Pressing Issues

Elon Musk Is Really Good At Being Really Bad

As the owner of Twitter, Musk is proving to be a disastrous CEO. And his fragile ego and bizarre fascistic politics threaten to make matters even worse for the once-successful social-media platform.

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If Elon Musk was anything other than a rich white man, his six-month tenure as CEO of Twitter would disqualify him from working a management job ever again.

From libelously labeling National Public Radio as “state-affiliated” and “government funded” media to ordering his press office to respond to reporters with nothing but poop emojis, Musk seems determined to make himself a joke on par with Theranos scam artist Elizabeth Holmes or serial-liar congressman George Santos.

Serious people should be embarrassed to have believed Musk’s pronouncements about buying Twitter to support free speech and democracy. From the outset, Musk’s bluster didn’t pass the most basic smell tests, but reporters swallowed his lines about truth and freedom almost as easily as they did his excuses for why his Teslas catch fire, his rockets explode, his brain chips can’t be tested on people and his road map to a Mars colony is so much toilet paper.

Musk’s Twitter takeover played out in real time like a parody of CEO cluelessness as he bumbled from one snap decision to another, abruptly firing half the staff in public and then beefing with the site’s operators on the site itself. His decision to allow anyone with an account to pay for verification and credibly impersonate, say, the popeor even Musk himself—quickly backfired as advertisers saw stock prices disappear into shitposts. 

He greeted all of this with belligerence and mockery that wouldn’t pass muster in a schoolyard shouting match.

In the face of his childish behavior, Musk’s fellow members of the upwardly failing bro club defended him in histrionic terms, as if he were a beleaguered Victorian gentleman assailed on all sides by cads and mountebanks:

“Elon Musk is the bravest, most creative person on the planet.” [Netflix CEO Reed] Hastings added that he is “100% convinced” that Musk is “trying to help the world in all his endeavors,” and added that he was “excited” about Musk’s Twitter acquisition.

Musk “just spent all this money for democracy and society to have a more open platform — and I am sympathetic to that,” Hastings said.

Only those consumed by delusions of adequacy could believe that being “brave” or “creative” would make a difference after publicly screwing up their job so epically.

Never mind the fact that there was absolutely no reason to take Musk’s “free speech” spiel at face value. Even as the tech press reports on Musk’s failings and flailings, they still give him the benefit of the doubt—one bestowed only to the rich white men whose endeavors are presumed to be right and just—arguing that the billionaire could still turn it all around.

Part of the reason for that is selfishness: If Musk is just a clown, a very rich loudmouth who got where he is by inheriting wealth and exploiting workers, then the reporters who’ve made their careers following him around also look incredibly foolish. If Musk is actually parading through the kingdom naked, they should have told the crowd he had no clothes.

Instead, with each new project and promised launch, editors and producers have treated Musk’s ambitions as if he were an impartial source of information about his own chances of success:

Self-driving technology for automobiles was always just around the corner, between two years and six months out depending on the audience for the prediction

His prognostications about when humans (led by him, naturally) will colonize Mars ranged from five years out to a more vague timeline roughly within his own life.

He claimed  a chip connecting a user’s brain with a computer could “cure” autism and predicted those now-nonexistent implants would be functioning by 2020.

The local press fares even worse in the face of Musk’s PR onslaught. When Musk swept into my hometown of Chicago to promise a magical “hyperloop” that would whisk passengers from O’Hare Airport to downtown Chicago, local TV and newspaper reporters acted like he was a god, leading with his sci-fi visions and giving short shrift to the obvious difficulty of digging a miles-long tunnel beneath a functioning American city.

As with the coverage of so many of his other planned inventions, the A-1 top story treatment of what Musk promised preceded a much more subdued follow-up when he failed to deliver.

His reputation remained largely static until he began personally invading reporters’ Twitter feeds with weird Trump memes, bickering, and name-calling.

Once Musk’s actions affected the corporate press in ways they could personally see over lunch (versus the worker exploitation he carried out uncovered by TV cameras, for example) they began to wonder if perhaps there was something questionable. That is, except for Jeremy Peters, who, just this past weekend in the New York Times, tried to argue, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that Musk has “long made his politics tricky to pin down” and “continues to defy easy political categorization,” even as he tweets that his pronouns are “Prosecute/Fauci,” and implores his followers to “vote for Republicans.” It’s a really hard argument to make when Musk has fully embraced anti-Semites and QAnon and all their farfetched conspiracy theories like PizzaGate, espousing their transphobic, pedophile grooming talking points while adding a few of his own.

The general public has proven to be much wiser: They loudly booed Musk’s appearance at a Dave Chappelle show, where he no doubt had been expecting a friendly reception.

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs from marginalized backgrounds, many of whom start without a fraction of a fraction of the wealth Musk can fall back on every time a venture fails, are subject to outsize scrutiny of their every choice, second-guessed on everything from their crisis-response to their overall “likability.”

Granting Musk the presumption of competence that comes with the title “world’s richest person” reveals in the starkest terms the way money, no matter how it is achieved, automatically confers the benefit of the doubt in most media. It’s eerily reminiscent of how often former President Donald Trump is treated as a successful businessman despite ample evidence that his wealth was much less robust than he claimed, and largely built from fraud and corruption.

Without his family money and an adoring boys’ club to report on his every utterance like it’s a papal bull, Musk would be just another ambitious weirdo whose plans don’t usually pan out.

If Fortune and Business Insider and Good Morning America weren’t available to fawn all over his press releases, if the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune were more invested in picturing his false fronts than they have been in propping them up, by now he’d look just like that erratic, eccentric egomaniac we all know, the one who has a new life ambition every year.
The guy with the big plans. Big ideas. The one who is certain he is gonna conquer the world.

But every time you go over to his house to check on how his future’s developing, he’s on his couch, high as a hot air balloon, watching reruns of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

At this point, after the public online meltdowns, exploding cars, tunnel failures and rocket crashes, the major difference between that guy and Elon Musk is his cheering section.

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