The New Gatekeepers

Elon Musk’s predictable transition from hero to zero is almost complete

July 11, 2018

If you have an anti-Elon Musk take, you should probably publish it soon, because they are piling up. The latest was triggered by his attempt to help rescue a group of young soccer players trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand. A piece at Gizmodo said Musk’s attempt was a classic example of his empty promises, and made fun of the fact that no one wanted the mini-sub he developed. But the piece itself seems like a great example of something else: Namely, a desire to see the worst in Elon Musk, no matter what.

The weird difference between some of Musk’s famous vaporiffic moonshots and the kid-sized submarine is that Musk actually built the sub. But it’s nothing more than a useless stunt. Not only did Musk show up too late to help, he showed up with a tool that wasn’t even helpful.

A similar sentiment triggered dozens of scathing Twitter memes about the dumb and publicity-hungry billionaire showing up after something is all over with a stupid invention that isn’t even necessary. But at the end of the Gizmodo piece, an update notes that Musk posted on Twitter part of an email exchange he had with the man co-ordinating the rescue effort, in which the man encouraged Musk to hurry up developing the mini-sub. In other words, it wasn’t just some kind of fever dream a billionaire came up with in an attempt to spin up some positive PR.

Did this change anyone’s mind about Musk? Not appreciably. After his tweet explaining the email exchange, new pieces appeared taking shots at him for denigrating the former Thai governor, because he said in his email that the man was not an expert in cave rescues (which was accurate).

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ICYMI: “I knew that a record existed and they were lying to me or they had thrown the record out.”

So how did Musk suddenly become the poster child for bad billionaires? Perhaps because familiarity tends to breed contempt, as the saying goes. Also, he at some point decided to go to war against the media for what he thought was biased coverage, and in doing so he seems to have turned a lot of the previously positive sentiment towards him into cynicism.

Not that long ago, Musk was a little-known engineering nerd working on an affordable electric car. What a great idea, everyone thought. He did a small cameo in the second Iron Man movie, and it seemed cute. Then it turned out he was building a reusable rocket that might go to Mars. Another great idea! Especially when it actually worked.

So what happened? The electric car turned out to be the Tesla, which is unaffordable for most normal people but took off with wealthy tech executives. Then Musk, who seems incapable of not doing five things at once, started a bunch of crazy-sounding side projects, like the Hyperloop, or his plan to dig tunnels underneath Los Angeles. Almost all of these projects were seen as expensive toys designed by a short-attention-span billionaire, like his desire to shoot a Tesla into space.

Musk has also taken fire for the amount of debt he has raised to fund Tesla, while coming up short on production of the latest model, and he responded in a somewhat childish way by attacking the media for reporting on him. At one point, he even proposed starting a service that would automatically rank sources of trustworthy journalism, a service he sarcastically said would be called Pravda, which of course is the name of a notoriously unreliable Russian government newspaper.

When he was still a plucky, little-known entrepreneur, Musk’s try-anything attitude and somewhat wacky and combative Twitter persona seemed endearing. But now that he is running several billion-dollar enterprises and dating a celebrity (singer Claire Boucher, known as Grimes), the way he shoots from the lip on almost any topic makes his Twitter account a target-rich environment for anyone wanting to cut him down to size. And there is no shortage of people who seem eager to do so.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said Elon Musk appeared in a cameo in the first Iron Man movie. He was actually in the second Iron Man movie. 

ICYMI: “I remain astonished by the ability of this former reality TV star to be our assignment editor”

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.