Analysis: Elon Musk In The 2022 Media

Zinger Key Points
  • The Financial Times' Peter Campbell is the only full-time journalist to interview Musk this year.
  • Musk follows several automotive and aerospace media professionals and outlets on Twitter.

Since the start of 2022, Tesla TSLA CEO Elon Musk has given exactly six interviews.

Two of the interviews were brief on-the-fly exchanges with celebrity-focused reporters on the Met Gala red carpet earlier this month, although one of these chats – a two-and-a-half minute Q&A with Entertainment Tonight – seemed to have most of its running time dominated by overly exuberant correspondent Rachel Smith, with Maye Musk (Elon’s mother) also making her presence known on camera. The other, with an Associated Press reporter, barely lasted a minute.

Musk’s longer interviews took place with some unexpected outlets. One of them, his May 16 conversation with the hosts of the All-In Podcast, was a conversation with business peers, as none of the podcast hosts have professional journalism backgrounds.

Two of the interviews were conducted by one-time journalists who have long since transitioned to publishing – Musk’s March 26 conversation with Mathias Döpfner, the CEO Axel Springer, parent company of Insider, and his April 14 talk with Chris Anderson, founder of the TED nonprofit that organizes the TEDTalk series.

The other interview took place on May 10 with Peter Campbell, global motor industry correspondent of the U.K.’s Financial Times, during the publication’s Future of the Car conference. Campbell was the only full-time business journalist to interview Musk this year. 

More recently, Musk has been proactive on Twitter TWTR with exchanges involving media personalities from the far right of the political spectrum – an unusual development for someone who historically has not aggressively sought out the company of the media.

See Also: Former Porn Star Asks Elon Musk To Ban X-Rated Content From Twitter

What Was Said And Not Said: The Insider interview is perhaps the least interesting of the four – at least in retrospect, as it occurred before Musk’s Twitter takeover. Much of the conversation is focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine – Musk managed to find a shred of levity in that situation when he quipped, “I do think that Putin is significantly richer than me” – and there was a focus on Musk’s other business endeavors including the Optimus robot and Neuralink.

However, for much of the conversation it seemed Döpfner was littering the interview with arcane references that were not of general public interest – 17th century Scottish economist John Law, Ernst Jüngers’ 1920 book "Storm of Steel," inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl somehow were cited, for reasons opaque to all but Döpfner.

Musk’s talk with Anderson is notable as the only interview conducted in-person before a live audience. This was clearly not the preferred setting for Musk, who often looked visibly uncomfortable while sitting on the stage, despite the endless softball questions that Anderson pitched about the announcement of the Twitter takeover bid. Anderson videotaped a brief one-on-one talk with Musk ahead of their time together on stage, for no immediately clear reason.

Musk’s other interviews were conducted virtually, where he appeared in a severe close-up as seen through a slightly hazy filter. Both interviews took place during conferences with live audiences, and Musk’s face on a giant screen above the onlookers gave an unusual sensation of looking up at a distant deity.

With the Financial Times, it frequently seemed that Campbell was too polite to push Musk on sticky points or too distracted to ask follow-up questions. Musk’s assertion of a “strong left bias” at Twitter “because it’s based in San Francisco” went unanswered, and Campbell conspicuously avoided citing China’s human rights abuses when quizzing Musk on his relationship with Beijing’s leadership. Campbell also failed to thoroughly plumb his question on fatalities in Tesla vehicle accidents, allowing Musk to get away with the comment that “people whose lives are saved with autopilot or autonomy don’t know that their lives were saved.”

For the All-In Podcast interview, Musk seemed more comfortable speaking with business peers, providing a few provocative remarks such as “the Democrat Party is overly controlled by the union and the trial lawyers, particularly the class action lawyers” – but as with Campbell, the podcast hosts didn’t pursue that thought further. To their credit, the podcasters were able to relax Musk with questions about fusion energy – a subject that rarely gets mainstream media attention, but one where Musk spoke with comfort and enthusiasm.

See Also: NY Times Questions How Elon Musk Was Shaped By Childhood In Apartheid South Africa: What You Need To Know

A Shift To The Right: On Twitter, Musk is only following 111 accounts, of which only a handful are media professionals and outlets. Most of them are related to the aerospace and automotive sectors, with a few exceptions, including BBC News and independent journalist Matt Taibbi.

In the aftermath of his Twitter acquisition announcement, Musk has been using the platform to share observations and comment on tweets from several far right media personalities with histories of spinning conspiracy theories, including InfoWars host Mike Cernovich, Turning Point USA columnist Benny Johnson and Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. As Musk is not following these individuals, it would appear that he is either actively seeking out their insight on Twitter or is intrigued with their messaging.

David Weissmann, an opinion writer for the progressive-focused Occupy Democrats, theorized that Musk’s Twitter focus on the far-right media personalities comes because “they are enabling his ideals, his views on what he thinks is free speech.” Weissmann also expressed apprehension that Musk’s interaction with these individuals is sending the wrong message regarding what Twitter could become if he completes his acquisition.

“I think it is really concerning that he is giving more attention to the more extreme views they do represent,” he said. “They do represent Trump's base as far as ideology. I was a former Trump supporter myself, so I know there's like different factions and extremism. The fact that he's going that far right is definitely concerning.”

Yet Carol Roth, host of “The Roth Effect” and author of “The War on Small Business: How the Government Used the Pandemic to Crush the Backbone of America,” saw no reason for concern on Musk’s interactions with the likes of Cernovich, Johnson and Fitton.

“The reality is that if you're somebody who is as Elon is, a serial entrepreneur of the future, and is open to a broad range of ideas and perspectives, you're going to interact with a wide variety of people,” she said. “It's sort of the way that I view the world – I interact with the content, not with the people. That's what Twitter is – when you share something, you're sharing content. You're not making a statement about an individual. And I think people who are more free market oriented tend to take that view of the world.”

Roth also noted that engaging in social media interactions with people whose views may differ from one's own “is not going to be an endorsement of every other thing that that person has said or anything about that person.”

Disclosure: Benzinga has made repeated requests to Musk for interviews, but has yet to receive an acknowledgment from him.

Photo: Screen shot of Elon Musk from the All-In Podcast interview, courtesy of Steve Juvertson / Flickr Creative Commons

Posted In: NewsOpinionMediaanalysisCarol RothDavid WeissmannElon MuskFinancial Timesinterviewstwitter