Story of the Week: Tesla vs the New York Times

A public spat flared up this week between Tesla Motors co-founder Elon Musk and the New York Times reporter John Broder over a test drive of the new Tesla Model S. The review, which Musk called “fake” on Twitter, triggered a war of both words and data, with Musk releasing Broder’s driving logs. Though Broder countered with a detailed follow up, the drama was an object lesson in how the dynamics of disputes like this have been transformed by big data.

According to Tim Stevens at Engadget, one clear takeaway from the dispute was that product reviewers are being watched. While reviewers in the tech industry are used to it, Stevens noted that auto reviewers are “not used to knowing (or at least believing) that each and every action they perform with a review device is being remotely monitored and verified such that if their evaluation strays from the facts they’re liable to be called out for it”.

He added: “But, they’ll have to be.”

FT’s Alphaville suggested that there is more to the story than a car review. By Musk publishing the data logs, Izabella Kaminska wrote that it shows an “organisation’s power to fight back and stand up to the press in this day and age of big data”. Dan Frommer of SplatF said that “everyone’s a media company now,” whereas Mashable’s Chris Taylor called it “Big Tesla” watching.

VentureBeat’s Matt Quinn declared that log data has “hit the mainstream consciousness and will be an expectation in the future”.

“‘Where’s the log data?’ is now the question that can close the argument and help us make the decision about what to believe and where to put our resources,” Quinn wrote.

But even with Musk’s data release and Broder’s follow up, the accounts are conflicting. Rebecca Greenfield of the Atlantic took a close look into the driving logs and claimed they didn’t back up Musk’s argument. Meanwhile, Huffington Post’s Bianca Bosker argued that “data is supposed to be the authoritative alternative to selective anecdotal recollection,” but instead it “fueled a Big Fight”.

“For the time being, we’re stuck dealing — and arguing over — data that provides an incomplete view of human behavior,” Bosker added.

While we may never learn the truth behind the feud, the Contra Costa Times’ John Boudreau reported that experts believe Musk did the right thing by arguing against the review, especially as Tesla Motors is set to release its fourth quarter results next week as it continues to “ramp up production of the Model S”.