusions that are unassailable.

We would like to thank Margaret Sullivan and The New York Times for looking into this matter and thoughtfully considering the public evidence, as well as additional evidence provided on background …

As Norman Mayersohn, deputy editor for The Times’ Automobiles section pointed out in an e-mail yesterday, our cuing off of Musk’s statement that The Times had “backed down” from its opinion was an overstating of the case.

The Times official statement issued prior to Sullivan’s post remains therefore its actual take on the Broder report:

The Times’s Feb. 10 article recounting a reporter’s test drive in a Tesla Model S was completely factual, describing the trip in detail exactly as it occurred. Any suggestion that the account was “fake” is, of course, flatly untrue. Our reporter followed the instructions he was given in multiple conversations with Tesla personnel. He described the entire drive in the story; there was no unreported detour. And he was never told to plug the car in overnight in cold weather, despite repeated contact with Tesla.

Mayersohn explained despite Sullivan’s vote of no confidence, others at the paper’s leadership levels have stated nothing of the sort.

Yesterday in our follow up with Murphy, we asked her to again verify whether the paper is maintaining its stance, or whether it has it “reversed” its position as Musk wrote.

“Our position on this matter has not changed and our previous statement stands,” wrote Murphy on behalf of The Times yesterday. “Margaret Sullivan, The Times’s public editor, does not speak for The Times. As she noted, she is an independent voice in our newsroom and her opinions are her own. It’s worth noting that Mr. Musk’s blog post also selectively pulls quotes from her column that don’t necessarily reflect the totality of her conclusions but you can be the judge of that. I hope this clarifies.”

As noted above, Sullivan did briefly offer a clarification in a more recent Public Editor’s Journal post.

“One addendum, for the sake of clarity: As public editor, I speak only for myself. My opinions about what happened during and after the Tesla Model S road test, expressed in my Monday blog post, are not those of The Times,” wrote Sullivan Feb. 21.

In related news, Bloomberg reported Feb. 25 that Elon Musk said that The Times report has cost Tesla as much as $100 million in market capitalization, and at least several hundred Model S orders were canceled as a result of the report he told Bloomberg Broder “fudged.”

Whether this is true or provable is part of the latest speculative pieces, such as by Forbes, and doubtless, myriad opinions abound on what continues to simmer in a high-profile disagreement replete with insinuation by both parties, and various people taking the side of the Times or Tesla.

Queries and request for commentary to Tesla by phone and e-mail yesterday were not immediately answered.